Saturday, March 11, 2006

Gavin Bryars, "Sinking of the Titanic" / Beethoven, "Symphony no. 9 in D Minor" (cond. Wilhelm Furtwaengler, Bayreuth 1951)

The original release of "Sinking of the Titanic" appeared on Brian Eno's "ambient" label Obscure in 1975. Together with "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet", both pieces run about twenty-five minutes, their running lengths upper bounded by the limitations of vinyl. So along came the CD era -- the 1990's rerecorded versions more than doubled the lengths of both pieces, which proved to be a bit too much of a good thing (in particular, a lot of people bitch about Tom Waits' vocals on "Jesus' Blood", but I don't mind them -- his harmonic variations on the tramp's mantra are quite good).

"Ambient". No. This is far from background music. While listening to it, deep concentration on anything other than the music is nearly impossible. It's so devastatingly sad, and at times it's hard to imagine a piece of music churning along any slower. When your mind is racing, say before your departmental Ph.D. defense, and you're cycling through material at the last minute, trying to pound a few final facts into your head (a futile activity, one of the more blatant instances of "too little too late" that humans can present themselves with), the scene starts feeling like one of those "Ray of Light"-type videos. Everything in the background is blurred, with lights and cars speeding by while the person in the foreground sings. Here, the "studying" is the background -- there's no way to discern any details. It's unwatchable. The music is the foreground. Finally there's no choice but to give up, put everything away, and listen as "Sinking of the Titanic" slips further and further into nothingness. Combined with the last stages of panic, it really does feel like one is sinking -- into a chair, into the floor, into one's own lap. That's when the fear takes over, which is precisely the emotion the piece wants to give. Fortunately, it's .0001% as fearful as if one was actually sinking in the Titanic and was about to die.

When it comes to Beethoven's music, Furtwaengler was my kind of conductor. On the symphonies, he favoured slower tempos than many other conductors (I prefer things on the slower side for a lot of symphonic music) and huge crescendoes that were milked for their maximum dramatic power. For the proper Ph.D. defense, for which the preparations were a calmer, more relaxed affair, I went for his version of Beethoven's 9th from the postwar reopening of the Bayreuth Festival in 1951 (had I been in a different frame of mind, I might have chosen the more apocalyptic version recording in Berlin in 1942). The final 20 seconds of the symphony might be the most incredible moments of Beethoven ever recorded. Furtwaengler races through the final twelve bars -- I mean really really races, frantically and spastically -- and incredibly enough, he speeds up throughout, with the orchestra somehow managing to keep up with him right through the last note. There's nothing like the final movement of Beethoven's 9th to make you feel like something important is about to happen. And after all these years, I still stand by the proclamation I made in high school:

"There are two kinds of music in the world. Beethoven's 9th, and everything else."

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