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The sinking of the Titanic


This piece originated in a sketch written for an exhibition in support of beleaguered art students at Portsmouth in 1969. Working as I was in an art college environment I was interested to see what might be the musical equivalent of a work of conceptual art. It was not until 1972 that I made a performing version of the piece for part of an evening of my work at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London and during the next three years I performed the piece several times. In 1975 I made a recorded version for the first of the ten records produced for Brian Eno’s Obscure label. In 1990 I re-recorded the piece ‘live’ at the Printemps de Bourges festival when the availability of an extraordinary space and the rediscovery of the wreck made me think again about the music. This version also formed the basis for the 1994 recording on Point.

This new version, much shorter than previous ones, was written especially for the Smith Quartet, a group with which I have had a long and fruitful relationship.

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 New York. The initial starting point for the piece was the reported fact of the band having played a hymn in the final minutes of the ship’s sinking in an extraordinary act of self-sacrifice. The ship’s junior wireless operator Harold Bride identified this hymn:

' … 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 … 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 … 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.'

This Episcopal hymn becomes the principle element of the music and is subject to a variety of treatments and it forms a base over which other material is superimposed. Although I conceived the piece many years ago I continue to enjoy finding new ways of looking at the material in it and welcome opportunities to look at it afresh.

Some of this material might seem puzzling but it is all rooted in fact. The sound of a football crowd ('like 100,000 people at the cup final') and the sound of crickets in a field in Pennsylvania are two of the similes used to describe the sound of people in the water (and the recordings I use are precisely those: of a cup final crowd, and of crickets recorded in the fields of Pennsylvania). The music box plays the tune La Maxixe just as did the one in the toy pig that Edith Russell used to amuse and distract children in the lifeboat. The speaking voices are those of survivors, Edith Russell and Eva Hart, who I interviewed in 1972 just before the first live performance of the piece.

from notes by Gavin Bryars © 2007


Ghost stories
Studio Master: SIGCD088Download onlyStudio Master FLAC & ALAC downloads available


Track 3 on SIGCD088 [14'57] Download only

Track-specific metadata for SIGCD088 track 3

Recording date
7 July 2006
Recording venue
Trinity College London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Martin Cotton & Tim Oldham
Recording engineer
Mike Hatch & Andrew Mellor
Hyperion usage
  1. Ghost stories (SIGCD088)
    Disc 1 Track 3
    Release date: July 2007
    Download only
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