The atmospherics begin outside the venue, standing in the shadow of one of the enormous gothic towers of Sir Horace Jones’s bridge, and then there is a short but vertiginous descent to the bascule chamber itself – the venue isn’t – couldn’t be – suitable for those with disabilities. The descent is accompanied by a collage of sounds recorded above and below the bridge – there is a voiceover but the acoustics make it difficult to grasp more than intermittent words. We descend slowly to below the level of the Thames.
The chambers – there are four – are the spaces below the bridge into which sink the bascules – the parts of the road above the river – when the bridge is opened to allow vessels to pass through. We’re assured that this won’t be happening during the concert but we’re advised not to loiter when it has finished. Indeed.
When we reach it, the cavernous chamber is simply extraordinary, smelling faintly of oil and the movement of the hundred odd years since the bridge’s construction. The audience is confronted by a steeply stepped wall that arcs upwards mimicking – of course – the mighty mechanism that will pull the roads up above the river. The seats are closely packed but the leg room is good. While the space is lit low your eyes accustom quickly so that, in increasing detail as the concert progresses, you can appreciate the engineered space as a work of art in itself.
The first piece in the concert, Handel on the Thames, has been composed for the space and is played by members of the Langham Research Centre. It combines recorded sounds from across London with synthesised notes and shreds of Handel’s Water Music, a piece that like The Four Seasons has become over-familiar and, as Max Richter has done with Vivaldi’s work, is ripe for re-composition.
While the reverberations initially are a little abrasive, the whirling and whorling soundscape creates a symphony to the river, rising and falling like the tide and connecting the audience through space and time to the mighty river.
Before the second piece of music, the Zambian poet Kayo Chingonyi reads Guy’s & St Thomas’s, a lightly humorous poem about memory and loss, gently evoking the history of the area and the flow of the river. The second piece is Steve Reich’s New York Counterpoint, played by the clarinetist Kate Romano. The fluttering but purposeful music is perfectly suited to the space, resonating against the heavy blankness of the wall and calling to mind not New York but of course London and the relentless march of feet and wheels across the bridge.
Chingonyi contributes a second poem, A Body of Water, playfully highlighting the construction and de-construction that seems never-ending in London, and the transience of graffiti and advertising, ignored and unvalued by history.
For the final piece within the chamber, Romano and the duo representing the Langham Research Centre combine, literally and in terms of their musical approaches, to produce Music for Clarinet in a Resonant Chamber, winding together synthesised and acoustic sound to produce a celebration of the whole of the river, extending far beyond the confines of the space and travelling the Thames from the source to the sea.
Finally, after we have left the chamber we are invited to linger on the stairwell and, looking down, to experience If the Sea Could Speak, a piece for double bass and one singer, Coco Mbassi; not helped by an enormous spotlight that made it difficult to bear looking down from above, the music and vocals felt oddly disconnected to the rest of the concert though it was laudable to treat the stairwell as a necessary component of the venue.
The bascule chamber concerts, now in their third year, provide a rare opportunity to see and appreciate this most hidden of London’s many hidden spaces and to appreciate the engineering genius of the Victorian age. In its twentieth year, the Thames Festival Trust continues to find new and exciting ways to connect Londoners and visitors to the beating, flowing heart of this great city.
Review by Louis Mazzini
Submerge yourself under the River Thames to experience composer and curator Iain Chamber’s three major new works in this atmospheric subterranean Victorian space this September. This year’s concerts also feature spoken word performances and an immersive sound walk exploring London’s greatest hidden space.
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