Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Rising of the Titanic

There has been lots of coverage recently, especially on TV, of the story of the sinking of the Titanic - today being taken as the 100th 'anniversary' of the disaster (the iceberg was struck at 11.40pm on the 14th and the ship had sunk by around 2.20am of the 15th).

This has reminded me of one of the seminal influences on my artistic life. After reading a review that fascinated me in Melody Maker I was delighted to find a copy of Gavin Bryars' 'The Sinking of the Titanic' when visiting my friend Robin Watts in Southampton (not realising how appropriate this was at the time). This would have been around late 1980, when Robin and I, along with Geoff Stocker and Shane Jarvis were active in the band PGRS.

I recommend this record - the first on Brian Eno's Obscure Records label (a large inspiration for me in itself) - both for the title track and the piece 'on the other side': 'Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet'. I remember listening to this with Robin while we both tried to manfully hold back the tears - try it, it's a very moving experience. At its heart is the looped fragment of a recording of an 'old tramp' (as described in the liner notes of the LP) singing the eponymous hymn; gradually Bryars' orchestral accompaniment fades in over each circuit of the loop, so that the old man's singing becomes an elegaic triumph of faith over the ravages of time.

It is the first side however, 'The Sinking of the Titanic', that really captured my imagination though the description of the conceptual underpinnings of the piece - a 'score' of sheer beauty.

What really struck me was the rich combination of using Marconi's postulation 'sounds once generated never die' with the overlapping, sometimes contradictory accounts of the music played by the heroic band and an actual recording by one of the survivors: 'Miss Eva Hart'. Bryars has combined these to form an ambiguous, 'open' work which reconstructs, via the imagination, music washing around in the Atlantic as a continuous, watery requiem.

Strings: The Cockpit Ensemble
(directors Howard Rees and Howard Davidson)
With John Nash, violin and Sandra Hill, double bass.
Conducted by Gavin Bryars.
Additional tapes using music played by the strings
of the New Music Ensemble of San Francisco Conservatory
of Music directed by John Adams, prepared at the studio
of the Department of Physics, University College, Cardiff,
with technical assistance of Keith Winter and Graham Naylor.
Gavin Bryars, piano; Angela Bryars, music box;
Miss Eva Hart, Spoken voice.

Side Two
Orchestra consisting of The Cockpit Ensemble
(directors Howard Rees and Howard Davidson);
Derek Bailey, guitar; Michael Nyman, organ;
John Nash, violin; John White, tuba; Sandra
Hill, double bass. Conducted by Gavin Bryars.

Liner illustrations by Angela Bryars
Produced by Brian Eno
OBSCURE OBS 01 - 1975

Bryars has re-recorded these pieces but following the rule of First Things (q.v.) it's the originals that I prefer.

The packaging for the Touch release (2007) is very well appointed though...

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