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.

 
 
 
 

Podcast: Beyond the wall, with John Lanchester

A sea wall in Japan. Image: Getty.

This week it’s another live episode, of sorts. In early April I was lucky enough to chair an event at the Cambridge Literary Festival with the journalist and novelist John Lanchester.

John was mostly there to promote his latest novel, The Wall, a “cli-fi” book about a Britain trundling on after catastrophic climate change has wiped out much of the planet. In the past he’s also written about other vaguely CityMetric-y topics like the housing crisis and the tube - so he’s a guest I’ve been hoping to get on for a while, and was kind enough to allow us to record our chat for posterity and podcasting purposes.

Incidentally, I didn’t find a way of turning the conversation to the tube. We do lose ten minutes to talking about Game of Thrones, though.

The episode itself is below. You can subscribe to the podcast on AcastiTunes, or RSS. Enjoy.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.