Performed by Gavin Bryars, Yuri Bryars, James Woodrow, Roger Heaton
Collaboration with Valéik : Elise Lehec (violist), Lina Luzzi (cellist), Donatien Bachmann (bassoonist), Didier Métrailler (percussionist) and Léa Legros-Pontal (violist).
The piece dates back to the time when Gavin Bryars was teaching at Portsmouth College of Art. Initially, it was just a few indications given on an A4 sheet for a very open performance, without score, as part of a student support exhibition in 1969. Working in an art school, the musician was interested in finding a musical equivalent to conceptual artworks. In 1972, he wrote a more developed interpretative version for a presentation at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall.
In 1975, a recording took place for the first of ten records produced for Brian Eno's Obscure Records label, featuring Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet on the B-side. Other recordings followed. Notably by the Gavin Bryars Ensemble, live in 1990 at Printemps de Bourges in a disused Napoleonic-era water tower, and in 2012, during a tour to mark the hundredth anniversary of the shipwreck.
The discovery of the wreck of the Titanic in 1985 led Gavin Bryars to rethink his music, as the room was left open to incorporate any new information on the conditions of the sinking.
The starting point for the piece is the fact that the liner's orchestra played right to the end. The piece was identified from an account by Harold Bride, the junior radio operator, who recounts that the ship was already upright, sinking into the water: "The last time I saw the band, when I was floating in the sea with my lifebuoy, they were still on deck playing Autumn. I can't imagine how they could have done that." Although there are still uncertainties about the Autumn in question, it is a religious composition by François Barthélémon, quite close to the well-known Amazing Grace, that Gavin Bryars has made the main element of his music.
The Sinking of the Titanic was also inspired by Guglielmo Marconi's research into the lifespan of sound, which, at the end of his life, he believed would weaken over time without ever really disappearing. The Italian Nobel Prize winner first tested wireless telegraphy in 1895, in Salvan in the Valais, where a small museum is dedicated to him. The distress calls made by Harold Bride and the other radio operators on the Titanic, thanks to his invention, saved some 700 passengers.
Born in Yorkshire in 1943
Lives and works between England and British Columbia
Gavin Bryars started his musical career as a jazz bassist, working in the early sixties with improvisers Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley, forming the famous Joseph Holbrooke Trio. In 1966 Bryars abandoned improvisation, heading instead to the United States to work with the ground-breaking composer John Cage.
Bryars’ first major composition, The Sinking of the Titanic, appeared on Brian Eno's Obscure Records in 1975 and alongside his seminal work Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, which featured the looped vocals of a homeless man singing an unknown hymn, established his reputation worldwide as a prominent figure in minimalist and experimental music. Both pieces have evolved and expanded over time, being performed with artists from across the musical spectrum, from Aphex Twin and experimental turntablist Philip Jeck, to the London Philharmonic and Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. The famous 1990 version of Jesus’ Blood, which featured singer Tom Waits, was also nominated for The Mercury Music Prize.
Bryars’ list of works is extensive, including numerous operas - Dr Ox’s Experiment for English National Opera, Medea for Opéra de Lyon, The Collected Works of Billy The Kid with Michael Ondaatje and Marilyn Forever with librettist Marilyn Bowering, a chamber opera on the life of Marilyn Monroe – as well as numerous vocal works, concertos and many ballets including the famous Merce Cunningham piece Biped, which formed part of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s legacy tour and was revived in 2018 and in 2019 to mark the centenary of Merce’s birth. His work with Philadelphia based choir The Crossing recently included a Grammy win for The Fifth Century for Best Choral Performance and led to his latest large scale vocal work A Native Hill, for which both the choir and Bryars received rave reviews.
He regularly collaborates with visual and literary artists, being influenced by his time teaching in Fine Art colleges in the seventies, where collaboration was key. It was during his time at Portsmouth College of Art that he was instrumental in founding the legendary Portsmouth Sinfonia, an orchestra comprised of players using instruments they were completely unfamiliar with.
He has worked with visual artists such as Juan Muñoz (A Man In A Room, Gambling), Robert Wilson (Civil Wars, Medea), The Quay Brothers and many writers such as Blake Morrison, Etel Adnan, Marilyn Bowering, Michael Ondaatje and the singer-songwriter Father John Misty on his latest album Pure Comedy.
"The music of Gavin Bryars falls under no category. It is mongrel, full of sensuality and wit and is deeply moving. He is one of the few composers who can put slapstick and primal emotion alongside each other. He allows you to witness new wonders in the sounds around you by approaching them from a completely new angle.” Michael Ondaatje