Live Music + Gig Reviews

Gavin Bryars Ensemble perform The Sinking Of The Titanic @ Barbican, London

15 April 2012

Amid the deluge of events commemorating The Sinking Of The Titanic, the Gavin Bryars Ensemble’s performance at the Barbican was executed with a languid style and aplomb befitting a centenary of such magnitude. While Bryars’ ever evolving piece has existed in one form or another since the late sixties, its present incarnation steered Titanic remembrances away from mawkish sentimentality into altogether more spectral territories creating a haunting current, driven and directed by Bill Morrison’s specially commissioned visuals.

Bryars has never been one to shy away from the meta-narrative with his works often inspired by sea voyages – The North Shore, The Cross-Channel Ferry, The Paper Nautilus – with the latter finding inspiration from the voyages of St Brendan. The Sinking Of The Titanic takes its own cue from the fact that the band aboard the Titanic were still playing as the ship began to sink. Reportedly, the ‘strains of the Episcopal hymn Autumn flowed across the deck and drifted in the still night far out over the water’.

Building the performance from such fragmentary pieces is not just reflected thematically; tonight’s entire performance is steeped in gradual evolution of the initial low-end sounds, anchored by Bryars on the contrabass. Rising and falling in near-tandem with Morrison’s projections, Philip Jeck‘s turntables reverberate and crackle, punctuating the brooding melody and providing ominous interjections only to be abruptly interrupted by the clarion call of a single bell, ushering in the ghostly presence of the Autumn hymn amid indistinct Tannoy announcements.

There’s a certain vagueness to the entire performance which works in its favour. While it’s clear from the offset that there will be some form of climax, the ever-revolving ebb and flow of cello, bass, clarinet and Jeck’s sampled sounds adds a curiously uncertain yet intimate thrust to the proceedings; at times, the repetition can almost become woozy but any audience paralysis is interrupted by repeated cheering, disjointing the flow of the hymn which fights against the unsettling, played with an almost fearsome intensity, battling against the encroaching horrors ahead.

And then, all of a sudden, the tumult ceases and we are left with the gradual winding down of the melody, the visuals abruptly ending seconds before Bryars follows suit. As a purely conceptual piece, The Sinking Of The Titanic works remarkably well; the piece is at once removed from the concept while still managing to carve out an intrinsic route between the audience, performers and the event itself. But as a multimedia experience, the significance is heightened. The addition of the visuals certainly added a stark and melancholic vocal point to the evening, almost sharing equal bill with the dissonant modulations carved out on stage. Both poignant and eloquent, The Sinking Of The Titanic amply resounds the memory and resonance of this most famous and heartbreaking of voyages.

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Gavin Bryars Ensemble perform The Sinking Of The Titanic @ Barbican, London