New Music for the Illuminated River Bridges: Southwark 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.
Leo Villareal’s vision for the lighting of this bridge is very subtle and organic. It involves using shifting hues of Impressionistic colours, limited to the underside of the bridge, which are reminiscent of golden sunrises and sunsets. My idea is to work closely with Ravel’s Jeu D’eau, written for piano in 1921. The whole tone harmony, subtle changes of colour and the Impressionistic portrayal of flowing water are aspects of the piece I’d like to explore.
I took passages from the piece and created short loops with them, distributed over four pianos. Rather than a static texture, I tried to imitate the flow of the river by gradually adding and taking away notes, so that the piece has a sense of movement and direction. I very much like the quote Ravel added to his score: ‘A river god laughing as the water tickles him...’ and will endeavour to create a gentle, vibrant piece which reflects this quote whilst enhancing the warmth and subtle nature of the illumination.
Increscent for Orchestra
With illumination being the premise for this project, I was instantly drawn to the Southwark bridges relationship with natural light. I found that whilst the Southwark bridge is industrial on the outset, it has an impressionist duality to it. It became apparent that the bridges architecture was unintentionally unique in that it is able to symmetrically reflect itself across the water of the Thames at different points of the day. Especially during the night.
Furthermore, I discovered that this is known as a moon bridge. Which is when a high arch and its reflection form a circle, symbolizing the moon. With these elements combined, one cannot help but be reminiscent of the work of Monet and Van Gogh with an emphasis on the impressionistic reflections across the water.
A challenging aspect of having a visual aesthetic as a stimuli for music, was in capturing this landscape and converting it into a sonic watercolour; a musical Monet, if you like. In addition, I wanted my music to complement Leo Villareal’s light sculpture, that illuminates the Southwark bridge with subtly sophisticated impressionistic hues.
I chose the title Increscent as I felt that it encapsulated the concept of a moon bridge and its relationship with light. In addition, with Leo Villareal’s light sculpture, it amplified the bridges reflection dousing it with waterfalls of colour cascading across the water. In order to capture these shimmering colours in my orchestral piece I used oboe and string melodies with wind chimes and cymbals, juxtaposed by tutti block chord sections to symbolise the rigid reflection of the arches of the bridge itself.
I have drawn upon impressionist composers Ravel and Debussy, as a palette of inspiration that reflects both the inspiring night-time environment surrounding Southwark Bridge, and Leo Villareal’s colours and artistic style for Illuminated River, his warm intertwining textures maintaining a constant feeling of flow and movement. I was inspired by Ravel and Debussy’s methods for creating the vivid imagery of moving water – and I paid particular attention to this in my piece through long legato string phrasing, with arpeggiated undercurrents of movement from violins, cellos and synthesiser.
I also wanted to encapsulate Southwark bridge’s structure and design. A key architectural characteristic is the trident-esque lampposts lining the bridge. I drew inspiration from this feature with the use of repeated triplet and sextuplet phrasing – a reference to the sequence of the ‘three’ lamps on each post. It was also at these moments where I incorporated rising and falling ostinatos, commonly in the strings, to reflect the motion of the water in the Thames below and the rise and fall of the river up and down the bridge’s supports as the tide moves in and out. I exploited this idea of motion throughout my piece, creating reoccurring moments of flow to draw an inseparable link to the river.
I make use of a gentle glockenspiel in a repeated ostinato pattern to immerse the piece in wonder and awe, and reference the twinkle of the stars at night and the city lights, the natural and man-made retrospectively. A particularly interesting development in my compositional process was research into the ‘Frost Fairs’ which took place around Southwark bridge around the mid 17th century. I developed my composition with the idea of the potential Southwark Bridge has always held for joy and wonder.
I also felt it was important to maintain the piece’s relevance to the modern architecture and infrastructure of London, such as the modern skyscrapers and high-rises, seamlessly interwoven with the heritage and history of London’s older buildings, and so incorporated a synthesised arpeggiated pattern which gently fades in and out between the orchestra without dominating the overall texture. A subtle element of the composition is that of the synthesised plucks which flow in and out of the piece at times of growing excitement or climax. I felt an electronic feature was highly appropriate in order to reflect the present day and how electronics can be used to create things of wonder and beauty that still coexist in harmony with the natural world, such as the Illuminated River light installation itself.
Southwark Looking East
On my first visit to Southwark Bridge, I felt a bit foolish. I had made the journey with the hopes of garnering some inspiration from the architecture and visual experience of the bridge, but quickly realised that it was difficult to witness said architecture when one was standing above it. Instead, my eyes were drawn to the buildings surrounding the bridge, to the passing boats in the water below. In doing this, I noticed that one unique feature of this vantage point was the ability to see clearly, from ground level, the rather bizarre array of architectural styles presented along the banks. It allowed one to study the strange lack of chronology, the juxtaposition of centuries old buildings sitting beneath towering contemporary glass structures, while also simply allowing one to "take it in" in the quiet buffer from the city provided by the open air on all sides. I decided that this feeling, this contemplative, introspective sense of ones relationship to the scenery around the bridge, this connectedness to it available only by removing oneself from it temporarily to look at it from slightly afar, was what I wanted to articulate in the composition.
While studying the facades of some of the buildings, I noticed that many of them had distinct rows of horizontal lines, the gaps between which were filled in with windows or other external features. They reminded me of musical staves. I entertained the idea of trying to transcribe the melodies suggested by these features but realized that, while such an exercise would be taking information from the bridge and using it in a composition, this information would not be readily apparent to a listener. Instead, I moved up a layer of abstraction, focusing on the continuity of the skyline itself rather than its constituent elements. I could use information present in the patterns and shapes of the buildings as a whole to generatively produce musical content. This method would closely match Leo Villareal's vision for the project, one that draws inspiration "directly from nature;" nature in this context perhaps being the built environment. It would also elevate ones perception of the bridge from an object of thoroughfare to one of cultural significance, a unique environment from which to reflect on the greater surrounding city.
While on the bridge, I took some panoramic photos looking out across the water, including the near edges of the banks in the field of vision. I pulled one of them into a photo editing software, and began laying a coarse grid over it, dividing it into smaller slices and comparing them to see what variety was present. Upon noticing evidence of continuity created by the collage of buildings, I converted the image to a tricolor reduction, smoothing out the noise in the architectural design and amplifying the macro structures. I then converted this rendering into a traced outline, leaving behind only those macro structural shapes. In this approach, I could isolate individual lines, and treat them as elements of a graphic score that would inform the compositional process. To do this, I divided the outline vertically, placing evenly spaced lines that would correspond to individual beats and subdivisions in a bar, and horizontally, splitting it into slices for different sections of the orchestra, and then narrower slices corresponding to pitch and dynamics ‘channels’ for each instrument. This method not only uses pattern in the skyline as various control parameters for the piece, but in doing so amplifies these patterns, creating a perceived audiovisual experience for a listenener on the bridge. They can scan their head slowly over the skyline while listening to the piece, and hear the music ‘react’ to what they were looking at.
As they look at the buildings on the North bank, they'll hear a collection of dense polyphonies, in line with the "elaborate latticework" of the bridge that Villareal attempts to amplify with the lighting. As their eyes move left and reach the water they will notice a decrease in dynamics. The woodwinds will fall out, the brass settles down slightly, and the lower-end instruments will be temporarily removed. Upon reaching the Shard they'll hear the woodwinds climb back into vertical melodies matching the visual experience of the listener. However, some aesthetic ramifications had to be considered before employing this method. One in particular was the resolution of the pitch axis of each instrument. To make this scale chromatic would result in something that evoked a serialist or expressionistic aesthetic; a desirable effect in some contexts, but not in this one. Villareal cites an inspiration by impressionistic painters, a movement more closely associated with more consonant aesthetics like those in well known pieces by Ravel and Debussy. I elected instead to set a major key (G Major) that maximised the range of the string players, and divided the vertical axis of the pitch cells diatonically, with the top and bottom ranges being defined by lowest and highest diatonic notes in the corresponding instrument's range. Pitches and dynamics at each 16th note were then assigned according to the highest intersection of the skyline outline with the scale.