It’s long been a central conceit of the music and art of Scanner (aka Robin Rimbaud) that when a human utterance is impacted by the envelope of a thick, electronically produced soundscape, the result isn’t a suffocation of the human element but, in fact, clarifying insight into the subsumed source material — insight that might not have been gained had that same material been left on its own.
This is especially the case in the work he’s done in which he purloins conversations from the air (usually courtesy of the device from which Rimbaud takes his Scanner moniker, though he’s also done interview-based research and employed archival recordings), and drapes them in synthesized, occasionally danceable scores that lend drama and backstory.
So it’s no surprise that Scanner takes so well to The Sinking of the Titanic, by British composer Gavin Bryars, as evidenced by a free download of a 2007 performance available on Scanner’s website (MP3, scannerdot.com). Originally released on Brian Eno’s appropriately named Obscure record label in the mid-1970s, Bryars’s Titanic is slowly becoming part of the 21st-century standard repertoire. Bryars’s conceit for Titanic is that the band played on as the ship famously went down, and he set up a musical circumstance in which the hymn they might have played is heard amid sounds that suggest submergence. There’s none of the thrashing one associates with a shipwreck — instead it’s a triumph of maudlin. This is not James Cameron’s vision of disaster; sometimes a whimper carries a lot more emotional heft than a bang.
Scanner’s version was performed in Philadelphia in February 2007, and it is a more dynamic rendition than what Bryars originally committed to disc (and than the version he recently released, on the Touch label, with turntablist Philip Jeck and the ensemble Alter Ego). It opens with creaky boards, a literalist salvo that soon yields to artfully muddied string playing (by violinist Todd Reynolds) that closely recalls the original. But then come martial percussion and strong playing by Reynolds that are more robust than any version of Titanic I’ve heard before. Putting the performance squarely in Scanner’s mode, there’s also audio documentation of a Titanic-disaster survivor, whose words put this more arguably more more hopeful version in perspective: “I believe instead of being submerged by the Titanic, I might say I’ve been floated by the Titanic.”