Mark Bowler: New Music for the Illuminated River Bridges

Illuminated River have commissioned new music inspired by London, Cannon Street, Southwark and Millennium bridges from composers at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. Here, Mark Bowler outlines his vision for Millennium Bridge

To stand in the middle of Millennium Bridge is to feel at the centre of historical and modern London. This, the most juvenile of the central London bridges, connects the megalithic architectural wonders that are St Paul’s Cathedral and Tate Modern and offers views of Tower Bridge juxtaposed against the steel and glass of the City, The Shard and, in the distance, Docklands. It is the bridge that dared to wobble, and its structure will soon be adorned with one of Leo Villareal’s artworks.

Above: panoramic view from Millennium Bridge facing east

Where to begin when considering a piece of music to accompany the artwork on this bridge, surrounded by the enormity of the ages of London? This was the question I had to grapple with when I was offered the opportunity, through Guildhall School of Music & Drama, to compose a piece for Illuminated River.

Bridges imply dyadic relationships: when crossing a river they connect two banks and their reflection in the water they span offers an illusory sense of an above coupled with a distorted below. Once illuminated, the above-below layers of Millennium Bridge will become very apparent, the varying flow of the river and its traffic affecting the distorted texture of the reflected structure. I wanted to bring the idea of layers and paired relationships into the music I would write and began by choosing to utilise two options that were offered to all the composers involved in the project.

We each had access to the Guildhall Session Orchestra for thirty minutes, just about enough time to rehearse and record a four-minute piece of music. Alternatively, we could produce our own recording of a piece of music of similar duration. I decided to write a collection of very short orchestral ‘samples’, which I would then arrange into an electronic composition. This felt like a way of embracing the old and the new: composers have been writing for orchestra since before St Paul’s was conceived, but the technology and software I would use to put together the final piece of music are only about as old as Millennium Bridge.

Above: the recording session with Guildhall Session Orchestra

I wanted my piece to have a sense of above and below, foreground and background, and so chose to write two distinct types of musical materials with contrasting textures. The first texture would be smooth and sustained and its volume would either be constant or would swell and then diminish; this layer would be akin to the river, ebbing and flowing, always present. Above this would sit a pointillistic, staccato texture, very short bursts of sounds clustered together; this representing the illuminated bridge, the above.

You can listen to some examples of these raw materials as recorded by Guildhall Session Orchestra here.

Once the raw materials had been recorded, I took them into my home studio and began the process of composing the final piece of music. Each of the orchestral samples lasted between 5 and 10 seconds and I thought of them as building blocks, but blocks that could be stretched, warped and distorted, much as the river will do for the reflection of the illumination. I gave myself two constraints: first, to use a specific chord structure, one which uses each major and each minor chord once only in a specific order, all the colours of musical tonality set against Leo’s monochrome lighting design; second, to use only the musical materials I recorded with the orchestra.

Above from left to right: a short passage for orchestral brass section; the resultant audio sample; the collage of samples that formed the final piece

I had to keep one eye on the bridge and began looking at various time-lapse and hyper-lapse videos that helped to highlight an aspect of time that can’t be otherwise easily grasped. In the videos, throngs of people mill around and over Millennium Bridge, river traffic wends beneath, and the bridge sits proud and staid, of relative youth, part of a deeper time that exceeds our human lifespan but that contains the buildings and infrastructure that we each rely on day-to-day. I began to shape the piece to reflect these two types of time: short bursts of sound scurrying amongst and over the slower, more stable materials, together describing the overarching harmonic structure of the piece.

Time was also a more immediate consideration as I had little over a week between the orchestral recording session and the submission date in which to compose the final piece of music. There were moments when things felt a little fraught (there are always these moments whenever I am composing – a product of having to constantly make decisions and refine them, I believe), but overall it was a great deal of fun. One of the joys of making music in the electronic domain is that there is constant creative feedback – I both build and hear the piece in real-time, but when writing purely acoustic music I often don’t get to hear my ideas outside of rehearsals and performances. This process of listening whilst composing makes the acts feel like an improvised performance, though with only myself as an audience.

When I began working in the studio, I had no idea what the final piece would sound like outside of the constraints I had set. As I worked in this electronic domain things gradually took shape, as if I was carving a sonic statue, and the piece that has resulted contains element of the two worlds it was born of. It is clearly orchestral, but amongst the manipulated sounds that could conceivably be produced by an orchestra there are others that cannot be produced by acoustic instruments – alien and yet strangely familiar. The line between acoustic and electronic (the old and the new, perhaps) is both bridged and blurred.

The Guildhall School of Music and Drama original compositions are available to listen and download on our website.