The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website


LIVE REPORT: Tower Bridge Bascule Chamber Concert
John Doran , October 14th, 2015 07:47

Against his better judgement John Doran goes to watch classical music in a "monstrously huge, 1,000 ton garlic crusher" inside Tower Bridge. Photo gallery by Maria Jefferis

I did not know that death had undone so many. And here they are - the bloody lot of them - all trying to exit Unreal City at the same time. It’s exactly 6pm on a Friday. The buses are jammed. Tube trains are held at red lights before pulling in to overcrowded platforms - too packed for people to get in or out of carriages. The streets seethe with commuters vainly attempting to head home for the evening. The traffic is moving at a snail’s pace. It’s sheer luck I get to Tower Bridge’s south east corner control room at the allotted time. I arrive at the door just as the last of the invited people are disappearing inside the structure of the bridge and I rush inside to join them.

London sloughs off approximately one million people every evening - it bleeds out into the home counties and beyond, before sucking all the suckers back in again the very next day. Today’s Metro carries a story about a student who commutes to a London university from Poland because it saves him money. Tonight's evacuees are crawling home as if the very life has been kicked out of them. The only thing moving this evening with any kind of speed - or with any kind of purpose at all - is the mighty Isis herself. The sandy banks of the Thames bifurcate London and it flows like quicksilver between them, draining out toward the estuary. As it happens the river has done its job thoroughly. It’s at its lowest ebb. But as low as the surface of the river is; tonight we must go down even further, into the foundations and workings of the bridge itself.

Tower Bridge, which opened in 1894, is both a suspension and bascule structure - the latter meaning it can open up two leaves to let tall ships pass upriver. Up until 1976 the bridge generated its own hydraulic power via coal powered boilers, which in turn powered giant steam engines, used to swing the leaves (each weighing 1,000 tons) upwards on pivots. On each side, only two thirds of the moving part of the bridge is visible. The other third - the counterweight - sits under the road surface and disappears down into the structure of the bridge - or the bascule chamber - when in open position. And it’s down into the southern bascule chamber we’re going today.

The time of tonight’s concert was changed at the last minute because of a need for the bridge to be raised later. Nothing can be done about it. Everyone must fit round the bridge’s schedule. And I mean everyone. When Bill Clinton was in the UK in May 1997, on a presidential visit to meet Tony Blair, the pair left Le Pont De La Tour restaurant later than planned and the POTUS motorcade was cut summarily in two by the rising bascule leaves. Cue much screaming into cuff radios by angry secret service men in mirror shades and red-faced, bullet-headed security staff, impotent with rage. A spokesman for Tower Bridge said, "We tried to contact the American Embassy, but they wouldn't answer the phone.” So much for our special relationship.

Tonight is the first time members of the public have been allowed down into the bascule chamber for any kind of performance and the event must run smoothly. If we are all squashed flat as if trapped inside a monstrously huge, 1,000 ton garlic crusher, I dare say Arts Council England will probably look quite dimly on future applications for funding. There cannot be a repeat - or should I say, there cannot be an inverse - of the Gunter Incident. In December 1952, the bridge started lifting while a Number 78 bus heading for Shoreditch was driving across it. Driver Albert Gunter floored the accelerator and ended up clearing a three foot gap to land on the other side. No one was injured and he was awarded a £10 bonus for bravery.

The control room leads onto a spiral staircase which then opens up into what appears to be an MC Escher painting with an iron staircase heading off down into the innards of Tower Bridge’s southern pier at angles that don’t make any sense whatsoever. Then we walk down a long corridor and step out into the bottom of a huge and echoing chamber with a flat wall behind us and a steep curving staircase of brick steps in front of us. As our eyes adjust to the low light we can see that the ceiling is actually a huge, metal, 400 ton counterweight on a pivot and the space we’re now occupying is simply designed to occupy that huge metal swing lid. I look at the perfectly curved grooves down either wall and work out that even if the bridge opens unexpectedly, as long as I lie down on the floor I will be fine but I am guessing the experience, should it happen, would be deeply traumatising, not to mention unbearably noisy.

The first of four pieces performed tonight, ‘Hoketus Prima’, a brassy fanfare, composed by Iain Chambers of the excellent and resourceful musique concrete collective Langham Research Centre, is played by musicians up and out of sight on gantries just under the weighty and slightly threatening looking bascule lid. This allows the handful of people in the guts of the bridge (there are as many people working on this production tonight than there are watching it) to concentrate fully on appreciating the strange acoustic properties of the space. An unexpected, erratic, low BPM, click-clack rhythm is provided by cars driving slowly overhead.

Then after a short silent break it turns out that the very serious looking woman sitting next to me wearing white overalls is not one of the staff of the bridge but in fact mezzo-soprano Catherine Carter when she launches into ‘Aria’ by John Cage - a difficult piece written for Cathy Berberian in 1958. The lyrics, such as they are, are a jumble of vowel sounds and consonants, as well as whole words in Armenian, Russian, Italian, French and English, not to mention whooping, whistling, laughing and barking like a dog.

The third piece is another Iain Chambers composition, ‘Three Poems', which again utilises Catherine Carter, being a piece for mezzo soprano and field recordings of an aqueous nature. The watery splish-splashes reverberate round the chamber until you could swear the river was slowly seeping into the concert chamber. The lyrics - this time simply sung in English - concern various rivers and are drawn from ‘On The Queen’s Repairing Somerset House’ by Abraham Cowley (1668), ‘The Bridge To Brooklyn Bridge’ by Hart Crane (1930) and ‘I Felt A Funeral In My Brain’ by Emily Dickinson (1862).

Finally the brass quintet (three trumpets and two trombones), assembled from the ranks of the Docklands Sinfonia, descend from their gantries and line up in front of us for one last piece composed by Chambers. It is played in conjunction with a field recording taken from this very space, of the counterweight swinging down. The creaking, clanking metallic groaning noise - the audio ghost of the bridge itself captured by London Sound Survey - is actually a fine counterbalance to the brass composition and both are bonded even further by the reverberant properties of the space itself. In the end though the terrific drones of the field recording win out and close down a fascinating, inimitable and all too short musical bill. But there is no time to sit and revel in this all too unusual space. We have to leave quick sharp as the bridge waits for no one.