Tales From The Bridge

Martyn Ware launched the stunning “Tales From The Bridge” in July, a 3D soundscape collaboration covering the length of the Millennium Bridge in London. The mesmerising piece was commissioned by the Mayor of London for the London 2012 Olympics. We filmed behind the scenes - with riggers more used to rock stadiums, dangling over the Thames - and asked Martyn how he and the team, including Grammy winning composer Eric Whitacre, and poet Mario Petrucci, created the work. There’s more from Martyn on making his Human League and Heaven 17 hits on our bands page.

We’ve been working for quite a few months now on creating the most amazing installation, which is going to be on the Millennium Bridge during the Olympics. It’s called Tales From The Bridge, which is a combination of ambient sound and an electronic soundscape which we composed together with a fantastic poetic kind of magic realist overlay of spoken word in three dimensions, which is going to be drifting across the bridge. You’ll be able to experience this just by walking across the bridge in 3D, it’ll be immersing you for the whole length of the bridge, which is about 350 metres.

Martyn told us how the piece was very much a collaboration, that features a piece by Eric Whitacre, the Grammy winning choral composer from America, called Water Night.

We’re going to spread his three and a half thousand voices that he’s sampled online, where he’s got the different choruses across the world from 90 different countries, to sing into their laptops while he conducts them and then he’s assembled this amazing piece called Water Night, which is currently number one I think in the classical charts in America, and we’re going to spread it across the bridge so it sounds like, if you were blind, it would sound like three thousand people were spread across the bridge, singing this amazing choral piece, as part of it.

The hour-long loop was originally conceived by Martyn together with David Bickerstaff, a curator and film-maker, and they asked poet Mario Petrucci to write the script.

So how did Martyn and his team go about “weaving” the sounds together? It started off with an electronic soundscape that he and Vince Clarke made.

We did a piece called Timepiece, which we composed for the Mexico City installation that we did, Sound Oasis, and this was composed of very slowly-drifting chords that changed almost imperceptibly in related keys, over an hour-long loop, and I thought it would be quite nice to use a similar structure but change the sounds and make it more adapted to the kind of environment here. So that’s the basic musical element, plus some additional, inspirational kind of almost like Blade Runner-ish synth, virtual synths. So we used a lot of Omnisphere.

We used a lot of virtual synths including Moog Modular Arturia synth, Korg MS20, and some Roland System 100 as well. So that’s the basic template of what we did, and it’s slowly drifting, additional kind of Vangelis-type melody lines that weave in space and time around the piece as well. And then overlaid with the fantastic script. I suppose you’d call it poetry, but it’s really as much prose as poetry, that Mario Petrucci has written, and performed by a couple of actors with beautiful voices called Mia Austen and Steven Alexander.

The idea was to relate the lyrical content at this end of the bridge to the City and the Church and government, and on the other side to the theatre and the playground of the rich, even though it was a poor area historically, and the arts, and recreation. And the central section of the bridge, compositionally, is about the history of the Thames itself.

A webcam looks over the bridge, and Daniel Hirschmann and his team from Hirsch and Mann have made it interactive so that the number of people on the bridge triggers changes in the sounds.

The idea of it is to get a general idea of footfall in different parts of the bridge, and to make those parts of the bridge sound a little more active. It’s quite subtle, but the idea is that everybody who’s on the bridge is by default participating in the creation of the soundscape.

There were plenty of technical challenges - we filmed the 10 speakers being installed overnight by Encore PA who have worked with Martyn on many of his 3D projects. The riggers had to wear lifejackets as well as their safety harnesses as they inched their way out on struts overhanging the River Thames. They are more used to rigging for rock gigs at O2 Academy Brixton, and music festivals, but seemed to be enjoying the new challenge.

The speakers themselves are by d&b and were mounted in pairs inside a special box designed to blend in with the Bridge.

They’re not physically different from any other speakers, because the processing all goes on in our 3D Audioscape software, so it’s just standard full-range speakers. There are no subs (subwoofers). We had a potential problem with assessing noise levels, because obviously sub travels more than anything else, and there are some residential areas nearby including the Globe Theatre and they were worried about their performances getting interrupted, because they are unamplified, I believe. So we kind of guaranteed there aren’t any sudden noises, very little in terms of very low frequencies that’s going to travel, there’s no infrasound. It’s quite an interesting challenge, all this.

On launch day we found the award-winning poet Mario Petrucci both hypnotized, energised and excited by all the people pausing on the bridge to listen. We asked him about making the work.

What happened, very naturally it seemed, was a piece of work that allowed lots of space for Martyn and David to work with, to allow the musical elements their space, to allow the evolution of the piece musically, but for the individual texts also to stand their ground and to make very quick statements about what they’re representing.

You’ve got to start with the richness of the historical associations of the river. Just take one small example, the economic traffic up and down, imports, exports, that provides quite a lot of this poem, just in terms of lists of what came upriver, down river during Roman occupation, Vikings, Tudor times, Victorian times, during the wars, during the plague and so on. All these elements of the material movement of substances up and down the river, tell a story in their own right. And it’s stuff like that that is absolutely teeming with meaning and value, sonic value, that was a thing that surprised me, that these lists of facts and information were actually sonically very interesting once they’d been slightly moulded, they fell into a sonic shape.

Martyn hopes that the piece will both entrance visitors, and also make people think more long-term about our sound environments.

In an ideal world, if I could, I’d like the piece to be remembered as something that inspired a few people to think about sound art seriously in cities. But also, you know, I’d love, sooner or later somebody’s going to commission a piece that’s permanent, on a bridge or in a city centre somewhere and I’d love it if they turned around and said, do you know what? We like this so much we’d like to have it in for a year or five years or whatever, you know. Because I think we live in an experiential environment, it’s not just about the bricks and mortar and what we see, it’s about our environment soundwise as well and I think we can beautify the sound environment.

Tales From The Bridge
Produced by Martyn Ware and David Bickerstaff

Martyn Ware - http://www.illustriouscompany.co.uk
David Bickerstaff - http://www.atomictv.com
Mario Petrucci - http://www.mariopetrucci.com
Eric Whitacre - http://www.ericwhitacre.com
Daniel Hirschmann - http://www.hirschandmann.com
Mayor of London Presents - http://www.molpresents.com

Composed by Martyn Ware in collaboration with artistic director David Bickerstaff, ‘Tales from the Bridge’ is a mesmerizing three-dimensional soundscape covering the entire length of the Millennium Bridge. It features an hour-long looping immersive ambient electronic musical composition merged with an engaging spoken narrative written by the poet Mario Petrucci and voiced by Mia Austen and Steven Alexander, and the stunning Water Night by Eric Whitacre.

Inspired by the fascinating history of the Thames and the stories life and times on both banks of the river, Illustrious has created a contemplative auditory platform that links the City of London in the north with the Southbank and vice versa. Award-winning poet Mario Petrucci was invited by Bickerstaff and Ware to produce a collection of written passages assembled from literary forms such as short poems, atmospheric descriptions, local anecdotes, facts and figures. These beautifully conceived passages were collated by Petrucci into a poetry script, then woven into the three-dimensional soundfield by Martyn Ware.

In addition, at the start of each hour, an astounding invisible 3,746-voice strong choir from 73 countries - Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir - will perform ‘Water Night’ written by Grammy winning composer, Eric Whitacre, based on a short poem by Octavio Paz.

Also, interaction designer Daniel Hirschmann has created interactive technology which will enable a webcam mounted on the City Of London School to examine footfall at various points on the bridge, triggering sounds which will flow back and forth across the river. Visitors will therefore be able to participate in this unique and constantly changing composition.

Between July and September, between 8am and 10pm every day, the final composition will immerse the listener in an oasis of peace and contemplation, half-remembered dreams and thoughts, of meditation and learning. The Millennium Bridge will seem to be almost alive, speaking its own thoughts to over 4 million people during the exhibition period.

The installation has been commissioned by the Mayor of London as part of a citywide series of free events, installations and city dressing to add to the celebrations for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games during the Olympic period. It has been created with endorsement of The Noise Abatement Society.

Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir
3,746 voices from 73 countries
Composed and Conducted by Eric Whitacre
Poetry by Octavio Paz
Launched April 2012 at Lincoln Center, New York
http://www.ericwhitacre.com http://www.VirtualChoir.ericwhitacre.com

Supported by Titanic Belfast, DCINY (Distinguished Concerts International New York), J.W. Pepper, and Northern Ireland Tourist Board
Produced by Music Productions Ltd.

Eric Whitacre is signed to Universal Records: http://www.Decca.com