What would London's tube map sound like? One composer decided to find out

The double-bass part from “London, he felt fairly certain, had always been London". Image: Ewan Campbell.

I'm not saying CityMetric is obsessed with tube maps. I'm just saying that, if you did a Venn diagram of regular readers, and people who own a well-thumbed copy of Mark Ovenden's excellent “Metro Maps of The World,” there'd be more overlap than the Circle and District lines.

But here's a question that's not yet been answered by either that book or this site: what would the tube map sound like?

Composer Ewan Campbell decided to find out: teaming up with contemporary music ensemble The Hermes Experiment, he’s used the distinctive map as a way to create a piece of music based on Harry Beck's iconic diagram. “London, he felt fairly certain, had always been London” – yes, the title is a 1984 reference – had its world première at the Cockpit Theatre in Marylebone on Tuesday.

“Writing map scores is something I've been exploring for a little while,” composer Campbell tells me. His previous effort, “The Following,” took the players on a journey across an American grid-style city layout.

This one takes the audience on the tube – with some minor tweaks. “My version of Zone 1 doesn't have any dead ends,” he confesses, having joined up Vauxhall and Waterloo, to make the transitions from one musical snippet to the next easier.

The way it works is simple. Each musician has a tube map in front of them, with notes instead of the station names. Each station is a musical fragment of between two and 20 seconds, which should more or less work with all the other pieces. (Everything is in a slightly altered Phrygian mode of F, since you asked.)

The Hermes Experiment has a double bass, clarinet, harp and soprano, so the resulting music sounds weird but beautiful (much like taking the Metropolitan Line all the way to the end). Each performer goes on their own journey, listening to each other to make the piece work. They can only go to adjacent stations, and play what they find there. So, as Campbell explains, “the music is written, but the piece is improvised.”

 

An extract from the Soprano part. Image: Ewan Campbell.

The musicians decided to start at King's Cross for their performance, and followed Campbell's instruction to “race around as quickly as you can. The Piccadilly Line has a long, slow melody for the double bass; the harp has a series of wide chords along the Bakerloo Line; and the clarinet blasts out multiphonics on the Northern.

To make the whole thing even more of a London soup, the singer's stations consist of extracts from poems and songs about the capital. As well as getting recommendations from friends, the composer used Poetry Atlas to match extracts to places. (Anyone looking to be productive at work should avoid this website, which literally puts poetry on the map: by clicking on pins, you can see which poems mention your corner of London, or even the world beyond).


The final piece includes Wordsworth’s sunrise reverie on Westminster Bridge; D.H. Lawrence’s outcasts sleeping under a bridge; and several extracts from poems by Will Hatchett. In terms of prose, there's Charles Dickens at Charing Cross, bits of Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Pepys’ diary about the great fire in 1666.

Héloïse Werner, who sung her way round London Bridge, and mainly stayed south of the river on the night, said it had been great fun working on the piece. “In the first rehearsal, we started at Bank, and said we'd meet at Marylebone in ten minutes,” she recalls. “Now, when we walk around the city we hear pitch and noise everywhere.”

London, he felt fairly certain, had always been London,” wasn't the only transport-related piece in the programme. The audience also heard a work in progress about your correspondent's favourite high-speed rail link: “Eurostar, Velaro” by Stevie Wishart is based on the sounds of the train going between London and Brussels, complete with a soprano making “choo choo” noises, and a bass clarinet with paper attached with bulldog clips (bizarrely, it sounds just like the tremble of catenary wires). 

London fans also got to hear a piece by Jethro Cooke which involved the ensemble playing over ambient sound recordings of the city – including everything from the creaking lifting mechanism of Tower Bridge to the sound of dropping large objects in car parks and tunnels. I'll never hear the city the same way again.

 
 
 
 

On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.