That clocked in at 25 minutes in order to fit on to a side of vinyl, but, as intended by the composer, subsequent recordings and performances have seen the piece evolve and expand.
Since the live recording on 2005 for the Touch label, improvising turntable player Philip Jeck has been a staple of all live performances of the piece by the Gavin Bryars Ensemble. After three doleful bell tolls it’s the crackle and hiss of Jeck’s old vinyl that informs the atmosphere, particularly when matched with the grainy, sometimes decayed, archival film footage assembled by American experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison.
When captain Smith appears onscreen, resplendent in his white uniform, it is to what sounds like the powerful throb of turbines and a fog of ghostly echoes carrying on the wind. The sound of a jagged guitar approximates the rending of the ship’s hull and as the agonised notes subside the ensemble introduce Autumn, reportedly the hymn the Titanic’s string quartet played as the ship went under. With that descends a kind of peace.
With its chandeliers and elegant architecture, City Hall adds to the ambience, its mirrored windows looking back in at us like those ghostly figures depicted onscreen.
Other hymns as well as Autumn drift in and out of a soundscape, which features ambient sounds as well as recordings of interviews that Bryars conducted with two survivors, one of whom contributed some piano.
Somehow it lacked the necessary intensity, yet of all the commemorations to the disaster, it remains the most vital.
— Don O’Mahony.