• Sam Fleming


“The Sinking of the Titanic” is Gavin Bryars’ imagination of the band on the Titanic “playing on” as the ship slips beneath the surface of the ocean. While there are many versions of this piece floating about, the 1990 live recording, lasting a little over an hour, is by far the most beautiful. The piece centers around the sound of subdued violins and strings which echo hauntingly simple melodies for the entire hour, telling the sad and destructive story of the sinking of the ship. Musically, “The Sinking of the Titanic” shares a lot more in common with ambient music than classical. Although performed by an ensemble, each instrument waits its turn to play as the piece flows and devolves, until the music fades out of earshot. By the end of “The Sinking of the Titanic,” the listener feels like they have been submerged completely underwater.

Gavin Bryars is a legendary name in modern-classical music. He has consistently shown the beauty of what’s possible when classical and avant-garde music are combined. Many of his compositions follow an indeterminist framework, which allows a certain amount of improvisation from musicians while maintaining a loose guide for listeners to follow. Bryars founded the Portsmouth Simfonia in 1970, which featured many prominent artists including Brian Eno. He would go on to work extensively with Eno’s record label and became an incredibly prolific artist. Throughout his career, he has written countless pieces, five operas, four string quartets, and a couple of concertos. Sometimes his music features ensembles playing vast, calm chords, other times he focusses on tight and precise chamber music. On “The Sinking of the Titanic,” Bryars showcases his talents more broadly. Originally written in 1969, Bryars rerecorded the piece many times throughout his lifetime, consistently improving on it and changing its meaning.

As the piece advances, the ship sinks farther underwater and the music itself changes. The strings slow down and are muffled by an invisible force. Brass instruments break into the cacophony of strings, but these new noises are not welcome: they are just reminders that the bottom of the ocean is quickly approaching. The second half of the piece takes on a different tone than the beginning. The instruments are no longer differentiable, they become shimmering synths that fade in and out of the ear. Tension rises and falls as chords blend together and fade out. But still, the ship sinks deeper into the ocean.

It’s hard to describe what makes “The Sinking of the Titanic” so emotionally effective. For me, it has little to do with the real-life sinking of the ship, but in a way, this piece humanizes that historic event. In the background, buried behind the strings which sweep through the piece, we hear the voices of people muttering. This piece forces you to think about the people on the Titanic who lost their lives. “The Sinking of the Titanic” shows both the tragedy of the event and the tragedy that most of the people lost on the ship have been forgotten.

This version of the piece was recorded live in Bourges in 1990, which gives the recording an echoing vastness that perfectly fits the piece. Gavin Bryars conducted the piece himself and this version makes it especially clear that “The Sinking of the Titanic” acts as an exploration of what could have been. Bryars is asking the listener to consider what it would have been like to be on the ship as the band keeps playing. What would it be like to have an orchestra soundtrack your drowning?

“The Sinking of the Titanic” is a beautiful and fascinating piece of music and shows how willing Gavin Bryars was to work with and change his approach to his music. If you are looking for something beautiful to get lost in, this is the project for you. And if you enjoy this piece, check out Bryars’ “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” another absolutely beautiful composition.

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