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.

 
 
 
 

How spurious imperial science affected the layout of African cities

Freetown, Sierra Leone. Image: David Hond/Freetown From The Air/Wikimedia Commons.

As the European powers spread across the world, systematically colonising it as they went, one of the deadliest enemies they faced was disease. In 1850s India, one in twenty British soldiers were dying from such diseases – on a par with British Empire casualty rates during World War II.

When Europeans started dropping dead the minute they got off the boat, the scientists of the day rushed to provide their own, at times fairly dodgy, solutions. This era coincided with a key period of city planning in the African colonies – meaning that there is still visible evidence of this shoddy science in the cityscape of many modern African cities.
For a long time altitude was considered a protection against disease, on the grounds that it was far from the lowland heat associated with putrefaction. British officials in India retreated to the ‘hill stations’ during the warm season; this practice continued in the African colonies established by all sorts of European powers in the late 19th century.

So it was that one bunch of imperialists established the capital of German Kamerun at Buea, high on the side of Mount Cameroon. The city still has a population of 90,000 today. Evidence of this height fetish can still be found in the ‘Plateau’ districts of Brazzaville, Dakar and Abidjan as well as the ‘Ridge’ district of Accra.


Malaria, particularly, was an ever present fear in the colonies, and it did much to shape the colonial cities. It’s a sign of the extent to which 19th century medical science misunderstood how the disease was spread that its name comes from the French for ‘bad air’. By the late 19th century, knowledge had managed to progress far enough to identify mosquitoes as the culprits – but views still wildly diverged about the appropriate response.

One solution popular in many empires was segregation. The Europeans had incorrectly identified Africans as the main carriers of the disease; African children under five were believed to be the main source of malaria so they were to be kept far away from the colonists at all times.

And so, many powers decided that the European settlers should be housed in their own separate areas. (Of course, this wrong headed but at least rational response wasn’t the whole explanation: often, sanitary concerns were used to veil simple racial chauvinism.)

The affluent Hill Station – a name reminiscent of the Indian colonies – in Freetown, Sierra Leone was built as a segregated suburb so Europeans could keep well clear of the local children. Today, it’s where the home of the president can be found. Yet despite all this expensive shuffling of Freetown’s urban landscape, inhabitants of Hill Station came down with malaria at about the same as those who lived elsewhere.

 

The Uganda Golf Course, Kampala. Image: Google Maps.

In Kampala, Uganga, a golf course now occupies the land designated by the British powers to protect the European neighbourhood from the African. A similar appropriation can be seen in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of The Congo, where a zoo, botanical garden and another golf course can be found the land earmarked for protecting colonial officials and their families.

All this urban juggling was the privilege of immensely powerful colonial officials, backed up by the military might of the imperial powers. The indigenous peoples could do little but watch as their cities were bulldozed and rebuilt based on the whims of the day. Yet the scars are still visible in the fabric of many modern African cities today.