Fittingly recorded three years ago in the sinking city of Venice, Gavin Bryars’ newly released realization of his most well-known, 39-year-old composition, The Sinking of the Titanic, is a horrifyingly beautiful, trance-inducing phenomenon of conceptual genius. While former versions have certainly done the piece justice, the addition of the Alter Ego ensemble and turntabilist Philip Jeck heighten the piece’s focus on its main obsession: the metaphorical failure of modern technology to trump nature.
Fixated on the myth that the sinking Titanic's chamber group played on until the very last possible moment, Bryars has Alter Ego weaving lines of the heart-wrenching Episcopalian hymn “Autumn” underneath an oscillating veil of electronic noise from Jeck. Conceptually, this makes sense, as Bryars reminds us that “the band was not only playing ultimately in water, but also with the ship standing almost perpendicular in the water for these last five minutes... we know that the band was playing outside the gymnasium doors, and these formerly vertical open doors would have become the horizontal floor that served as their last bandstand (in the ship’s vertical configuration).”
The exploration of water’s effect on sound and reverberation is also impeccably framed by the interspersed tape loops of morse code, crickets, and crowd noise. Never too representational or esoteric, this version of the piece is the most fluid to date. This fluidity speaks clearly about the ingenuity of the piece, which, despite its challenging sounds, is full of intrinsic emotional snapshots. The comforting orchestral repetition of the band’s symbolic sacrifice is tasteful, speaking for itself in the way that the most successful pieces of minimalist music do. Like Bryars’ other composition, Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, this new version of an old classic makes words seem futile.
1. The Sinking of the Titanic