Concert-goers move ‘pronto’ if Thames shipping needs Tower Bridge to lift—or ‘B Flat’

Bascule chamber where concerts are performed

Bascule chamber where concerts are performed - Credit: Archant

Chamber concerts were performed at one of London’s weirdest places—deep in one of the two bascule chambers of the iconic Tower Bridge.

Composer Ian Chambers

Composer Ian Chambers - Credit: Archant

A composer called Chambers returned for 14 concerts in the south chamber below water level at the weekend after his ‘pilot’ performances last year.

Ian Chambers put together a composition inspired from the creaking sounds Tower Bridge makes when its bascules lift to let shipping through into the Port of London.

“I heard an incredible sound survey recording made in the bascule chamber of the bridge lifting up which sounded like brass music,” he tells Thursday’s East London Advertiser.

Narrow staircase iinto bascule chamber

Narrow staircase iinto bascule chamber - Credit: Archant

“So I analysed what notes they were and got musicians in to play alongside the bridge recording. I only used those notes for the brass players.”

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His work is set to two poems by Emily Dickinson, I Started Early With My Dog and Singing Bowls.

But being in the audience deep below in the chamber under the Thames water level can be a dangerous thing, apart from having to make your way down a steep, narrow spiral staircase which can give some people vertigo.

Bridgemaster Chris Earlie

Bridgemaster Chris Earlie - Credit: Archant

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Shipping has the right by law to navigate the Pool of London. That means the bridge must lift on demand, bringing the 1,100-tonne bascule counterweights down into the two vast chambers including the south chamber exactly where the concerts are being performed, requiring the audience to scramble out pronto.

Bridgemaster Chris Earlie explains: “The headache is that we’re governed by an Act of Parliament that we have to raise the bridge for any vessel requiring it.

“You’ve got 800 ticket-holders for a weekend of concerts that can be interrupted at any time by a vessel requiring the bridge be lifted—they would have to clear the chamber before the bridge goes up.

Tower Bridge bascules are raised

Tower Bridge bascules are raised - Credit: Archant

“But that’s part of the experience—they get to see the bridge lifting.”

It actually happened twice when the first ‘pilot’ concerts were performed in the chamber last year.

It is a weird place to perform music and potentially dangerous if you don’t manage the bridge lifts correctly, composer Ian acknowledges.

Tower Bridge raises for Thames shipping

Tower Bridge raises for Thames shipping - Credit: Archant

Ian, who lives less than two miles from Tower Bridge with his family in Stepney Green, recalls: “We did have some bridge lifts last year, but managed to reschedule performances. Everything has to be removed from the bascule chamber when that happens.”

Tickets sold out weeks ago for all 14 performances in the chamber that hold no more than 50 concert-goers at a time.

They sit on fold-up chairs that have to be whisked away—or ‘B Flat’—as they evacuate and climb back up the steep spiral staircase to the surface, before the 122-year-old bascules are raised and the counterweights come sliding down to fill up the chamber space.

How Tower Bridge works

How Tower Bridge works - Credit: Archant

But then, as Bridgemaster Earlie would have it, that’s all part of the Tower Bridge experience.

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