Wordless Music Review from last night

I’ve been meaning to post about this concert I’m in…….But a lot of you are in it…..

Sunday I started rehearsals for the Wordless Music Series concert featuring music of Gavin Bryars, John Adams, and Johnny Greenwood, of Radiohead and more recently film scoring fame. Obviously, Greenwood is the name that’s going to attract some attention. Let me say first off, this is a BAD-ASS ensemble. You gotta love rehearsals where you run something once, say to yourselves, “Alright, that’s how that goes” and go home. Everyone is super prepared, and very chill. I can literally look around at any given moment and see my collagues playing, smiling and having a great time.

I don’t play in the Greenwood or the Adams, so I’m gonna talk about the Bryars, cuz it’s MY blog… and I’m kind of obsessed with the piece. The Sinking of the Titanic was premiered in 1972 on the same program as Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet, another slow meditative work of Bryars’ genius. Fittingly, it’s American premiere was conducted by John Adams, don’t know about the UK one from ’72, perhaps Bryars even. The piece centers around the story of the band that played on the ship’s deck until it sank. From various interviews with survivors, and minute by minute accounts from inside the ship’s communication center, it seems that the band played on so to speak. We have timegrids of the piece. Each group of musicians is given a stopwatch, and various pages of material to be played at specified intervals. The percussionists have a great deal to improvise, from the realistic sound of a breached hull and morse codes on a woodblock, to the more imaginative “sloppy landing of a plane in Zurich” and, my personal favorite, “a dog with a kitten in its jaws….”

There are two tapes containing samples of interviews with survivors, crowd noises, crickets, the hymn tune, and other random samples. Matt’s in charge of one of the tapes, and is also doing some fat horn looping. I’m real proud. He looks really hot in headphones. In a sense it’s quite free, but with some containment. Just the way I like it.

The glue holding it together is the hymn Autumn, which is played probably 20 something times in the 40 minute piece by variuous instrumental groupings, including myself. Here’s what Bryars said about Autumn:

This Episcopal hymn, then, becomes a basic element of the music and is subject to a variety of treatments. Bride did not hear the band stop playing and it would appear that the musicians continued to play even as the water enveloped them. My initial speculations centred, therefore, on what happens to music as it is played in water. On a purely physical level, of course, it simply stops, since the strings would fail to produce much of a sound (it was a string sextet that played at the end, since the two pianists with the band had no instruments available on the boat deck). On a poetic level, however, the music, once generated in water, would continue to reverberate for long periods of time in the more sound-efficient medium of water, and the music would descend with the ship to the ocean bed and remain there, repeating over and over until the ship returns to the surface and the sounds re-emerge. The rediscovery of the ship by Taurus International at 1:04 on September 1, 1985 renders this a possibility. This hymn tune forms a base over which other material is superimposed. This includes fragments of interviews with survivors, sequences of Morse signals played on woodblocks, other arrangements of the hymn, other possible tunes for the hymn on other instruments, references to the different bagpipe players on the ship (one Irish, one Scottish), miscellaneous sound effects relating to descriptions given by survivors of the sound of the iceberg’s impact, and so on.

And here’s the quote from the Village Voice:

Our program this evening, performed by the black-clad Wordless Music Orchestra, begins with Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic, which as you perhaps recall is very specifically about the sinking, not the crashing or the blowing up or what have you: It’s a long, slow, gorgeous underwater descent, the orchestra bathed in calmly pulsating aquamarine light, waves of lilting violin passages adorned with found-sound tapes of bells, banging pots & pans, crickets, chattering survivors (one breaks into “Nearer, My God, to Thee”), and, in the respectfully silent church, clicking camera shutters and groaning pews. Three ethereal vocalists occasionally rise above the gentle din. Fabulous. “That was 8,000 times better than Sigur Rós,” my associate proclaims. Yes.

I would be the ethereal voice on the right in the pic above.

Full review here And I’m kind of in that pic too….

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