Musicity thaws Southwark’s architecture

Nick Luscombe's app helps you harmonise with your surroundings

The buildings of Southwark are the inspiration for the latest batch of location-based music commissioned by Musicity.
The buildings of Southwark are the inspiration for the latest batch of location-based music commissioned by Musicity.

What does the architecture of the London Borough of Southwark sound like? Does the Shard evoke a cacophony or a mellifluous response? How about the Elephant & Castle’s notorious shopping centre, or Alsop & Stormer’s Stirling Prize-winning Peckham library? This was the challenge set to seven musicians by Nick Luscombe, presenter of BBC Radio 3’s Late Junction show and founder of Musicity, an initiative to build musical archives of cities around the world.

Luscombe invited each musician to create a 5-6 minute piece in response to a specific Southwark building. Each piece can be accessed via a free Musicity app which activates only when the user nears the location of the building, ensuring that both architecture and soundtrack are experienced as one. The resulting tracks will be launched amid a series of Musicity events next weekend (September 8-10). 

Williams Doyle, formerly of East India Youth, has composed a contemporary hymn to Renzo Piano’s Shard.
Williams Doyle, formerly of East India Youth, has composed a contemporary hymn to Renzo Piano’s Shard.

The project unites Luscombe’s twin interests of commissioning new music and experiencing city architecture and design. It’s important, he says, that people have to make the physical effort to seek out the building and its accompanying music. The process of discovery should be part of the experience, just as it used to be in the days when you had to hunt down a track you heard on the radio by finding it in a record shop.

So why Southwark?

‘I’ve always been fascinated with the development of the borough and how it’s changing so rapidly,’ says Luscombe, who is based in Southwark and deliberately invited musicians with strong connections to the area to take park. As well as the borough’s diverse architecture from Rotherhithe to Dulwich, it also has musical resonance, with the music magazine NME based there for some years and a many great record shops.

The result is a range of responses from the instrumental to lyrical that become, says Luscombe, a musical memory of each space.

Borough Market, London’s oldest food market, is the inspiration for a new composition by DJ, producer and radio-presenter Throwing Shade.
Borough Market, London’s oldest food market, is the inspiration for a new composition by DJ, producer and radio-presenter Throwing Shade.

‘The artists have gone to great lengths to get this right…They’ve all recognized that they're building on the legacy of the architecture itself and adding another, audio, layer,’ he says.

Architect Paul Bavister of Flanagan Lawrence helped the artists to analyse the acoustics of the spaces at the buildings and create their own compositions with that in mind.

‘I mentored them in what the space was doing acoustically and advised them on how they could write a piece of music based on what the acoustics of the space would be beneficial for,’ he said. ‘You can hear the tracery of the architecture coming through.’

At Peckham Library, for example, Sean O’Hagan’s composition was attuned to the low reverberation time of the interior.

‘His music is so subtle and sensitive that it could only have be played in a super acoustically-sensitive space,’ says Bavister.

In contrast, William Doyle, formerly of East India Youth, took on The Shard, which suited the grand, cavernous soundscapes that his own music was exploring. 

Peckham based Sean O’Hagan, founder of the High Llamas, has composed a track inspired by his local Peckham Library, designed by Alsop and Störmer.
Peckham based Sean O’Hagan, founder of the High Llamas, has composed a track inspired by his local Peckham Library, designed by Alsop and Störmer.

‘As soon as I had the Shard in mind it inspired a lot of trains of thought…I wanted to create a contemporary hymn to the tower,’ he said, adding that the dramatic view from the ground up – and the accompanying setting at the base – interested him far more than the interior or exploring the views down.

He achieved this by layering his voice into a choir to create a ‘quasi-religious’ ode. Aided by the specific brief and deadline, the experience was, he says, a refreshing contrast to ‘the sprawling, endless nature of what I normally do’.

The mid-century modern Finnish Church in Rotherhithe is the inspiration for folk band Stick in the Wheel’s contribution to Musicity.
The mid-century modern Finnish Church in Rotherhithe is the inspiration for folk band Stick in the Wheel’s contribution to Musicity.

The seven Southwark compositions join 43 pieces created across seven cities since Musicity’s foundation in 2010. Next up, Musicity is tackling South Korea, where Luscombe has commissioned seven more tracks – four by Korean and three by UK musicians – to coincide with this autumn’s architecture biennale.

Canada Water Bus Station, designed by Eva Jiřičná, is the subject of a piece by jazz drummer and producer Moses Boyd.
Canada Water Bus Station, designed by Eva Jiřičná, is the subject of a piece by jazz drummer and producer Moses Boyd.

Musicity London, 8-10 September, various talks and events

The Southwark Musicity app features compositions by Sean O’Hagan (Peckham Library); Moses Boyd (Canada Water Bus Station); Throwing Shade (Borough Market); Stick in the Wheel (Finnish Church Rotherhithe); Hejira – (Time and Talents former hostel, Bermondsey Street); William Doyle (The Shard); patten (Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre)