Have you ever heard Tower Bridge sing? I have, when over a year ago I was commissioned to make Tower Bridge sing in celebration of its 125th anniversary by creating a film to interpret the sounds of the historic crossing.
Making music with suspension bridges has been an obsession of mine ever since I lived in New York City. Inspired by the Brooklyn Bridge, I wondered if I could develop a giant musical instrument that would enable pedestrians to play the vibrations travelling through the structure.
Unconvinced? Imagine yourself floating above Tower Bridge. Gaze down at its soaring suspension rods, and notice how from just the right angle they resemble the strings of a giant musical instrument. With a big enough bow, you might just be able to play them.
In the case of Tower Bridge, the wind might gliss its suspension rods to create melodies that float in the breeze. The footsteps of visitors reverberate through the roadway to create strange rhythmic beats, offset with traffic rumbling, bikes whirring and the lap of the Thames below. The chatter of sightseers blends with the bustle of commuters and the hum of dilly-dalliers to create its distinctive song.
I invite Londoners to stop, look up, and take inspiration from the architecture. Each city has a song embedded in its fabric like a memory, capturing the echoes of footsteps that traversed the city over the centuries as a sonic archaeology to help us make sense of the past, present and future.
Tower Bridge expert Iain Stanford described the sounds heard when the Bridge was being built. The sound of rivets being applied to the metalwork particularly resonated, and I obsessed about the arrangement of the rivets, which flow along the Bridge like a musical timeline. I wondered what it might sound like to transcribe these rivets onto a piano roll; joining forces with musical collaborators to translate the rivets into music, the result gave us goose bumps to listen to.
For every bridge project there is always a bridge player, which I found in one of Tower Bridge’s first female workers – Hannah Griggs, cook to the Bridge Master 1911-15. I was introduced to her granddaughter Susan Belcher and great-granddaughter and namesake Hannah – discovering that she was passionate about plants and grew fruit, vegetables and flowers to sell at market.
Horticulturalists are known to play music to help their plants grow. So I wondered if Hannah Griggs played the Bridge in order to nurture the plants around the Pool of London? It then struck me – in this crucial time where the delicate balance of our ecosystem is under threat, as an emblem of London, Tower Bridge and its ingenious ‘bascule’ engineering, is an iconic symbol for balance. In a time of division, perhaps the song of Tower Bridge is one of connection and harmony, a musical metaphor for our coexistence and a constant reminder of the resilience of our vibrant city and its wonderfully diverse inhabitants.
The exhibition “Making the Bridge Sing” at Tower Bridge features Di Mainstone’s new film “Time Bascule” which runs from Wednesday 29 January – March 2020. Admission is included in your entry ticket. www.towerbridge.org.uk
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