Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic – two stories of unrelenting devotion



This week while going over my old blog entries I noticed that, to my surprise, I haven’t yet mentioned the fact that, during my time in the American Studies MA Program I wrote my dissertation on Tom Waits and called it Images of Americana in the Music of Tom Waits. It`s a shame I have taken so long to bring this up first and foremost because Waits is an artist that influenced my life tremendously but also because my dissertation was the first time I ever wrote about music. And reading up on Waits, his life, his view on music and the things that influenced his brilliant mind I have come to learn the immense part that stories and storytelling play in creating music and how much a serious musician, much like a writer, needs the aid of a good story to write and/or perform his art.

Now, for those familiar with Waits and his work I don`t need to mention how important storytelling is for this particular musician and it was Waits and his unchanging appreciation of a good story that led to my discovery of English composer Gavin Bryars and his record The Sinking of the Titanic. In an interview I read a few years ago Waits cited this record, which also includes the piece Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, as one of his most cherished records  and it was in that interview that I had heard the story of how this piece came to be and how a street vagrant’s testimony of sincere faith and complete trust had become part of it, leaving a testament of optimism that is (depending on the listener and the interpretation one is willing to give the song) either pathetically hopeless or spiritually inspiring (and Bryars himself seems to go with the latter). Here`s Gavin Bryars recollecting the story:

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 realized 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.[ii]

Bryars turned this song in to a minimalist masterpiece, adding next to an ongoing loop of the homeless man’s voice “rich harmonies played by a live ensemble (…) always increasing in density, before the whole thing gradually fades out” (bless you Wikipedia!). The song is charming, and the repetition, far from being tiresome or worse – boring, has a calming effect that enchants the listener to the point where he or she feels regret when the twenty-five minutes (!) have passed and the tramp quietly says goodbye, fading, much like in real life, either into oblivion or into the arms of his Maker (depends on how you look at it). The way in which the ensemble follows the mans voice, respectfully allowing it to take an almost indiscernible lead (think fraction of a second here) is indeed awe-inspiring and if you don’t get goose bumps when he sings “for He loves me so!” I regret to inform you that you are not a human being.

The song`s main purpose though (and here I`m talking about the 25-minute version as there seem to have been many more; same with Titanic) seems to be to establish the vagrant as a presence a la “voice in your head” that will stick with you long after the track is finished and, if you`re anything like me, you`ll find yourself humming the lyrics a long time after, no doubt freaking out any unsuspecting listeners.

To this contributes the ending in which, instead of offering gratification of any kind, Bryars, staying true to his studies of philosophy, lets the voice (and the ensemble) slowly dissolve from  the physical sphere of sound waves while fading into the psychological and spiritual sphere of brainwaves.

In all fairness, the song is beautiful but, had it featured any other voice, and, more importantly had not such a fascinating story come out of it, I am certain its impact would have been entirely different one. Indeed, Jesus’ Blood is a song built around a story and the voice of a most honest storyteller, who`s passionate, raw and “real” delivery could not possibly have been created by any other voice, not even (or especially not) one shaped by even the finest schools of music.

The song is worth your time and if you`re not sure about investing twenty-five minutes (and I`m sure I couldn`t tempt most of you with the 80-minute version) here`s a four-minute teaser which, in an inspired move, features vocals by the music industry’s tramp-par-excellence, the one and only Tom Waits. (Think of it as a duet).

The other song on this impressive recording is the title track, The Sinking of the Titanic. Here also a good story is central to the creation of music but as opposed to Jesus’ Blood where the song created he story, this time it`s the story that inspired the song, namely the myth according to which, as the famous RMS Titanic went down, the band on board continued playing to their final breath. The story of the song`s conception can be found on Bryars’ official website and it goes as follows:

All the materials used in the piece are derived from research and speculations about the sinking of the “unsinkable” luxury liner.   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.”


This Episcopal hymn, then, becomes a basic element of the music and is subject to a variety of treatments. Bride did not hear the band stop playing and it would appear that the musicians continued to play even as the water enveloped them. My initial speculations centred, therefore, on what happens to music as it is played in water. On a purely physical level, of course, it simply stops since the strings would fail to produce much of a sound (it was a string sextet that played at the end, since the two pianists with the band had no instruments available on the Boat Deck). On a poetic level, however, the music, once generated in water, would continue to reverberate for long periods of time in the more sound-efficient medium of water and the music would descend with the ship to the ocean bed and remain there, repeating over and over until the ship returns to the surface and the sounds re-emerge.[iii]

Fascinated by this tale of the band`s devotion to their craft (very similar at the core to the homeless man’s devotion to his faith) and their insistence on leaving this world doing what they loved most as the water was slowly claiming their lives (- I wonder if Florence Welch is familiar with this piece -) Bryars went on to produce this powerful “mood-piece” which recreates the “poetic” (as he called it) interpretation of the scene in a manner that seems so appropriate and so real that it is bound to send chills up any listener`s spine. The music is based on the Episcopal Hymn the band was allegedly playing and over that sound Bryars introduced “fragments of interviews with survivors, sequences of Morse signals played on woodblocks, other arrangements of the hymn, other possible tunes for the hymn on other instruments, references to the different bagpipe players on the ship (one Irish, one Scottish), miscellaneous sound effects relating to descriptions given by survivors of the sound of the iceberg’s impact, and so on.”[iv]

The result is almost like a film that unravels in the listener`s mind and becomes most vivid in two key points: upon hearing the faint voices of the survivors and their mostly unrecognizable dialogue and when the deep, metallic sound of the cello (at least I think it`s the cello) starts muting out all the others, suggesting the effect of the water finally engulfing the band. As the instruments again become more discernible it gives the feeling (and this piece is all about “feeling”) that the ship has finally risen again and with it the phantom sounds that never once ceased. Indeed, a haunting and magnificent work.

So here we have two musical creations that are so closely interwoven with stories and storytelling, two aspects of human creation that have been in close relation from the dawn of time, that they bring forth a side of the music-making process that is, especially nowadays, not often evident. In my opinion, if there is any such thing as “required reading” this should be “required hearing” and though I`m sure it won`t instantly become everyone`s favorite composition (it isn’t mine either) the music lover will be left with an “aftertaste” that will linger on as well as the feeling of accomplishment for having come across this record and having turned it into a new life experience.

Watch out for: the interesting stories that either led to some of the world`s greatest compositions or were born of them.

Best track: The Sinking of the Titanic

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