Gavin Bryars - The Sinking of the Titanic
Over the last decade, Superior Viaduct has become synonymous with making the improbable and impossible real. One after another, spanning nearly every idiom of ambitious music, they’ve reissued some of the greatest holy grails in the history of sound. Toward the beginning of 2022, continuing this tradition, they delivered the first vinyl pressing in 35 years of the legendary minimalist composer Harold Budd’s 1978 masterpiece, “The Pavilion of Dreams”, one of the great artefacts from Brian Eno’s groundbreaking Obscure series. Now they’re back with the first ever vinyl reissue of Obscure’s inaugural 1975 release, the composer and bassist Gavin Bryars’ “The Sinking of the Titanic”. An unparalleled bridge between minimalist and ambient music, as well the gesture of gestures of the 20th Century avant-garde, featuring the contributions of Derek Bailey, Michael Nyman and John White, it’s an absolute marvel that still stands way out on its own after nearly 50 years.
Born in Yorkshire in 1943, Gavin Bryars first emerged on the scene during the mid 1960s, playing double bass in the trio, Joseph Holbrooke - one of the foundational bands in British jazz - alongside Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley. Initially straight ahead, as the project progressed it shifted toward the wilder free improvisational modes from which his band mates would become widely know, leaving Bryars disillusioned and feeling that it was an artificial move. Before long, he abandoned improvisation altogether, leaving his spot to the legendary Johnny Dyani, and began his career as a composer during the later half of the decade.
Bryars briefly studied with John Cage following his departure from Joseph Holbrooke, which, alongside the influences of Morton Feldman, Earle Brown, and American minimalism, left a palpable mark on his early work. The first of these efforts to gain wide recognition was “The Sinking of the Titanic”, an indeterminist work composed in 1969 that would appear alongside his 1971 composition, “Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet”, on his debut LP, recorded as the inaugural entry for Brian Eno’s Obscure Records in 1975.
While “The Sinking of the Titanic” was composed using elements of indeterminism - the compositional approach championed by Cage that allowed a certain amount of freedom to musicians under the strict control and guidance of a composer - it equally represented a fairly significant departure from the sonic territories most commonly associated with that approach. Almost Neo-Romantic in its sound - harmonics dancing within vast washes of reverberance and ambience - The Cockpit Ensemble (who would also contribute to Eno’s seminal “Discreet Music” later than year), Sandra Hill, Angela Bryars, and John Nash deploy numerous sound sources related to the sinking of the RMS Titanic and sculpt them into the final work, with additional vocal interventions by Eva Hart. Heart-wrenchingly beautiful, channeling the tragedy of its theme, considering its context within foundations of ambient music, Bryars manages to sidestep the predictable with tense moments of bubbling atonality and dissonance, creating what has been regarded as many as one of the 20th Century’s most important musical works.
The second side of “The Sinking of the Titanic” is offered over to Bryars’ “Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet”. Taking on a similar approach to sentimentality and the romantic, the composer directs the ensemble of The Cockpit Ensemble, Sandra Hill, Derek Bailey, Michael Nyman, John White, and John Nash toward slightly more experimental ground. Centered around a recorded loop of a street performer singing an improvised musical fragment, the group builds rich harmonies and ever-increasing densities and emotive force before letting it all fade away.
Remarkably singular in the history of recorded music, and retaining all of its striking force nearly a half century on, Superior Viaduct has done us a great service by returning Gavin Bryars’ “The Sinking of the Titanic” to our hands, in its first ever vinyl reissue, allowing it to be appreciated and celebrated by a new generation of listeners. Produced with all the love and care for which the label has become known, it’s impossible to recommend enough.