Titanic-inspired composer takes New Music Festival fans to bottom of ocean

A composer from England made a splash Thursday at the Winnipeg New Music Festival.

'Fuzzy, muddy, underwater sound,' explored in 'The Sinking of the Titanic' at Pan Am Pool

A composer from England is hoping to make a splash this year at the Winnipeg New Music Festival. 1:09
A composer from England made a splash Thursday at the Winnipeg New Music Festival.
Hundreds of people took in Gavin Bryars' The Sinking of the Titanic at the Pan Am Pool Thursday night. (Thomas Asselin/Radio-Canada)

The contemporary music festival got underway last Friday. On Thursday evening, Gavin Bryars' monumental piece, The Sinking of the Titanic was played by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra as part of an evening themed "Music and Trauma."

A few things set Bryars' performance apart from others at the festival, one of them being the choice of venue. The event took place at the Pan Am Pool.

The purpose of hosting the show at a swimming pool is to draw attention to the aquatic qualities and inspiration of his piece, Bryars said.

"Water is a four-times more sound efficient medium than the air," Bryars said. "Underwater, sounds can go for greater distances, if you think of the way which whales project their songs."

The piece was inspired by the band of musicians who continued playing as the Titanic sunk in April of 1912.

"Initially what I did was speculate as to what would happen if they had managed to continue playing under water," Bryars said. "I'd always been aware of the Titanic as a kind of enigma, and I think it was probably the thought of the behaviour of the ship's band in the last moments."

Bryars set out to find out who the musicians were and what instruments they were playing as the ship went down. In the end, he discovered there were eight musicians; two pianists, three violinists, two cellists and an upright bass player.

Surreal speculation

"Clearly, on a kind of practical level, a string instrument doesn't vibrate properly underwater and nothing would happen," Bryars said. "I did all sorts of speculations, which are clearly entirely surreal and entirely hypothetical and have no grasp on reality at all."
Gavin Bryars is the composer of "The Sinking of the Titanic." (Gavin Bryars)

The next step in the imaginative genesis of his piece followed a question about how long the music might reverberate and live on under the sea.

Bryars reached out to some physicists, who helped him understand how the frequency, tone and quality of the sound would change as it moved through the water.

"In a sense, the hymn continues and it continues as the ship drifts down to the ocean bed," he said. "Underwater, sounds can go for greater distances, if you think of the way which whales project their songs."

The final product is a unique blend of classical music designed to take the listener by the ear down into the depths of the north Atlantic Ocean.

"There's a background of the same music having been processed and treated as if it were in this fuzzy, muddy, underwater sound…. So these things are put on top of each other to give it this aquatic resonance."

 "The Sinking of the Titanic" will be performed on Jan. 28 at 7:30 p.m. at the Pan Am Pool on Grant Avenue. The Winnipeg Synchronized Swimming Club and the Sistema Winnipeg Choir will perform alongside the orchestra, which will be positioned around the pool area — including on the diving boards.