Illuminated River have commissioned new music inspired by London, Cannon Street, Southwark and Millennium bridges from composers at Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
The title of my piece, ‘Alight’, is a reference to switching on the lights at Cannon Street for the first time, and also to the experience of stepping off a train at night into Cannon Street railway station. The first half of the piece consists of a surging wave of momentum which begins with a bright, sweeping texture. I was struck by the intensity of Leo Villareal’s Illuminated River colours, including warm pinks, purples and fiery oranges. The flurry of high-pitched activity in the opening was so constructed that the listener catches glimpses of woodwind or violin melody, or the sharp ring of a string harmonic arising from the texture, like a ray of light might suddenly penetrate. Villareal’s drifting bands of colour also reminded me of the experience of travelling on a train at night: lights in the surrounding landscape fly pass and come into and out of view or are momentarily obscured by the other features in a landscape.
After the initial high-pitched activity the music gradually descends into a dark, rich sound world with swirling rhythmic torrents and under-currents. Again inspired by Illuminated River, this was intended to represent the murky, blackening depths of water below the bridge, juxtaposed with the glimmering lights above and the sheening reflections on the water’s surface.
The piece’s structure, which, after building to this climax of activity, begins thinning out and fragmenting in the second half, intends to depict stepping off the night train and arriving into the flurry of pedestrian activity in Cannon Street station. Once on the platform one has to negotiate a busy space, moving quickly, changing direction frequently, darting around suitcases to avoid tripping over, catching glimpses of conversations, passing through ticket barriers into central London. Although harmonically the music is all derived from a small palette of material, structurally the music follows a straight trajectory, ending abruptly with an inconclusive atmosphere–once someone steps off the bridge into London they are faced with a city of possibilities.
My piece was predominantly composed on-site, on the bank of Cannon Street Bridge. Taking the compositional process outside of the studio, and on to the banks of the Thames, was essential in creating an authentic piece of music that stays true to the vision of Leo Villareal and Illuminated River. Throughout, the piece is punctuated with field recordings that provide subtle nods to the rich history that surrounds Cannon Street Bridge: Its location, purpose and interaction with pedestrians, transport, technology, business and leisure. The composition becomes a musical timeline, taking you on a journey. My final submission blends these field recordings and electronics with a live orchestra.
The lighting of a match, the flicker of a candle; Cannon Street comes alive with the rich sights and sounds of 17th Century London. History is embedded in the Thames and its bridges, and Candelwrichstrete (the ‘street of candle makers’ after which Cannon Street takes its name, first noted in 1190) is remembered once again.
I would sit by the bridge and observe the sights and sounds. River traffic, the clatter of pedestrian feet, the ebb and flow of the tide, the cooing of resident pigeons, local joggers flowing along the bankside. I have used the orchestral forces in such a way that they mimic and interact with the traffic of the bridge. The sound of trains is simulated by the constant motion of the string section imitating the chugging sound of a steam train. The Thames flowing underneath is mimicked with gradually intensifying brass section crescendos, creating waves of sound that dynamically rise and fall. The sound of ticking clocks, the importance of time; the role of the bridge in the modern working day. A ringing telephone, a busy lobby in times gone by and suddenly the City Terminus Hotel that once stood on the north side of the bridge is brought back to life.
Inspired by the rich history and diversity surrounding Cannon Street and the bridge itself, I wanted to create a piece of music that would encapsulate Villareal’s vision of a Thames brought to life by light and colour; the hub of London, Illuminated from dusk to dawn, breathing life into an area that would otherwise dim into insignificance as day turns to night.
I was drawn to Cannon Street Bridge as a subject for composition due to the number of transitions that it represents. The geographical: a transition from the open-air railway system of residential south London to the Underground and the corporate world of the City. The temporal: the constant exchange of railway traffic, the many physical changes that Cannon Street Bridge has undergone over the last century, and the gradually changing hues of the lights that Villareal will introduce. I was also intrigued by how, despite its size and centrality, the bridge is almost invisible in the minds of the thousands that walk the South Bank every day, due to its functional design and the fact that it isn’t a footbridge.
I have written a meditative and atmospheric work that utilises the orchestra to translate the transitions associated with Cannon Street Bridge into a gradual change between two musical soundworlds. The processes that guides this change is directly determined or influenced by the physical and organisational properties of the bridge. Change happens gradually over the course of the piece in such a way that there would be no definitive moment where a listener could identify the movement from one world to the other, just as one is unable to identify the single moment when an evening sky changes from blue to red. I have tried to achieve this through the staggered and subtle changing of different elements of the music, principally the orchestration and the harmony but also the texture and dynamics; when and how these changes happen relate to the properties of the bridge.
The lateral progression from one musical world to another complements Villareal’s plan for Cannon Street which focuses on the horizontal, linear aspects of the bridge.