On Chambers, Mansions And Rivers

Please enjoy this latest report for BBC Radio 4 and The World Service on the subject of last weekend’s series of performances in the bascule chambers underneath Tower Bridge. Hidden below the waterline deep underneath one of London’s most iconic structures, these cathedral-like spaces serve to contain the gigantic counterweights during the lifting of the bridge’s central span (each weighs about a thousand tonnes or something ridiculous like that), but until last weekend few indeed would have been aware of their existence and fewer still would have been granted the privilege of climbing down into the chamber for a closer inspection. In fact, for the many hundreds of people strolling along the bridge around lunchtime last Saturday, the only clue that something out of the ordinary was about to occur below them would have been the sounds of distant brass pulsing mysteriously from somewhere beneath their feet. Or perhaps a Robin The Fog-shaped blur that nearly ploughed into them while heroically sprinting the final 200 yards to the entrance down to the chamber – thanks entirely to the incompetent, ever-delayed machinations of the accursed Southern Railways. Sorry if that was your umbrella…

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The initial inspiration for the project came from a recording of this vintage machinery at work that was originally made by Ian Rawes of The London Sound Survey. Iain Chambers’ coming across it proved to be the catalyst for an original composition ‘Bascule Chamber’ in which the brass section of the Dockside Sinfonia play along with the sound of the bridge to uncanny and beguiling effect. Before long this unlikeliest of stages was set for a series of concerts featuring two more original compositions by Iain and an interpretation of John Cage’s ‘Aria’ by the soprano Catherine Carter; each performed live and taking full advantage of the chamber’s unique acoustics.

View of the bascule chambers from the gantries. Photo by Steve Stills

View of the bascule chambers from the gantries. Photo by Steve Stills

It doesn’t take much imagination to realise just how far up my street (or hidden somewhere beneath it) all this activity is, particularly as I’m a huge fan of both The London Sound Survey and Langham Research Centre, the radiophonic performance group of which Iain is a key member; so I’m aware of the potential for accusations of bias. Nonetheless, I feel no hesitation at all in labelling these events a triumph and it would certainly appear that the enthusiastic reception from the crowd bears me out. Equally, so does the many disappointed people I’ve spoken to since who didn’t manage to get tickets. All I can say is that I hope my report gives some flavour of what went on down there and that apparently the concerts will be broadcast in full on good old Resonance FM at some point soon. Plus you can find both of these estimable gentlemen discussing the project and much more on the London Sound Survey blog here.

Composer Iain Chambers and sound recordist Ian Rawes on site comparing notes. Poorly-focused photography by me.

Composer Iain Chambers and sound recordist Ian Rawes on site comparing notes. Poorly-focused photography by me.

VespertineYork

Moving on and continuing a busy weekend (though thankfully with less sprinting), I’d also like to present a few images from last Sunday’s sound installation at Mansion House in St. Helen’s Square as part of Vespertine York‘s latest sold-out event: A new sound-work created entirely from magnetic tape and the various ticks and chimes of the numerous antique clocks that until recently had populated this now empty shell.

Vespertine cordially invites the people of York and beyond, to a guided tour of the Mansion House with a twist! This event will be a rare opportunity to see the Mansion House as it is awaiting renovation; the unfurnished, raw building will provide the perfect backdrop for performances and music.

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The source material was collected a month or so beforehand. In the intervening period all of these vintage timepieces were removed, along with the furniture, carpets, paintings and other fixtures, pending the building’s year-long closure for extensive refurbishment. It was a strange experience indeed to bring these recently gathered sounds back to the newly bare walls and exposed floorboards – almost like filling this grand building with the memories of its own departed furniture. The results were very positively received by the groups of visitors touring the house, with one even moved to compare it to the soundtrack to Tarkovsky’s Solaris. That, my friends, is one way to make me very happy!

Vesp - installation 2

Also on the bill were the truly remarkable Sheffield-based anti-choir Juxtavoices and the multi-instrumentalist duo McWatt – both well worth checking out – plus food, drink, games, stories and more. And all for free! No wonder it sold out so quickly! Thanks very much to everyone who came along and showed their support and to Vespertine York for being such amazing hosts and for giving us such an awesome space to play with. It’s the latest in a series of events they’re curating, so their website is definitely worth a perusal and you’re advised to book your tickets early.

Vesp Sunset

And as a last-minute edition to today’s business, I’m happy to announce that I make an appearance in the latest issue of Caught By The River‘s regular publication An Antidote To Indifference, writing about some of my adventures in tape, alongside articles by Melissa Harrison, Chris Watson, Richard King, Emma Warren and many more. This is the second issue to be edited by legendary sonic curator Cheryl Tipp of the British Library’s Sound Archive (amongst many other goodly works) and thus promises to be even more of a cracking read than usual. Pre-order your copy here.

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News of the new Howlround album arriving imminently. But after all this I might want a nice lie down first…

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