The Power Plant

The Sinking of the Titanic

APR 13 2011
by Dave Dyment

Next April, it will have been one hundred years since the RMS Titanic sank and, famously, the band went down with the ship. There are numerous accounts of the sextet1 continuing to perform after the steamship began sinking, and no accounts of them ever stopping. Composer Gavin Bryars therefore posits that maybe they didn't. The Sinking of the Titanic is Bryars’s open semi-aleatoric sound work that now combines over forty years of investigative research with his initial conceptual presupposition.

The sea-air surface is a perfect reflector, serving as a ceiling that keeps sound underwater. Bryars imagined the Episcopal hymn “Autumn” descending with the ship to the ocean’s bed, becoming trapped there, awaiting excavation. This somewhat fanciful reading of underwater acoustics recalls the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi, whose creation of the wireless telegraph was instrumental in the rescue mission for the Titanic. Marconi was convinced that no sound ever dies, it simply becomes fainter and fainter until we can no longer perceive it. He theorized that with sufficiently sensitive equipment one would be able to retrieve sounds made years in the past. He had ultimately hoped to one day hear Christ's Sermon on the Mount.

Bryars applies a series of acoustic treatments to the composition to mimic the echo, deflection phenomena and the high-frequency reduction of sounds underwater. Over the years, other elements have been added to the string ensemble – snippets of pre-recorded voices, a bass clarinet, a euphonium, turntablist Philip Jeck, a water tower, and a string quartet made up of the composer’s children. Each performance is somewhat different than its predecessor, and conceivably entirely different from what came before. The piece was designed in such a way that one performance may share no musical information with another, yet still be identifiable as the same work. The score for the piece is not fixed musical notation, but rather a large collection of data pertaining to the historical event.

Conceived in 1969 as “the musical equivalent of a work of concept art,” the work was not originally intended to be performed. Bryars gathered a large collection of music-related information about the disaster – survivors’ accounts, technical research on the ship, statistical data, etc. – and sketched out his hypothesis for the sound of the submerged hymn. It was not performed until 1972 and not recorded and released – as an LP on Brian Eno’s Obscure label – until three years after that. The record was the first in a series of ten that included, among others, works by John Cage, The Penguin Café Orchestra, Harold Budd, Michael Nyman, John Adams, and Eno himself. The Sinking of the Titanic was then a 24½-minute piece, backed with the equally brilliant Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.2 When CD technology made longer recordings possible, entirely new versions were released in 1990, 1994 and 2008. The longest, at 72½ minutes, is nearly three times the length of the original recording.

While somewhat atonal in places, the work sits fairly comfortably in the canon of beautiful and functional ambient music, with rich overtones and, ahem, glacial pacing. If anything, it takes the axiom of ambient music (that it does not demand the listener’s attention, but rewards it) several steps further, and beyond the merely aural. The composition retains its power long after works by many of Bryars’s contemporaries have begun to sound dated, at least in part because of the intellectual rigour and emotional intimacy.

Conceptually and structurally, the work shares qualities with Rodney Graham's 1990 epic Parsifal, which has also been presented as a printed score, a reading machine, silkscreen poster, and eventually a CD recording. Both works could be viewed as musical archeology, originating with historical research and subtle intervention, creating seemingly infinite sonic possibilities – Bryars’s piece will forever bounce around the seabed and Graham’s looping structure is scheduled to outlast the sun. In fact, Graham’s asynchronous loops owe much to the second side of Brian Eno’s Discreet Music (Obscure, 1975), which Bryars helped arrange and conduct.

During my own efforts to create resonant works that weave legend, rumour and speculation into a score-based practice, Bryars’s 1969 masterpiece is rarely far from mind. His meticulous research, use of malleable time and implied narrative have served as a model for re-investing in shared stories that grow richer with each reverberation.


1. The ship’s band was originally an octet but the two pianists were unable to play after relocating to the deck without their instruments.
2. Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet consists of a thirteen-bar loop of a homeless man singing a religious refrain, from unused documentary footage, accompanied by a string and brass ensemble. Like _The Sinking of the Titani_c it was also later released as an expanded version.

Dave Dyment is an artist, writer and curator living and working in Toronto. He was the Director of Programming at Mercer Union from 2004–2008 and prior to that he curated for Art Metropole. His writings have appeared in C Magazine, Lola and many exhibition catalogues, and his own artwork mines sound and pop culture for shared associations and alternate meanings.