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.

 
 
 
 

A warped mirror: on gentrification and deprivation on London’s Caledonian Road

The London Overground crosses Caledonian Road. Image: Claude Lynch.

Capital cities are, more often than not, a focal point for the stark divide between rich and poor – places where the most economically deprived meet the most economically empowered. In London, these divides can be more than stark: they can be close, even intimate, and there are districts where crossing the street can be like entering a different world. One such street is the Caledonian Road.

Known local as “the Cally”, Caledonian Road runs for about a mile and a half, from Kings Cross to the Nags Head junction in Holloway, and was built in 1826 to provide a new arterial route to the north from the West End. At first, developments on the road were sparse; among the first notable buildings were the Royal Caledonian Asylum, which gave the road its name, and H.M. Prison Pentonville.

For some time, the northern half of the road was seen as far removed from central London, which stymied development. It wasn’t until the latter half of the 19th century residential development really got going. By the time Caledonian Road station opened on the Piccadilly line in 1906, the area was flush with Victorian terraces.

These, though, mainly lay on the eastern side. To the west, the proximity of King’s Cross prompted the development of heavy industry, particularly the clay kilns that were helping to build Victorian London proper. The divide had begun:  the east side of the street, the area known as Barnsbury, was notably quieter and calmer than the west side. Ever since the 19th century, the ‘V’ formed by Caledonian Road and York Way has been known for a high incidence of gang violence and social problems.

As in many parts of London, the end of the Second World War brought a chance to start from scratch. Many of the slums to the west of the Cally had been bombed to smithereens, and those that remained still lacked gas and hot water.

But this was the era of municipal dreams: Islington council cleared the slums and constructed the Bemerton Estate. Instead of reflecting the industrial history of the area, the estate reflected Barnsbury back at itself, treating Caledonian Road as some sort of warped modernist mirror. The square gardens of Barnsbury were reimagined as the spaces between the highrises of Bemerton, and this time, they were actually square.

The estate was immediately popular, its open design prompting a renewed sense of community in the west. But it didn’t last.

Square gardens on one side, not-so-square on the other. Image: Google Maps/CityMetric

As far back as the 1950s, Islington had already become synonymous with gentrification. Forty years later, before moving to Downing Street, Tony Blair’s London residence was Barnsbury’s leafy Richmond Crescent. House prices in the area have gone through the roof and now Barnsbury is mainly home to a the professional elite.


At the same time, though, Caledonian Road’s warped mirror has given Bemerton the exact opposite: in spite of attempts to rejuvenate it, downward spiral of deprivation and antisocial behaviour have blighted the estate for some time The promise of inviting square gardens and communal living has been inhibited by crime and poverty; the gardens lie empty, while those in Barnsbury thrive.

The disparity of wealth across Caledonian Road is regrettable. That’s not just because it speaks to a wider segregation of London’s rich and poor – a phenomenon exemplified last year by the Grenfell Tower fire in Kensington & Chelsea, the richest borough in Britain. It’s also because, in the Bemerton Estate, planners had thought they saw an opportunity to offer more Londoners the idyll of square gardens and leafy streets, often reserved for the richest.

It might be too much to claim the estate as a failure; events such as the Cally Festival aim to bring together both sides of the road, while other council programmes such as Islington Reads help to foster a greater sense of neighbourhood.

Road should never divide us; rather, they should unite those who live on either side. The spirit of Caledonian Road should cross the gap – just like the railway bridge that bears its name.