Sunday 22 April 2012


Barbican, London, Sun 15th April

Does anything sum up the media circus more witheringly than their fixation with anniversaries? The dreary, gormless literalism, the insatiable need to fill column inches with any old irrelevance? But at least the Titanic centenary displaced the accursed Olympics for a while. And it led to one of my favourite pieces of minimalist music, perhaps my very favourite British work, being restaged. (And not just that but what to me is the best of the many versions, the collaboration with Philip Jeck... but more of that anon.)

The Captain...

The night was the very date the ill-fated boat met it's iceberg. Which is neat, but allows a whole bunch of cultural baggage to be brought on board which threatens to sink things before we've set sail. (Which unfortunately includes much of Brian Morton's programme notes. Most risibly he states the boat's “class partitions” were “a gift to Marxists”, clearly confusing us with Hollywood producers.)

Firstly, the piece is foremost... ahem... a work of music. What's significant is that Bryars took the central concept of minimalism as pioneered by Reich and Glass, but took it for his own. The work eschews all the styles' surface features (the clustered beats, the phase-shifting) to take its heart and sail into quite new waters.

It's true Bryars has continued to update the piece with fresh discoveries about the sinking. But that's more to do with maintaining the piece's indeterminacy. (It's composed not to have a fixed score, like a symphony, but forever be a work in progress.) I don't think he's over-interested in the historical aspects or cultural significance of the story. His impetus was hearing an eyewitness account that the ship's band had continued playing as the boat went down. (“The last I saw of the band, when I was floating out in the sea with my lifebelt on, it was still on deck playing. How they ever did it I cannot imagine.") This led him to picture them playing on even as they sank below the water line.

The water line then becomes a metaphor for the inaccessibility of memory. Underwater objects can appear anything from murkily indistinct to sharp and magnified, as if clearer than something in your hand. But reach down to touch them and you ripple the surface – the object disappears. The past is both larger than life and absent. When you're talking about memory, you're really talking about ghosts.

The work is dominated by strings playing the piece the sinking band actually performed, the hymn 'Autumn.' (Which bears a close resemblance to 'Amazing Grace.') Except they never play the A to Z structure as written. Instead you hear it the way you might hum fragments of a forgotten tune, turning them like awkward jigsaw pieces, hoping they might bring the whole of it back to you. This epitomises both Bryars' theme of the ghostly nature of memory and the piece's minimalist form. Rather than having any dynamic structure it instead floats in a state of perpetuity, rather than advances it shifts. Bryars has called it “the musical equivalent of a work of conceptual art.”

Hear any one point and you would have no idea how near the beginning or end you were. You first figure it will carry on like it is for a while. Then you settle in, and find yourself wanting it to continue. Then you reach a point where you can't conceive of it ever ending. That's the point where it's really working.

It's the antithesis of symphonic form. A symphony would try to map the ship's journey through it's movements, give the iceberg a theme and the crash its own thunderous section. This puts one small musical phrase under a microscope, like you might with a drop of seawater. And of course, once you do, it reveals almost infinite riches within.

We've found before at Lucid Frenzy the danger in describing minimalist music, it can sound something austere and challenging, when it really is the polar opposite of all that. This besets us twice over for this piece, whose theme may seem harsh and existential. But listen to it and it simply doesn't feel like it's saying our memories are chimerical, and we are on our own. More that our memories are shifting and ambiguous, but for all that vital. Think of the people you've known who aren't around any more. Remembering them is like taking a long-distance call over a bad line. But that's your only option, and you take the call. The Barbican blurb calls the work “heart-achingly intimate and direct.” (Kate Bush's 'A Coral Room', a more lyrical, song-based take on the same theme, is something people are more willing to see as life-affirming.)

...and the Crew

The genius of Philip Jeck's contribution is that he recognises we don't need to rework a piece that's essentially on perpetual remix anyway, nor another instrument added. Instead he brings in a whole new element which transforms everything else, and it becomes hard to imagine the piece before he got there. He plays turntables, but he mostly adds radio crackle and hum. He starts proceedings with a long section that's like trying to tune into an elusive radio station. Of course, to those of us of a certain age, these sounds of analogue radio immediately recall childhood. They're also similar to sonar, suggesting again at attempts to pierce that murky underwater world.

They collaborate like a duo, taking their own lines but in harmony with each other. The temptation becomes to assign roles to each practitioner. Perhaps Bryars' parts (the strings, the brass) are the attempts to access memory and Jeck's (the radio static) the ether, the spaces inbetween. And you could certainly find points which match that description. But it's not a piece which exists on solid ground, and there'll be other moments which don't. The only constant is the interplay.

Then, on top of all of that, are added the projections by Bill Morrison and Laurie Olinder. Like Jeck's radio hum, they come at the same theme from a different angle. Photos of the crew and passengers are speckled and discoloured, as if coming to us scrambled and subdued. (Whether they simply now look like that or whether Photoshop had a hand I couldn't say, but I doubt it matters much.) Sometimes they would have the sea surface superimposed on them. (Perhaps something of a literalisation of the concept, but it seemed to work.)

As I'm often complaining, visuals often clamour for your attention and vie with the music they're supposedly accompanying. Yet these didn't show off but relaxed into the common theme, sometimes only showing undulating waves or murky depths for long periods.

In one of my few criticisms, however, I wondered if we really needed two screens, showing the same image in symmetrical reflection. That tended to work for the more abstract sections, such as the waves, but for others became distracting. I wondered if it was more a response to the size of the hall than the music.

Minimally English

It's hard not to see the work as a very British take on minimalism. Original American minimalism was vibrantly modern, while this is about the ghosts of the past which never quite leave us. Compare it to Steve Reich's 'Different Trains'. Everything is summed up in the difference between the thrust of a gleaming train, powering its way across a continent, and a grand ocean liner slowly sinking.

Furthermore, 'Different Trains' was, at least in part, Reich's reaction to the Holocaust. Growing up Jewish in the Forties, he reflected that only an accident of geography prevented him being taken on different trains to quite different destinations. The Holocaust would have seemed only too real for him. The Titanic for Bryars has none of that personal sting, it's more a concept, a name that became an expression. Rolls Royce, status. Rolex, wealth. Titanic, loss. It's that lack of a specific connection that allows it to become such a general concept, and the work a cathedral-like open space for us to be immersed in and lose ourselves in our thoughts.

There was quite a gap between the piece ending and the audience applause. When it came, the reaction was euphoric. But the gap itself was interesting. Let's be honest, it was partly down to the difficulty in figuring out just when an indeterminist work has actually ended. But there's also a sense in which it doesn't end. In Bryars' central image, the orchestra simply carries on. And we could all still hear those haunting notes, working their way around the room...

Not the Jeck version, still less from the concert I saw, and only a snippet but still worth passing on. You can hear bioth pre and post Jeck versions on Spotify.

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