Gavin Bryars: “The Sinking of the Titanic” and “Jesus Blood Never Failed me yet” – Pure beauty.

There are several versions of the extraordinary work of Gavin Bryars Sinking of the titanic. The latest (as far as I can see) came out in 2008, and I ‘only’ have the 1976 copy that is settled in with Jesus Blood Never Failed Me as track two.  I have to get my hands on a copy of the 2008 version, because by all accounts it is the pinnacle of a lifetime of reworking and refining the piece. Still, for the incredible feeling and experiential imagery Bryers is delivering, for a novice such as myself, this is an incredible introduction to the amazing world of Gavin Bryars.

Bryers has, in fact, been working The Sinking of the Titanic since 1969 incorporating different approaches to sound in this work which is really a meditation on death and memory. The basic concept of the work centres around the strinig quartet on the Titanic who didn’t cease to play despite the sinking of the ship. This image has worked its way into the zeitgeist to become one of our most powerful metaphors. In fact strings being played – literally while Rome burns –  have that dualistic power of pathos when confronted with the inevitability of fate and the stoic ability to disconnect from the devastating power of  reality, that endlessly fascinates human creatures.  It is worth noting that Bryers seems to have a nexus of loss in his conceptual world view. Two of his most arresting pieces, titanic and After the Requiem, deal with transportation disasters that end in water graves. Apparently he has a connection to the Lockerbie plane crash that inspired the latter piece, but the depth of sadness seems to delve very deep inside and we get the feeling he is touching something very large indeed.

I found a copy of the latest version of the track (very different to the one I was listening to – and I agree with the reviews, far superior) on soundcloud, so have a listen:

Dusted’s excellent review by Jason Bivins of the 2008 release has this to say:

The instrumentation for the piece has varied over the years, incorporating string quartets and now (on this extraordinary version) turntablist Philip Jeck and the ensemble Alter Ego (strings, brass, winds, percussion, keyboards, tapes, sound design). On some level instrumentation is absolutely central, as something about the vibrato of the strings Bryars highlights in his music (here focused on his own limpid playing, honed for years in free improv circles, notably in Joseph Holbrooke, and often at the center of his composing) suggests a watery quality. But on the other hand, instrumentation matters less to the success of the piece than the resonance of environment (both performative – this one is the 2005 Festival of Contemporary Music in Venice – and conceptual) and the degree to which the piece successfully interpolates the multiple sources that are its inspiration.

Here is a you tube copy of the one I’ve been listening to this week:

The version I  was listening to may have been done better in the more recent release, but still for me this initial production was a very special event. Released in 1975 on Brian eno’s label Obscure, it came from the Portsmouth Sinfonia period.  Portsmouth Sinfonia is an orchestra whose membership consisted of performers who “embrace the full range of musical competence” — and who played popular classical works. Its members included Brian Eno, hence the connection to the Obscure label. Bryars’ idea was to construct an aural picture of the disaster, complete with songs and hymns supposedly played by the ship’s orchestra even as she was sinking. Sounds can travel great lengths under water, and Bryars uses this phenomenon to create an eerie and romantic sub-aqueous soundscape of remarkable subtlety and beauty. Using minimalist techniques, the repetition and overlapping of hymns assume a surreal aspect, at once sad and peaceful. His score was designed to incorporate new discoveries about the shipwreck (or to dispense with elements that proved false) over time; this performance includes taped reminiscences of one survivor and the tinklings of a music box salvaged by another. Can you believe this?  How beautiful is that? (I sourced some of this from the Boomkat review)

Bryars acknowledges in his notes that it is unlikely the players would have continued on their instruments once they were underwater (!) however to take up the artistic romance of the situation in time and acknowledge the powerful image of the soundscape, Bryars reduces the music to an underwater motif in order to move us through this desperately sad five crucial minutes of history. In his notes Bryars has this to say:

All the materials used in the piece are derived from research and speculations about the sinking of the “unsinkable” luxury liner. On April 14th 1912 the Titanic struck an iceberg at 11.40 PM in the North Atlantic and sank at 2.20 AM on April 15th. Of the 2201 people on board only 711 were to reach their intended destination, New York. The initial starting point for the piece was the reported fact of the band having played a hymn tune in the final moments of the ship’s sinking. A number of other features of the disaster which generate musical or sounding performance material, or which ‘take the mind to other regions’, are also included. The final hymn played during those last 5 minutes of the ship’s life is identified in an account by Harold Bride, the junior wireless operator, in an interview for the New York Times of April 19th 1912

“…from aft came the tunes of the band….. The ship was gradually turning on her nose – just like a duck that goes down for a dive. I had only one thing on my mind – to get away from the suction. The band was still playing. I guess all of the band went down. They were playing “Autumn” then. I swam with all my might. I suppose I was 150 feet away when the Titanic, on her nose, with her afterquarter sticking straight up in the air, began to settle slowly…. The way the band kept playing was a noble thing. I heard it first while we were still working wireless, when there was a ragtime tune for us, and the last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, it was still on deck playing “Autumn”. How they ever did it I cannot imagine.”

As if one incredible masterpiece isn’t enough on this remarkable album, the other side features another work of extreme beauty that has to be one of the greatest concept works ever created.  “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet” begins with the faint, faded-in voice of a London tramp singing the old hymn plaintively but without pathos and more or less in tune. Bryars looped this tape so that it resolved in non-jarring fashion, then introduced — ever so softly and gradually with each iteration of the verse — instrumental accompaniment: first strings, then guitar and bass, and eventually the entire chamber orchestra. Have a listen to the You Tube link above.

The rich, sensuous music, entirely sympathetic to the song gives it increased strength and humanity as it swells to near-majestic proportions and then, just as gradually, subsides. The power of this 25-minute piece lies in the absolute respect afforded the singer. It’s the precision and beauty behind the singer that make this possible while elevating the heartfelt passion in the singers voice. This piece alone has long been a collector’s item on vinyl.  Apparently a CD issue was released 1998 but went out of print fast. (see the All Music Guide review for my source)

I love Tom Waits (so much) but I have to say his 1995 version steals dramatically from the original. (WHAT was he thinking? ) The original is one of the few things I will ever say is absolutely perfect the way it is. To be fair, it is the first place I heard the original, but I would have found it anyway (with thanks to my guide – you know who you are).

The story of how this remarkable composition came to be is as beautiful and accidentally deliberate as the piece.  This is taken directly from Byar’s notes on the piece:

In 1971, when I lived in London, I was working with a friend, Alan Power, on a film about people living rough in the area around Elephant and Castle and Waterloo Station. In the course of being filmed, some people broke into drunken song – sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads – and one, who in fact did not drink, sang a religious song “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”. This was not ultimately used in the film and I was given all the unused sections of tape, including this one.

When I played it at home, I found that his singing was in tune with my piano, and I improvised a simple accompaniment. I noticed, too, that the first section of the song – 13 bars in length – formed an effective loop which repeated in a slightly unpredictable way. I took the tape loop to Leicester, where I was working in the Fine Art Department, and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape, thinking about perhaps adding an orchestrated accompaniment to this. The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.

I was puzzled until I realised that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man’s singing. This convinced me of the emotional power of the music and of the possibilities offered by adding a simple, though gradually evolving, orchestral accompaniment that respected the tramp’s nobility and simple faith. Although he died before he could hear what I had done with his singing, the piece remains as an eloquent, but understated testimony to his spirit and optimism.

Oh to be able to quiet the competing voices in my head long enough to notice a change in the behavior of people in the room like this!  I would be far more obsessed with deadlines,  impositions, obligations and my rattling internal to do list To notice this beautiful moment and to have the talent and the wit to capture it. Now that’s art.