With the Thames Pageant this weekend the river again plays its role in the forefront of London and indeed British life. It is a role it has played throughout history. As it is still the ‘widest street’ in London any event on it can be seen by the greatest possible number of people. I am reminded of all the events I have seen here over the years and in particular struck by how many involved sound. The Pageant will have clanging bells, hooting and whistles as well as specially commissioned music. There is something about rivers, and the Thames in particular, that makes one think about sound and music. Is it the historical associations and also the greatness and power of the river – a way of taming or mastering it or representing it without being overpowered – creating a kind of alternative river of sound? Music tends to be linear as a river is, and journeys along a river are linear also. As I asked a while ago for some suggestions for watery music for this weekend as an alternative to Handel’s ubiquitous Water Music, I thought I would highlight musical or soundscape events related to the River Thames that I have experienced. This is of course another way of representing place!
The standard type of musical experience on the river is that on party cruise boats. I remember several as part of the Greenwich and Docklands Festivals, mainly jazz or world music, and one from St Katharine’s Dock down river right through the Thames Barrier and back with a trad jazz band aboard, not my usual sort of music but very enjoyable anyway!
However there has been an increasing number of soundscape commissions over recent years as this becomes more appreciated as an art form and one easily associated with water and rivers. Reading ‘The Great Animal Orchestra’ by Bernie Krause, a survey of his 40 years of recording natural sounds, he points out that water is the primal sound life would have heard! The term soundscape is credited to R. Murray Schafer, a Canadian composer, who studied the sounds of various habitats from the 1960’s on. He showed that each soundscape uniquely represents a place and time through the combination of a blend of voices whether urban, rural or natural to make an ‘acoustic signature’.
The Bill Fontana 2010 installation ‘River Sounding’ was ‘a journey through the hidden sound worlds of the River Thames’. Using video and sound recordings from above and below the surface of the Thames, immersive installations were placed in various underground parts of Somerset House, adjacent to the river itself.
A few years before this I remember hearing various sound recordings of words read by Peter Ackroyd installed at the piers around the South Bank. This was ‘Dark Waters’, a Festival of Architecture commission, co-curated by the RIBA and Peter Ackroyd.
Back in 2002 I heard David Toop’s Thames Festival sound commission which included tugboat horns recorded on the Thames. He writes about collecting the recordings in a chapter on space and memory in his fascinating book on 21st century soundworlds ‘Haunted Weather’. This section includes much discussion on ‘sound markers’ and how sounds associate with memories in Proustian fashion. Reading this book again he reminded me of the ‘Longplayer‘ project by Jem Finer at Trinity Buoy Wharf by the Thames. This began its life on 1st January 2000 and is meant to generate a piece of music to last a 1000 years. He used Tibetan singing bowls as the initial basis of his looped recording but it is meant to evolve over time.
Another fascinating project was ‘Soundings of the Estuary’ exhibited in 2008 at the Novas Gallery. This included sound recordings by Dave Lawrence on the Isle of Grain and studio created sounds which were matched with photographs by Frank Watson. He was wanting to respond to the image of the place as well as the actual place, an interesting concept in light of previous discussion here on place.
All this makes me want to wander off with a hydrophone and make some recordings!
However I think I had better stick to sounds created by real musicians. Here are some of the suggestions I received for water music for the weekend together with a few I have added myself. Brian Eno was the favourite choice for many people. Thanks to everyone who contributed and enjoy listening.
Related articles and Sources
- Thames holds a mirror to 60 years of change – The Guardian (guardian.co.uk)
- Diamond Jubilee: Boat by boat, here is where to watch the Queen’s Thames flotilla – VIDEO (thisislondon.co.uk)