Monday, April 16, 2012

Remembering the Titanic without Leaving Dry Land

Last week it seemed as if BBC News broadcasts had become obsessed with the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.  Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that they had a reporter on the vessel that was going to duplicate the path of the ship’s voyage all the way up to the point at which it had its fatal encounter with an iceberg.  The intention appeared to be to allow those connected with this tragedy in some substantive way to participate in a memorial ceremony.

As one who has no personal connection to the Titanic other than an aversion to James Cameron’s film, my only association with this tragic event has always been that composition by Gavin Bryars, which he entitled “The Sinking of the Titanic.”  I used to have Brian Eno’s Obscure vinyl, on which this music filled one side.  The other side was “Jesus’ Blood never failed me yet;”  and I was not surprised when I learned that both of these were ongoing projects.  Thus, each has now seen a new release, through which both of them now endure for the length of a full CD recording.  Both amount to extended variations on a theme arising from adding new layers of content, rather than simply embellishing the theme.  Presumably longer versions will emerge for media that can accommodate longer durations.

The idea behind “Titanic” was the hypothesis that the sounds of the ship going down were still, in some way or another, vibrating in the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.  The theme for Bryars’ composition is the Episcopal hymn “Autumn.”  According to an account by Harold Bode, a junior wireless officer, this was the music being played during the last five minutes of the ship’s life (rather than “Nearer my God to Thee,” which is what was played at the centennial memorial service).  I was thus somewhat comforted to read in a piece by Richard Fairman for the Financial Times that a new performance of “Titanic” was given by the Gavin Bryars Ensemble as an “alternative” commemoration of the ship’s sinking.  I cannot imagine that this would have offended any of those on the memorial voyage, and it provided a different perspective from which the rest of us could reflect on this historic occasion.

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