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Playing On, Since 1912

April 15th 2021 will mark the 109th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic. The Captain, Edward Smith, wasn't the only brave man committed to remain at his post until the ship sank: the musicians (Wallace Henry Hartley, John Law Hume, Theodore Ronald Brailey, Roger Marie Bricoux and Georges Alexandre Krins) did so too. Their courage has inspired the creation of musical, literary, theatrical and cinematographic works, most of which referring to the musicians as ‘The Band that Played On’.

Gavin Bryars, British composer, was inspired by the words of Titanic’s wireless operator Harold Bride, shared by The New York Times in 1912: “the ship was gradually turning on her nose... I guess all the band went down. They were heroes. They were still playing Autumn”. Bryars wanted to create a piece of music that would emulate how the ensemble might have been heard there and then, with the music travelling and transforming through the ripples of water, towards the seabed. He titled it ‘The Sinking of the Titanic’.

The original sketch, produced in 1969, consisted of a single piece of A4 paper with a list of instructions for the musicians. Various performance scores were recorded and performed as Bryars further developed the piece with new technology and information about the event. In 2012, he collaborated with experimental turntablist Philip Jeck, film-maker Bill Morrison and multimedia artist Laurie Olinder to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the tragedy. The result of this audiovisual collaboration was presented in a series of concerts, starting in cities related to the RMS Titanic like Belfast, and including a performance in London’s Barbican Hall.

The score has been described as an indeterminist (or aleatoric) piece, in which musicians are given a series of sound sources to improvise on, as well as written musical material. The outcome is an evocative and breathtaking soundscape. In it, the hope transmitted calmly by the hymn ‘Autumn’, interweaves in a sound collage of documentary sources related to the sinking of the Titanic. Bells, strings, creaks, whale-like sounds and a recording of a lady talking about the event are some of the materials that intervene and create what Bryars described as the feeling that “the hymn had been playing on since 1912 in a loop, silently”. The piece is hypnotic and enveloping. Its history adds to the resigned quasi-melancholic sensation that the piece elicits. However, it is so thoroughly constructed that one could argue this feeling would remain even in absence of its context.

What affected me most about this piece was the reminder that, whatever happens, music remains, and one of its vital roles is to support society. Every cloud has a silver lining and, if anything, COVID-19 has brought to light the power of music to unite, comfort and heal. Despite the lack of support and resources, musicians have recognised their responsibility, or, as described by Riccardo Muti in the 2021 New Year’s Concert, their “mission to make society better”. Soloists, ensembles and even choirs and orchestras with initiatives such as the ‘Stay at Home Choir’, are going live online and fighting for real live performances as they keep supporting their communities, spreading hope and keeping culture alive as more than just entertainment.

It is estimated that the RMS Titanic sank in two hours and forty minutes. This ship we're on has been sinking for nearly a year and we have no estimated end-date, but musicians are still standing and we will play on.

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