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London Underground: Alice Nicolov

London Underground: Alice Nicolov

How do we relate to the cities that are important to us? The cities we live in, learn in, love in? The cities that shape us and give us our identity? Most of all, how do we understand and process the cities that we call home?

London is my city, and I feel lucky to call myself a true Londoner. As I’ve grown up here, left and come back again, I have become very aware of the different ways in which I experience this sprawling, confusing city. As humans we naturally try to create order out of the confusion that surrounds us. And so we map our cities, we associate places with experiences; people we’ve met, places we’ve been, things that we’ve seen and done, and, for some, the music that we listen to.

For me – translating London and associating it with something instantly brings to mind travelling around London. How do I do it? The tube. The landscape of London is mapped by perhaps one of the greatest architectural feats that we have – the London Underground system – it is the one physical entity that encompasses all of London at once: It is, quite simply, an embodiment of London. The subterranean, sprawling web of tunnels that criss-cross London and connects all those different points on the map is the very lifeblood of this city. When I close my eyes and imagine the tube, I see it like the circulatory system of the city, endlessly moving and pumping, it pushes people from one place to another. It has a very real, tangible rhythm and flow of its own. It is an integral, pulsing system that allows us all to “translate” and map London in our own way. This subterranean architecture is tied intrinsically to the city and for me, music is tied intrinsically to the tube.

I know I am not alone when I say I can’t travel on the tube without being plugged into some form of music. Podcasts, for me, don’t cut it. The tube provides my very own venue to listen to whatever I like. It gives me a space and platform to explore new music or to go back again and again to old favourites. Where else do we, as busy Londoners, get the time to sit down and listen to a new album we’ve been waiting for? Or to be allowed to listen to that song you just want to listen to back to back, over and over, with no one to interrupt or question your song choice. The tube gives us this: solitude amongst the crowds, a concert hall in rattling, rushing tunnels of darkness.

Music also gives us an escape from the tube. The experience (especially as a cyclist) of going deep underground, crushed in with other people, in the dark and the noise as you are propelled towards your destination, is an unnatural, sometimes unbearable one. For me, the tube is often a stressful experience so I depend on my music to transport me; to allow me to switch off and enter my own bubble, to transcend the physical and just to experience moving through London. Music allows us to experience and not-experience: my London, my journey, my destination, all with a backdrop of music – our very own soundtrack to London.

I can’t say that I have one song or one artist that I associate with the tube. It is always as the mood takes me. The music I go back to time and again, however is electronic and repetitive on the production side. Sometimes I want something a little hard, a little more aggressive to propel me and fit with my impatience and longing to be outside again and at my destination. It must be loud enough to drown out the tube’s own music of rattles and shrieks and repetitive enough to allow my mind to exit the reality of its architectural surroundings. This is my music for the tube. The very tempo and beat of the music merges with the speed of the tube, it makes me feel like everything is in motion. The tube, me, the music, it all becomes one entity as I disengage and move from one part of London to another. There is nowhere else, except in the very bowels of this city, that I can submerge myself so fully and transcend reality.

A piece that illustrates the movement and transcendental quality of a tube journey beautifully, for me, is Four Tet’s low-key Morning Side. A soothing 25 minute mix of a simple 4/4 beat overlaid by synths and a repetitive vocal, it provides the perfect soundtrack to London because you can plug in and turn off. It has an underlying beat and frenetic quality which it opens with, kept in check by the long, vibesy, shimmering synths that reflect the pulsing, moving quality of the tube with a vocal that transcends all of that and uplifts you. The point, however, is that the music can be anything you feel like, it is how it allows you to experience the journey that is important.