• Photograph James Birtwistle

Composer and curator Iain Chambers returns to fill the subterranean South Bascule Chamber at Tower Bridge in September. We caught up with Iain Chambers, also of Langham Research Centre, and Clarinettist Kate Romano to find out about this year's programme.

We can’t wait for this year’s concerts, Iain, this is the third year of the Bascule Chamber Concerts. What’s new this time?

These concerts are always about brand new music - this year Langham Research Centre are making their own contemporary take on Handel's Water Music, 300 years after that piece was written. There's also a new piece for clarinet and electronics for Kate Romano, and for the first time we're moving into spoken word, with new poems from Kayo Chingonyi, who we selected from our open call for works. The singer Coco Mbassi was the artist selected from the open call, and she's making a brand new piece about migrants for the Accumulator Chamber, the huge cylindrical space where the bridge's huge hydraulic machinery looms. Kayo Chingonyi will be installing a sound walk for the journey down to the chamber that the audiences take from street level. And to top it all we're introducing an optional ticket to include a guided tour of the bridge and the Tower Bridge Exhibition. 

Kate, this is the first time you have performed in the Bascule Chamber, how did you become involved?

Iain and I have known each other for a few years. I’m Artistic Director of the Goldfield Ensemble and we invited Langham Research to be part of our 2016 tour (called Ritual In Transfigured Time) where we explored the relationships between old and new technology, image and sound, conventional and unconventional musical instruments.  I came to Iain’s Bascule concerts last year and fell in love with the space; I expect I made that pretty clear to Iain too! I was delighted when he said that the 2017 programme was going to feature Langhams…and a clarinet!

Iain, tell us about the response to Handel’s Water Music and what people can expect?

Langham Research Centre use obsolete 20th century technology to make music, like reel-to-reel tape machines, sinewave oscillators and phonograph cartridges. To mark the 300th anniversary of the Water Music we decided to take Handel's music out into a contemporary London soundscape, so you'll hear it recorded from the speakers of passing cars, outside mosques, set alongside street vendors' cries, and generally made part of everyday life again. We'll be playing the sounds of the bridge live during the piece, too, with microphones mounted at street level being used as musical material while we perform.

What are the most unique venues you have ever performed in?

Iain: The Bascule Chambers are definitely the most awe-inspiring and surprising venue. I love seeing audiences' faces as they enter the space for the first time and do a double take. Other unique places I've performed would include the Pathology Museum of Barts Hospital in London - not for the squeamish, the UK Supreme Court, and - most bizarrely of all - in the Grand Hearing Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, in front of a room full of European judges!

Kate: I love the Bascule space, and as a producer I’ve put shows into very varied spaces. I like the energy that comes with touring a production in different places, reinventing it as a piece of theatre for each acoustic and space. Putting a chamber opera into the two-acre Great Court of the British Museum was pretty special. The reverberation is extraordinary – every sound echoes around the space which becomes a sonic cacophony of movement, conversation and (in our case) - music.  

Kate, your style is highly unique. Tell us more about how you manipulate the sound of your Clarinet?

Much of it is down to a mix of changing the shape of the cavity of your mouth as you play (think vowel sounds: a, e, i, o, u) combined with air and diaphragm control. Sometimes I think it’s rather like holding clutch control on a steep hill. Imagine moving the car very slightly without leaping forwards or rolling back; you can maintain a sort of liminal balance somewhere between ‘stop’ and ‘go’. I like going into this clarinet hinterland where things are often a little volatile, fragile and unpredictable, but also wonderful and unexpected.  Of course, you can do things with your fingers too which assist in making the sounds more like this or less like that. I particularly enjoy it when a composer thinks away from conventional notation and ‘techniques’ and says:  can you make a sound like a seagull (for example) or a muffled conversation? And you play around like an impressionist until you find the right combination of things. That’s how the Langhams and I have worked together on the new piece for Bascule. It’s been a joy.     

Finally Iain, what's the most interesting thing you have learnt about Tower Bridge since you embarked on curating Bascule Chambers 

There's the amazing and true fact of the bus driver in 1952 who - when faced with the bridge unexpectedly raising as he crossed with a bus load of passengers - chose the right thing and put his foot down, leaping the growing void between the two leaves of the bridge. And I love the fact that the audiences and performers are all beneath the line of the River Thames when the concerts are taking place.