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Steve Seifert

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A Landlocked "Sinking of the Titanic"

Posted: 04/10/2012 9:26 am

On the afternoon of Sunday, April 15, 2012, 100 years to the day after the Titanic sank, the event will be commemorated in Denver through the performance of an iconic work of modern music. The University of Denver's Newman Center for the Performing Arts teams up with Denver Friends of Chamber Music and Historic Denver, Inc., which operates the Molly Brown House Museum, to perform British composer Gavin Bryars' classic "The Sinking of the Titanic."

Bryars began his composition in 1969 as a conceptual exercise. Inspired by the members of the ship's band who were reported to have continued to play until the final moments, Bryars wondered if that kind of dedication could keep music alive, even under water. If so, what would music sound like under water? In 1972 his experimentation was realized when "Sinking" had its premiere in London. Bryars and his ensemble will perform it again at the Barbican in London on this April 15.

The "indeterminist" work can be performed by many combinations of musicians and its length can vary to meet the needs of the occasion. The core of most performances, however, is a string quartet, and in Denver the exciting JACK Quartet anchors the piece. Composer and percussionist Payton MacDonald, a founding member of the contemporary music ensemble Alarm Will Sound, has arranged "Sinking" for this performance. He will join a children's choir made up of members of Young Voices of Colorado, clarinetist Jeremy Reynolds from the University of Denver's Lamont School of Music, and Lamont Music student Andy Sproule on double bass. Payton will play percussion, piano, and be in charge of the recorded sound track which Bryars created to accompany all performances of the work. The recording includes faint voices of actual Titanic survivors as well as various produced sounds that Bryars intended to take the audience to different imaginative places. Young Voice's Artistic Director Jena Dickey will conduct.

The main melodic element in Bryars' work is a hymn tune, "Autumn." Historians have debated what music the band was playing at the end. A wireless operator, Harold Bride, who survived the wreck told the New York Times they were playing "Autumn." Whether he meant a hymn by that name, or perhaps the upbeat tune "Songe d'Automne" which was popular with trans-Atlantic bands of the time, we'll never know. For the arrangement MacDonald made for Denver he eschews historical accuracy and focuses instead on the concept of faulty memory and confusion.  He introduces some elements beyond those Bryars calls for, including quotations from "Nearer, my God to Thee" (the hymn used in the 1958 film about the Titanic, "A Night to Remember") as well as "Songe d'Automne."  He also includes some brief ragtime drum patterns.  MacDonald says: "These things overlap and mash together, at times quite clear and other times polyphonic and dense.  As Bryars himself told me in a personal email communication, 'Like most things in my piece, we move from evidence to realisation through a combination of conjecture, reasoning, pataphysics and leaps of faith... '"

"Sinking" has been recorded many times, is regularly performed, and is very accessible and moving, making it a durable piece of modern music. The commemorative performance in Denver marks its Colorado premiere. Why should a landlocked city remember this occasion? The sinking of the Titanic was a tragedy with immediate, worldwide repercussions. It has remained a part of the collective memory for 100 years and has been a constant vehicle for popular culture. The first film about the sinking was made within weeks after the event itself, and the most recent, James Cameron's Titanic, is the second highest grossing film of all time. But beyond that, perhaps the most famous survivor of the wreck was Denver's own Margaret Brown, known to history as Molly Brown thanks to the Broadway musical and film about her "unsinkability."

Margaret Brown was a woman ahead of her time in many ways. She helped a Denver judge create the first juvenile justice court system in the U.S., she weighed in with her friend John D. Rockefeller after the so-called Ludlow Massacre in an attempt to quell the violence during the Colorado Coal Strike, she even ran for the Senate in 1909 and 1914. She loved world travel and could speak French, German and Russian, which helped her organize Titanic survivors aboard the Carpathia. Thus, as part of the Titanic remembrance, the Newman Center, Friends of Chamber Music and Historic Denver commissioned Payton MacDonald to compose a new work in honor of Margaret Brown. "Lifeboat No. 6" will have its world premiere on April 15. Muffet Brown, Margaret's great-granddaughter will be present to welcome the audience.

More information about the performance in Denver can be found at the Newman Center's website: www.newmancenterpresents.com.