Its not often that you take your seat in a concert venue that could kill you. Situated beneath Tower Bridge are two cavernous bascule chambers, housing the huge counterweights that swing the bridge into action, completely filling the steep concave ramped space. This is the unworldly home of the Bascule Concerts, curated by composer, sound artist and producer Iain Chambers for Totally Thames. You don’t have to be a mathematician to know that if the counterweights started their 5 minute descent into the chambers mid-concert, there would be little left of any of us.
There are two immediately surprising things about the bascule chambers. Firstly, how intimate a space it feels. Thirty-two rows of stone steps stretching the full width of the chamber rise sharply upwards providing plentiful – if crude – seating space. Yet safety restrictions limit each show to a cosy audience of around 80, seated not on the steps, but squashed into three rows of portable chairs looking up to the stone steps. The performances took place on a small platform, the steps dramatically ascending behind them towards those unnerving counterweights which form the roof of the chamber.
The second surprise is how noisy it is. You can hear the boom of boats passing by, the clunk of Victorian engineering, the modern sounds of the traffic on the bridge. On a Saturday evening, we were particularly at the mercy of the party traffic and the strains of ‘happy birthday’ echoed through the bascule from somewhere up above at one point.
But no matter…it’s all part of the show. I found myself very much wanting to simply listen to the space before the music began. To acclimatise my ears – and eyes to this strange subaqueous world. It is very dark in the chambers and the extraordinary shape of the space takes some getting used to. Audiences are helped to their seats by the light from just two torches. You can either memorise your programme outside on Tower Bridge before you descend the 120 steel steps into the bascule or just sit back and not worry too much about who wrote what and when. Either approach works.
The inimitable Max Reinhardt appeared as genial compere to put everyone at ease, joking amicably about the remote possibility of 1000 tonnes of steel swinging into the space where we sat. And what we could do if it did (not much- the only way out is back up those 120 narrow steps). This is the second year of Bascule Concerts. Iain Chambers found the space almost by accident, following a commission to create a piece of music using field sounds from Tower Bridge. Looking for an unusual underground venue, the refreshingly gung-ho tower bridge staff introduced Iain Chambers to Bascule Chambers. Surely the serendipity of the name alone was enough to persuade everyone that this was a good idea. Each series has been a sell out success.
This years programme was all a capella vocal music provided by the consistently virtuosic and technically brilliant Juice Vocal Ensemble and the homogenous blended sonorities of the Ben See Group. And what an a capella sound it is. At times, a trio sounded like a full choir in an acoustic which Reinhardt described as being like a large industrial Catherdral. It is a warm sound, full, rich and lovely. The music matched the acoustic. No hard edges, surprisingly tonal and easy-on-the-ear throughout for a programme of mostly new repertoire. I loved the Kerry Andrew remix of Guns ‘N Roses Sweet Child of Mine, which starts like a cross between the Queen of the Night aria and chirruping bird song and unfolds into the most intricately woven and credible vocal sharing of the guitar riff that I had trouble believing it had ever been written for anything other than three female voices. The programme included two elegant new works by Iain Chambers who wrote sensitively and intelligently for the acoustics of the space. ‘Weld’ by Catherine Carter set a striking start to the concert, in a work about the WW2 women workers of Waterloo Bridge. When the two groups joined together for the only non-contemporary piece, extracts from Lassus’ Lagrime di San Pierro, I closed my eyes and slipped effortlessly from Victorian engineering to Renaissance Italy. The sound is that kind of opulent loveliness that you just want to bathe in.
Visually, the Bascule Concert is a theatrical experience that keeps delivering as more of the fascinating architecture of this space is highlighted. Juice Vocal made some small use of the steps but the majority of the concert was simply and traditionally staged and that is all it needed. Simple lighting washes the singers – wearing pure white boiler-suits and trainers – in an ethereal, numinous glow. The girls pulled off the boiler suits slightly better than the boys, opting to belt them in (thus avoiding the ‘onesie’ look) and Juice managed to give them a slightly stylish edge by turning the collars up. There’s a sort of monastic rather than industrial quality about their appearance.
The space is not perfect. It’s a bascule, not a concert hall. Access is challenging to anyone not physically able. The acoustic makes it hard to hear the words despite the best efforts of the singers. Yet almost every note in there is incredibly beautiful. And if there were no hard edges in the music, they were certainly provided by the rough stone and steel backdrop. Truly, how edgy do you want your music to be when a mistyped communication or a failure in the infra-red sensing system might result in 1000 tonnes of steel descending towards you? Tonight’s Bascule Concert took me into another world: a subterranean hinterland somewhere between the phenomenon of Victorian engineering, the modern world and the sheer beauty of the human voice. Thanks to all for a very memorable evening.