Gavin Bryars, The Sinking of the Titanic (1975)

Gavin Bryars, 'The Sinking of the Titanic' (1975)This LP originally appeared as the first album issued by Brian Eno’s suitably named Obscure Label. Eno would produce ten LPs in all for the label, all of which spotlighted minimalist-slash-experimental composers like Bryars, Michael Nyman, John Cage, John Adams, and the like.

The record consists of two side-long pieces. Side One presents the title track, a somber, droning, slow-moving dirge that gradually “immerses” the listener (pun intended) over the course of its 24-plus minutes. For those familiar with Eno’s Discreet Music, the effect is not unlike Side Two of that record, in which Pachelbel’s Canon gradually decelerates into a kind of druggy unrecognizability. (Not such a coincidence, as Bryars conducted and co-arranged that performance of "Three Variations on the Canon.")

Apparently an Episcopal hymn, “Autumn,” was the source material for “Sinking,” but it is difficult not to conjure “Amazing Grace” as well. Some added ambient noise in the right channel -- including a recording of a woman survivor of the crash and other musical sounds -- occasionally diverts attention from the strings, but only briefly interrupts the tune’s hypnotic quality.

From a conceptual standpoint, Side Two, taken up by the 26-minute long “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet,” bears an affinity to “Sinking” insofar as it, too, could be said to illustrate steadfast faith amid adversity. As Bryars tells it, a friend was filming a documentary in London in which he captured a homeless man singing this brief religious tune. Bryars used the short sample (about 20 seconds) and looped it -- think Steve Reich’s “Come Out” or “It’s Gonna Rain” -- then added a slowly-evolving orchestral arrangement to accompany the tramp’s song.

As with “Sinking,” the song moves hardly at all, though the cumulative effect of the repeated message and gradual build-up of accompanying music is nonetheless, well, moving. Stories abound of the song having been played over radio stations and listeners being emotionally affected -- sometimes to tears. The song probably will evoke various associations for different listeners, though something in there -- either the melody or perhaps the overwhelming pathos -- for me always conjures up the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home.”

The listener’s reaction is probably somewhat affected by the individual’s own faith and/or ability to experience empathy for the homeless man’s seeming perseverance. He reminds me a bit of Felicité in Gustave Flaubert’s short story “A Simple Heart,” one whose unwavering faith despite her poor lot in life seems cause for pity, envy, joy, or celebration, with the reader’s response depending entirely on what his or her own experiences bring to the text.

A side note: I much prefer the original, shorter version of “Jesus’ Blood” to the expanded, embellished version later made for CD. I particularly don’t care for the addition of Tom Waits -- whom I otherwise like -- to the redo of “Jesus’ Blood,” which to me makes the track sound too much like a battle between the singer and the tramp, with the singer ultimately triumphing.

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