New Music for the Illuminated River Bridges: London Bridge
Illuminated River have commissioned new music inspired by London, Cannon Street, Southwark and Millennium bridges from composers at Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
At 4am, London Bridge is a calm and almost silent place, the antithesis of its bombastic, bustling and boisterous daytime state. I wanted my music to fuse the familiar with the unfamiliar, creating a new perspective on this landscape. The piece is a soundtrack for anyone who takes the time to reflect and be mesmeric in a city where things are always happening and people are always doing.
Musically, I incorporated the beginning motif of the popular nursery rhyme “London Bridge is Falling Down” repeatedly in the Clarinet solo, and I recorded a repeating xylophone motif that embodies Leo Villareal’s illuminated lights throughout.
I have been keen to create a piece of music that gives insight into a forever changing landscape. A buzzing city, an adaptive space, a flowing river cutting through grand city high-rises. I walked the Thames Path at many different hours of the day to record various sounds that inspired me. One of these was a busker playing a ‘lap-tap percussive’ guitar which I decided to implement as a percussive feature into the latter stages of the piece.
My intention with using hybrid instrumentation (a mix of electronic and acoustic instruments) was to bring forward the idea of the timeless and the ever-changing around the London Bridge area. By using instruments such as a xylophone, I not only wanted to replicate the sonic idea of light ‘twinkling’ on the river, I wanted to bring an innocent essence of how we come to know London Bridge via the nursery rhyme.
The Brass introduction represents the city, rising proud. The Clarinet is the voice of London Bridge. As the instrumentation develops, there is a sense of growth as the city expands and becomes greater. The electronics used lend themselves to the imagination. There is an element of future-gazing, and they also represent the present. Of course, it’s impossible to acknowledge a bridge, in any sense, without an understanding of the River Thames. The stillness and slowness of the river was a predominant inspiration for the character of this piece altogether. The slower, legato moving strings are at the very core throughout - just as the River Thames operates as the backbone of London.
When we think about a famous bridge, we usually think about the tip of the iceberg. What does the bridge look like? Is it busy today? But the bridge’s stone souls keep secrets inside, more memories than all who cross them will ever have.
London Bridge holds a story that is older than seven centuries. There has been a bridge at this site for as long as there has been a city of London: Viking crossings, Roman crossings, the renowned medieval crossing brimming with buildings. Still today, some of the old London Bridge granite footings remain inside its stone foundations. Through my piece, NEMO, I want the passengers to descend step by step down into the past of the bridge, the slow waves of strings from the orchestra transporting them into the deepest depths of the Thames. Under the bridge, where it is hiding its memories, they meet the ancestors of yesterday, still living inside the old stones and the deep waters of the river.
The name NEMO is a direct reference to the fictional character created by the French author Jules Verne, exploring the deep waters in Verne's novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) – a parallel to how I would like to explore the memories of London Bridge.
The strings have been conducted by a special movement of two hands imitating the movement of someone swimming, offering a new chord, a new colour at each stroke. Every chord is harmonically bringing us deeper by its complexity, as if we are swimming deeper into the memories of the bridge.
Under the waves of the strings are hidden sound archives of the last decades such as trains passing near the bridge, interviews recorded on the bridge, and the Queen opening the present day bridge in 1973. These archives are not meant to be decipherable but present to us the past of London Bridge, frozen in its stone, its water, indelible. The last archive is a recording from April 2019, as a come-back to our modern world after time travelling into the deep...
When I learned that I was assigned to London Bridge, I went there and made several recordings of the blowing wind. A collage of these recordings was then spectrally analysed. The opening of my piece is based on this analysis, where the whole orchestra simulates a loud wind texture. The gestures that can be found in this opening can also be found throughout the piece. While the wind recording is more random and chaotic as the piece goes on, everything else becomes more organised, before breaking down to chaos at the end again. There are other sections that simulate sounds of London Bridge such as traffic, rapidly passing cars and beating down rain.
After learning about the Illuminated River Project, and as I was writing this piece, I thought about bridges both literally and metaphorically as means of connections between coasts, people and nations. Many people’s “bridges” into the UK are at risk now and I also reflected on my own struggle of trying to navigate a brutally difficult visa application (which arrived much later than the supposed date) and the fear of not being able to go to university – similar to many more students and people from other countries. I wanted to express this communal anxiety/trauma through the music. My title roughly translates to “to burn ones bridges” which represents the loss of connection between people and the loss of access. It is not, however, meant to be grim or frightening music. I wanted this piece to be a reflection of the past, so embedded in London Bridge, and a representation of hope for the future.
A Sound Collector’s Guide
My piece draws on the practice of meditation using a recorded, talking guide. While walking over London Bridge, I considered how I might distil the sonic experience of this place. I eventually decided that I would not be able to, since there is no substitute more compelling than the sounds themselves. Equally, I think there is nothing much more compelling than experiencing the sounds as they occur naturally. A recording would not suffice.
With this in mind, I wrote and recorded a narration intended to encourage travellers to, first, notice the sounds of the bridge consciously and, secondly, to dig deeper into the sounds.
I find the act of travelling can be both energising and soothing. It can involve or lead to new experiences. It can be active. But one may also feel lifted of responsibility. Because often, your activity is restricted, compared with moments you are not travelling.
In the London Bridge area, the transition to passivity from activity, and back, seems incredibly great since there is so much to interact with on either side of the bridge, yet little as you cross it. You’re straddled by The Monument and The Shard. Yet, as you walk across London Bridge, you may find yourself experiencing serenity. And this is what I hope my piece may aid people in finding.