The timing was everything. It was 100 years to the day since the Titanic sank in the mid-Atlantic and Gavin Bryars’s The Sinking of the Titanic might have been written to be performed on that date (though it actually goes back to 1969, making it one of the earliest works to put Bryars’s name on the map).
On a day that had been marked by commemorative services, including one at the wreck site, and while documentaries were still playing on television, it seemed strange to be sitting in the concert-hall and watching this artistic scrap-book of the same events – a collage of music and film, imagination and reality.
In Bryars’s own words The Sinking of the Titanic is “the musical equivalent of a work of conceptual art”. One of the most fascinating aspects is that it was always meant to be open to change. Since the first recording was released on Brian Eno’s Obscure label in 1975 the score has been refined to incorporate new material about the Titanic as it has become available.
This performance involved a dozen musicians in the Gavin Bryars Ensemble and two screens, on which a new projection designed by Bill Morrison and Laurie Olinder was shown in mirror image with itself. As contemporary newsreels show the passengers embarking on their fateful voyage, the music gradually combines the grinding sounds of heavy machinery and the slow rhythm of the ocean. So long as the historic film is there, the effect is powerfully atmospheric, but once the Titanic has set sail, only still images survive and the music settles into a slow-motion dirge. Underneath snippets of spoken reminiscences a string quartet hypnotically repeats the hymn that was played by the dance band as the Titanic went down.
It is not quite enough. Although the score’s ominous tread acquires a grim inevitability, and the blending of instrumental timbres and non-musical sounds is skilfully done, the sinking of the Titanic and the horror that followed almost seem to wash past. Bryars needs to find a strong voice to speak for all those who perished. Still, The Sinking of the Titanic remains one of the seminal British experimental works, and for one night, at least, its time had come.