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Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Titanic Live

Twenty minutes into the film Titanic, when Rose begins to recount the story, the camera slowly pans away from her close-up to the flickering screens behind. We see the video footage of the corroded remnants of the sunken ship. The flashback begins. The debris gradually peels off its rust and scar to regain the glossy skin that still smelled of fresh paint. Matching the spatial and temporal contours of the moving images is the musical score. The snare roll is marching on. The strings section ascends and gathers momentum at a pace dictated by the rhythm of the seamless transformation of the remnants into reminiscences. Precisely when the transition from the present to the past is complete, like the fizz rushing out of an uncorked bottle of soda, the orchestra pops open with a loud crash of cymbals. Fleeing on strings, like an enslaved bird freed from its cage, is the motivic melody that embodies the beauty and might of the ship Titanic. That crashing of the cymbals hit me like a bolt of lightning, and that, I believe, is the moment when I became a fan of symphonic music.

Ilaiyaraaja had unlocked the portal to the world of film scores, but it was still only left ajar. It was James Horner’s score in the film Titanic that swung the door wide open. Jurassic Park was the only film in English I had seen before Titanic, and at the time, I didn’t yet have the ear and acuity to differentiate John Williams’ rapturous score from the T. Rex’s thunderous roar.

I was fourteen. I didn’t know that in the score of Titanic synthesised sounds and voices were interlaced with orchestral music to create a unique sonic tapestry. I didn’t have to know. The music in Titanic was simple and earnest, and its effect direct.

I found, at a friend’s place in Salem, a Back to Titanic cassette with Jack and Rose’s I’m Flying pose on its deep oceanic blue front cover. I heard the score while I was at my friend’s place for a group study session with the other classmates. That wasn’t enough, and the place wasn’t right. It was difficult to immerse myself into the music amidst all the chitter-chatter. I couldn’t borrow the cassette. Also, the moment I noticed the price on the cassette cover, I quashed the thought of ever owning it.

I heard the score again a few months later when I watched the film on its Indian television premiere on the New Year’s Eve. I thought the end credits drew the curtains down with the Celine Dion’s song My Heart Will Go On, but there was more. I couldn’t have possibly known this earlier. The operators never let the end credits roll to play in any of the cinema theatres in India. They would abruptly switch the projection off within a few seconds, and the audience too would start to exit the hall immediately after the end.

The most exhilarating of all the cues in the score—entitled Take Her to Sea, Mr. Murdoch on the soundtrack album—played immediately after Celine Dion’s love ballad in the end credits. It was already midnight. Everyone at home was asleep. I had to keep the volume low. I had to hug tight our 21-inch CRT TV with my left ear on the speakers to hear the score. Though the sound was feeble, compressed, and mono, the music was sublime. The most vivid aural imprint of the moment is the thin church bell tolling sound which appears at the chilling transitional moments in the orchestral piece. It has in its metallic clang a ring of divinity and otherworldliness, and it sounded as if each stroke knocked open a door to a newer, higher plane of transcendence.



I was in tenth grade at the time, and I wouldn’t hear Titanic score again until after two years; when I would be in college, and when I could afford to buy cassettes. My parents would offer me some pocket money, which I saved and splurged on music. I also owned a Philips two-in-one tape recorder; a gift from my parents for securing the first rank in class in the final board examination.

I was studying mechanical engineering in Trichy, where I found the biggest music shop I had seen so far. The Rhythm Boss. I could see the interiors of the shop through the glass door in the front. The shop had audio cassettes stacked like decorative tiles on all the three walls from floor to ceiling. The walls appeared mosaic painted with multiple hues of that of the cover art on the cassette boxes. The shop had an immense collection of music and a legibly hand-written catalogue book with the names of the movie soundtracks sorted in alphabetical order, and a detailed listing of the names of the tracks under each title. It was the first time I had the opportunity to dig rare Indian film soundtrack albums with instrumental music tracks. In the catalogue, I spotted two titles I didn’t think I would find in their collection—Titanic and Back to Titanic. I made a mixtape with selected instrumental pieces listed as Theme Music from a wide range of Indian films, and I included a few tracks from Titanic, too. I knew most of the music cues in the Titanic score by heart, but I realized that I didn’t know their titles.

I picked the track titled Southampton. I remembered that in one of the shots at the beginning of the film a green luggage carrier pulled through the crowd of passengers waiting to board the ship; it had Francis Ltd Southampton written on it. I was convinced that the track Southampton must be the piece of music that plays when the Titanic departs from the port. Also chose the tracks Rose from Titanic and An Irish party in the third class from Back to Titanic.

The track Rose wasn’t what I presumed it to be. The piece I craved to listen to is in fact delivered under the title Take her to sea, Mr. Murdoch in the soundtrack.

‘Take her to sea, Mr. Murdoch,’ says the captain when he commands his associate Mr. Murdoch to increase the speed of the ship. I didn’t know that for a long time. I couldn’t have discerned that the musical cue playing in Jack’s I’m-the-King-of-the-World moment could be titled Take her to Sea, Mr. Murdoch. When I watched the film for the first time, I hardly understood the dialogues, for it was only the second English film I ever saw. Though English was our medium of education in school, the teachers who taught us in English didn’t have the accents of the characters in the film. And none of us students in school ever casually conversed in English either.



It has been seventeen years since I first watched Titanic at the Saraswathi movie theatre in Salem. I am about to experience watching the film on a big screen again at the London Royal Albert Hall. Conductor Ludwig Wicki with the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra is performing the whole score live to the projection of the film. James Horner, the composer, and James Cameron, the filmmaker, are seated in the stalls. I am standing far from the stage up above in the general gallery.

The musicians in the orchestra aren’t seated in a dark pit under the podium like they are in an opera or ballet performance; they are up on the stage and given the prominence of that of a lead singer in a band. Subdued golden yellow spotlights on sheet music stands illuminate the stage enough for the audience to observe the musicians, their musical instruments, and the conductor and his gestures. The film projection screen is dangling high above the stage, behind the orchestra.

Titanic Live is a gala concert event meant for celebration, reverence, and indulgence in nostalgia. Many who are attending this event are here to celebrate a special occasion in their lives — birthdays, anniversaries, or a date night. Men are all suited up. Women glittered up. Couples hold each other’s hands and peck on each other’s cheeks. Outside, in the foyer, there is a mandatory souvenir stall selling the film merchandise — T-shirts, music CDs, the glossy program book. And food. Popcorn. Ben & Jerrys. Crisps. Haagen-Dazs. Wine. Coffee. It is a quiet carnival. 

We request the patrons to occupy their respective seats. The main event is about to begin. A booming voice alerts all the men hanging out at the bar and women waiting in a long queue outside the loo.

Lights are off. Coughs and claps subside. The screen wakes up. The conductor lifts the baton and waves at the orchestra. We slip into a collective dream.

Few minutes into the film, Jack is standing with his friend at the nose of the ship. So close to the edge that no part of the giant ship is in his line of sight. He is looking at the horizon. He is standing atop all earthly entities, like an emperor who just conquered the infinite ocean and summoned it to lay down at his feet.

When he begins to scream with unbridled joy, ‘I’m the King of the World,’ camera’s eye is looking at him from a distance, and from forty-five degrees to his right. The sunlight glistening on the surface of the ocean splashes over the sky in the background turning it into a glaring white. The movements are kinetic, dramatic and its effect is beguiling because everything is set in frantic motion. The ship is cruising forward, the camera is moving relentlessly in different directions; towards, away or sideways around the nose of the ship, with its eyes always fixed on Jack, who is in a state of nirvana.

Camera’s movements are orchestrated like a symphony, with all the instruments at the director’s disposal swiveling around a central motif that is Jack’s infectious exuberance. James Horner’s delirious score is applied to this sequence to unify and transform all the fervent visual acrobatics into one seamless moment of stillness.

Precisely when Jack screams ‘I’m the king of the world, with a loud thud of a percussion and the crash of cymbals, the 60-piece strings section breaks free. I am standing still, clutching tight the handrails of the gallery. Strings soar high and above all the other orchestral layers, and at its peak pronounces the ship’s theme aloud. At once, in an infinitesimal moment, the bombast of the score fires up an electric pulse through every cell in my body. A million things are set in motion. And voila! A small pearl of a tear in my eyes. Just a tiny moistening drop, forming a thin translucent film. The cruising images of Titanic I behold in my eyes wobble as if they fell on the ripples in a pool of water.