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.

 
 
 
 

Eritrea’s Modernist architecture: a striking reminder of years of oppression

Asmara’s futuristic Fiat Tagliero Building (1938) was built to resemble an aircraft. Image: David Stanley/Creative Commons.

Those with an eye for architecture will notice something peculiar when visiting Eritrea’s capital, Asmara. Dotted around the city are exceptional examples of Modernist architecture, a style that emerged in Europe during the interwar period. Rejecting gratuitous ornateness in favour of minimalism, function and rationalism, the style grew to dominate 20th century design. But it didn’t arrive in an east African country in a remotely benevolent way.

The huge continent was carved up in the span of just a few decades, in an era of history known as the “Scramble for Africa”. Described in German as torschlusspanik, meaning “panic of a closing gate”, European powers grabbed as much as they could to prevent their rivals gaining the upper hand.

Having consolidated his power in Italy, fascist dictator Mussoulini looked to Africa to expand what he saw as the new Roman Empire. It was in this context that the country seized this stretch of coast along the Red Sea that became Eritrea. And it was Asmara that was going to be the new African capital, La Piccola Roma – Little Rome.

Standing at 2,000m above sea level, the capital’s location was chosen in part because it was cooler than the brutally hot coastal regions. As was commonplace across European colonies, the colonisers wanted to avoid the extremes of the lands they conquered and find places more comparable to the climates they had left behind.

Where the colonial money arrived, the locals followed and Asmara became a city of contrasts. Intermingled with the Tukul’s, round huts of stone or mud topped with conical roofs that are indigenous to East Africa, are hundreds of buildings in the modernist style that were erected by the Italian colonisers from 1935. Many such buildings, including the Fiat Tagliero petrol station, the Town Hall and the Cinema Roma, came to represent East African Modernism. But why was there this push towards the style?


Peter Volgger, an academic who studied the impact of the modernist architecture in post-colonial Eritrea, has a theory. “Colonial cities were often projection screens for modernist fantasies and were built as futuristic visions for European cities.” So what couldn’t be done back home could be done in the colonial setting. Fantasies could be fulfilled.

The fall of fascism in Europe after WWII didn’t mark the end of colonialism in Africa, as the losers’ colonies were transferred over to the winners. Britain governed the colony for a while before power at a federal level was handed over Ethiopia. It was only in 1993 that Eritrea finally gained independence from its larger neighbour; a hundred years after the Italians first conquered the region.

Yet the Modernist buildings continued to be built long after the Italians had left. The IRGA garage, for instance, which is often held up as a key example of Eritrean modernism was built in 1961.

It’s in part due to such constructions that in 2017, Asmara was recognised as by Unesco as a site of particular cultural importance and included in their world heritage list. This not only brings in money from Unesco directly, but also induces international interest and tourism. The inclusion of Asmara in the organisation’s heritage list marked a shift towards inclusivity, having often been criticised for its lack of sites in Africa. Of the 845 cultural sites worldwide, Asmara is one of only 52 that are from Sub-Saharan Africa. In Germany alone there are 41 sites and Italy 49.

Long overdue, the significance of Asmara and its modernist buildings has been recognised. Despite their architectural interest they cannot and should not be divorced from the grim historical reality of their existence. For the millions who call the city home they stand monument to the arrogant dreams of empire that consumed the country for over a hundred years.