There are chambers underneath London’s Tower Bridge, two of which house the huge counterweights that minimise the force needed to lift each of its bascules – the two leaves that open to let tall vessels pass underneath. When the leaves are lowered, the bascule chambers are left empty, with the counterweights suspended above (all still underground). The space of these remaining chambers reverberates and echoes – under Iain Chambers’ careful guidance, they form a perfect acoustical setting for some intriguing sonic creation. As part of the Totally Thames 2017 annual celebration, the Bascule Chamber Concerts provide a physical and musical space for the exploration of sound and a celebration of the river Thames.
There is something simultaneously unnerving and relaxing about the venue. Under one of London’s most well-known landmarks, there is the very tangible realisation that this concert is directly beneath two huge, suspended weights. It’s suffocating and stifling. Yet as we enter the chamber itself, we hear the first of the performances trickling through the background. Langham Research Centre (comprised of electronic performers Iain Chambers, Philip Tagney and Robert Worby) pipe in background noise – it’s both the hustle & bustle of humanity crossing the bridge and the serenity of the river lapping against its supporting pillars. The performers distort these sounds and layer them in complex patterns atop excerpts from Handel’s Water Music, which celebrates its 300th anniversary. The result is instantly calming – it reverberates around the space with peaceful fluidity. Our nervousness quickly subsides among the harmonics of a Baroque classic and the grating buzz of the everyday.
Bascule Chamber Concerts capitalises on the feeling surrounding this echo chamber, a duality between the river’s nature and the manmade influences that have affected its existence over the years. Kayo Chingonyi’s two spoken word pieces (Guy’s & St Thomas’ and A Body of Water) bubble along with a slow metre, both sanguine and languishing in their depictions of life on the riverbanks. As the water is the essence of life, so too are the people the essence of London. Coco Mbassi’s If The Sea Could Speak imagines a combination of the two, conversations that may or may never have happened among immigrants on the boats as they enter London for the first time. For this performance, we look down onto her vocals and Serge Ngando’s rich double bass as they combine into a heady, purple construct that laments and cries out at a shared history. It’s a unique perspective on a living performance, improvisations that change with each rendition.
The highlight of the concert is Kate Romano’s controlled, expressive and experimental clarinet playing. We first let Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint wash over us, a combination of Romano’s live performance with pre-recorded material. Reich is renowned for introducing minimalism to the classical world; this piece is the epitome of his simplistic style that lets the harmonics of the instrument create the colour. The complex construction that comes forth from layering the same instrument and the same performer over and over in a loop style is of the utmost purity – Romano’s sound is crystal clear as it bounces off the stony walls of the chamber. Combined with Ulf Pedersen’s lighting design, Romano conveys warmth in her playful rendition, a series of open-ended motifs that invite us in with a quizzical, questioning attitude.
It’s a cleverly commissioned contrast to Romano and Langham Research Centre’s co-written piece, Music for Clarinet in a Resonant Chamber. Here we are treated to a Handel-inspired melodic line, the tonal version of a plainchant that is then not only distorted by electronic means, but by Romano’s changing embouchure and manipulation of the clarinet itself. Clicks, breathy tones and varied timbres sharply crash off the chamber walls before being electronically deconstructed in a piece that leans towards the distorted side of comforting. There is just enough of the familiar for the audience to lean towards the contemporary with interest, rather than shy away from its strange presence.
The Bascule Chamber Concerts are a truly contemporary expression of what it means to break apart sound and reassemble it with novel, often uncomfortable results. But it also pays homage to a river that has become the lifeblood of our nation’s capital and a composer whose work has in many ways acted as the lifeblood for classical musical progression. The subterranean nature of the event only serves to remind us of the ever-changing landscape that exists above, ebbing and flowing along with the river that has fed us for so many centuries.
Curator: Iain Chambers; Rita Ray; Max Reinhardt
Producer: Totally Thames 2017
Composers: Langham Research Centre; George Frederic Handel; Kayo Chingonyi; Steve Reich; Kate Romano; Coco Mbassi
Design: Ulf Pedersen (lighting)
Musicians: Iain Chambers; Philip Tagney; Robert Worby; Kayo Chingonyi; Kate Romano; Coco Mbassi; Serge Ngando; David Lefeber
Image courtesy of Gabor Gergely Photography
Bascule Chamber Concerts played in Tower Bridge until 24 September 2017. For more information or to book tickets, please visit the website.