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14 September 2015

Forthcoming Tower Bridge concert: interview with Iain Chambers

ONE OF THE most popular recordings on this site is the sound of Tower Bridge being lifted from inside one of its two towers, made as part of a series. Each road section is balanced by a huge counterweight, and as the road section slowly lifts the counterweight sweeps back into a brick-lined space called a bascule chamber.

You can’t stand inside the bascule chamber while this happens otherwise you’d get squashed by the counterweight, although admittedly such an end would have a certain cinematic extravagance to it: “No Mr Bond, I expect you to die”. But there are two gantries high up inside the chamber where you can stand out of harm’s way and from there I made the recording. Here’s the view from the gantry:

This is how the recording turned out:

As soon as I heard the descending bass tone near the start, putting me in mind of Krzysztof Penderecki’s composition Kosmogonia, and then the unhurried, grand and impersonal procession through the bridge’s mechanical duty-cycle, I knew I’d got a second helping of good fortune after the people running Tower Bridge had kindly agreed to let me record there.

The lucky streak continued when the composer Iain Chambers contacted me last year asking if he could use the recording as the basis for a musical performance. I’d already heard and enjoyed some of his work and so was very happy for him to press ahead with this. Iain’s hard work since then is about to reach fruition with two public concerts inside one of Tower Bridge’s bascule chambers on the 26th and 27th of September as part of the Totally Thames festival. I should let you know now that they’re both sold out but they will be recorded live with a view to some form of public release.

I caught up with Iain recently to ask him some questions about the concert and his work in general. He’s on the right in the picture below, with the sound artist and musician Robin The Fog on the left, who that day was putting together a feature on the concert for BBC World Service:

You’ve been preparing for these concerts in Tower Bridge for the best part of a year now. What exactly have you been doing during that time?

I started off by listening to your recording of Tower Bridge lifting and thinking: ‘This sounds like brass players at various points’. That was my first thought, that it would be a piece for field recordings and brass players. The problem I had early on is that essentially the recording you made is a complete thing. It’s a piece of music with a start. a middle and an end. The main thing I struggled with was trying not to mess it up, because I’d be very happy just listening to the recording on its own. I thought first of all, given a captive audience and some brass players, I’m going to score out and transcribe what the bridge is doing. I listened to the recording and transcribed it for trombones and brass, literally just playing what the bridge is doing.

At one point I was going to go down the route where the bridge and the brass were doing the same thing at the same time, so it would be completely synchronised. But I’m glad I moved away from that and thought what I actually want to do is use the harmonic language of the bridge, just the notes it plays, as the palette for the brass. I like working with creative restrictions where you find something and you don’t mess with it, you use that as the restriction.

So the frame for this was the notes that the bridge played. For the vast majority of the piece that’s all the brass are allowed to play, only the bridge notes. We begin with the recording of the bridge itself exactly as it was, gradually the brass is introduced playing sympathetically with it. Then there’s a section where it’s a bit more musique concrete, so I’ve worked with the recordings a little bit, and changed the pitch perhaps or applied a bit of effects.

Essentially it’s not the raw field recording any more, it’s slightly removed from that, and there’s a melody which comes through which I subsequently realised it sounds a bit like a Górecki symphony but that was accidental! The brass would have come back in and then they get their own solo. There’s two trombones and two trumpets, all players from the Docklands Sinfonia. They carry on with the restricted palette of bridge notes and then there’s a big peak where they modulate away from the bridge, a break for freedom of the brass.

It actually sounds like what I imagine Victorian brass music to be like, and I didn’t do this deliberately either. Then they gradually come out of that and the bridge comes back in and closes the piece down.

How many musicians and vocalists are we talking about in total?

For that piece, Bascule Chambers, there’s four brass players and a conductor, all from the Docklands Sinfonia. Prior to that the brass players will have played a fanfare with the same configuration, and in between those pieces there are two more for the soprano Catherine Carter. The first is John Cage’s Aria, which I think he would have quite enjoyed hearing in this space because there’s a lot of offstage sounds.

The next piece is a new one I’ve written called Three Poems which has three river-related poems set in very different periods for the soprano Catherine Carter alongside boat-based field recordings which I’ve been working with. There are foghorns, you hear the creaking of a cabin and underwater recordings of boat engines as well. I wanted to write a piece which didn’t support harmonically the singer in any way, which is generally the opposite of what you do. I wanted it to be the melody with the soprano and field recordings, and just see what happened in that space which has a lot of environmental sounds going on at the same time.

On that theme, you must have listened and performed in many different concert spaces and environments. How does the bascule chamber compare with them and what kind of challenges and opportunities has it presented?

It most closely resembles a very large church or a cathedral. It’s brick and there are no soft furnishings at all, very hard echoes. There’s a two to three second reverberation time which you quickly get used to. If you’re up close you can hear someone talking but if they move about 15 to 20 feet away then it’s very difficult to hear them because there are so many reflections going on in there. And there’s the sound of boats going past, slightly above your head, and road traffic above your head as well.

So it’s got that same sort of ambience as a religious space, plus it’s got that separation from the world which you get when you got into a city church, for instance. You’re in the city but you’re not in the city at the same time. This has exactly that as well but with these river-based sounds, road-based sounds and occasionally gulls, cormorants and people as well which you hear from this weird vantage point where you’re below the action but still engaged with it.

One thing I wanted to do in all of these pieces is to encourage the audience to treat the environmental sounds they’re hearing as part of the concert. All the pieces work with the sound of the space deliberately. The brass fanfare is designed around about forty percent silence so the decay of the brass sounds through the space, coloured by the space, with all these off-stage sounds as well.

Is this in the tradition of musique concrete and is that a tradition which has developed seamlessly or are new generations continually discovering it for themselves?

Some of the pieces in this concert are more in the tradition of musique concrete than others. It also feels to me like there’s a lot of goodwill towards the sort of obsolete devices which were used for musique concrete. I’m part of Langham Research Centre and we’ve witnessed first-hand when we’ve used tape machines and sine-wave oscillators and things like that it gets a particularly kindly response from audiences who feel we’ve lost some things as we’ve progressed into digital culture, and those technologies had good things about them which we should continue with if we possibly can.

It’s pretty perverse to use that technology to make music but groups like Howlround and Langham Research Centre both use tape because of the richness of the sound and also the fact it’s got personality which is variable. The machines have personalities and they are not reliable. You turn them on on a particular day - it will do something different. You could say digital technology also responds differently now and then but not in anywhere near as interesting a way.

Is it also more appealing from the performer’s point of view , because you’re giving the audience something more interesting to look at than somebody pressing buttons on a laptop?

Absolutely. It looks like they could be doing their tax return for all you know. With tape you’re physically seeing sounds going round and some of that connects much better with what you’re hearing. I think people like that and, with Howlround for instance, using very long tape loops, it extends into the audience space blurring the lines between where the stage is and where the audience is sitting. It’s invading that space with the medium of sound, which is a brilliant thing. I also think people are embracing field recording, and that must partly be due to the digital revolution because it’s easier to make longer recordings and make them available. There are a lot of good things about where we’re at with digital culture but there’s no law saying we have to favour one over the other. Both can co-exist.

After Tower Bridge, what have you got planned next?

Almost the day after I have to start work on a 25-minute piece for German radio made up out of the obsolete industrial sounds of Germany. They’ve commissioned a hörspiel [radio play] for which my first question to them was, Do you want any speech in the program to be in English or German? They very seriously replied to me, We prefer there to be no speech at all. Coming from a BBC background that was music to my ears, literally. So this is going to contain no speech, it’ll be the obsolete sounds of Germany which have been recorded by a pan-European project Work With Sounds that’s trying to document the vulnerable or endangered sounds of the whole of Europe country by country.

Anything else?

With Langham Research Centre we’re doing a couple of interesting things. One is a concert piece about and around the work of Nikola Tesla. He was influential in so many ways and we can all agree he invented radio, not Marconi, and so to us he’s a really fascinating figure. There are lots of nice human stories about him. When he was in his dotage in the Waldorf Hotel in New York he was obsessed with pigeons to the point where he allowed one or two of them to live in his room and were his real companions towards the end. I think this will be premiered in the summer of 2016.

The other thing we’re doing is a response to Evelyn Waugh’s novel The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold for Radio 3, which is going to be with Peter Blegvad who we’ve worked with quite a lot. That’s going to be a radiophonic drama in which we go on a journey with our protagonist, a never-ending train journey, so we’re going to use the sounds of trains going through history up to the modern day and using the train in culture as a reference point as well. That’ll mostly be made on tape.

More news and details of Iain’s work can be found on his website.

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