Gavin Bryars is one of those composers that I've always found to be a bit inconsistent. At times, he veers a little too close to new age for me, yet at other times he seems to tap into something almost primal with his long form experimentation with repetition and subtle motifs. Even moreso than his hypnotic Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet, I'd have to say that his composition of The Sinking Of The Titanic ranks as my favorite of his work. Existing in several different recorded forms (including a live version recorded in an empty watertower released on the Crepuscule label) it's a piece that mixes string instruments, spoken-word fragments, distant percussion, reverberated drones, and other elements into an ambient epic.
Running just over an hour in length, the piece opens with the chime of bells before washes of feedback and creaking give the impression of descending through water inside a metal hull before finally coming to rest. After a short pause, a string sextet begins a mournful phrase that repeats through nearly the entire piece. The melody is roughly based on the melancholic Episcopal hymn "Autumn" that the musicians onboard the ship were playing even as it went down, which according to eyewitnesses really happened (and was not just a piece of Hollywood done in the movie for dramatics).
As the track progresses, this repeated melody is both brought to the front of the mix and pushed backwards as other elements come forward. At times, slightly dissonant washes of reverberation (some of which were taken from the aforementioned live recording) drift in and overtake everything, while at other times sparse woodblock percussion mimics distant Morse code. Basically, Bryars morphs and manipulates the melody based on what other pieces are playing at the time. For awhile, a boys choir appears off in the distance while the original melody fades almost completely from the mix, leaving only a ghost of it played on bass.
At one point, a recording of an interview with survivors from the disaster creeps into the mix, and the fact that they're not quite perceptible in terms of what is being said seems to make them fit in with the piece even more. In interviews, Bryars has stated that he wanted the piece to be sort of a sonic representation of what it would sound like if the melody that the musicians were playing simply kept on going even after they had been swallowed by the sea. In physical terms, the music would have stopped when the water hit the strings, but this imaginary "soundtrack" is nonetheless haunting and imaginative. Given the repetitive nature of the composition, it's definitely not for everyone, but for those who like evocative ambient music, this is definitely a release to seek out.