Beech Street Tunnel
Beech Street forms a ground level route between Barbican tube and Moorgate, beneath the Barbican Estate. A product of the utopian vision of 1960’s planning, it aimed to separate pedestrians above from the traffic below. Whilst many enjoy the highwalk route above, Beech Street can still see up to 1,000 pedestrians per hour travelling through this space. Culture Mile has a long term ambition to transform Beech Street into a user-friendly gateway to arts and culture. As you can see on the junction with Golden Lane, Banksy has already kickstarted this process!
The Beech Street Tunnel is not really a place conducive to lingering. You would only ever inhabit the space briefly, using it as a thoroughfare on your way to somewhere else. Cars and taxis buzz through it a moment, pedestrians quicken their pace. It’s perhaps the least picturesque of all the various parts of the Barbican complex, full of echoes, fumes, soot and shadowy recesses that can lend the space a vaguely intimidating and oppressive air. The forty or so minutes spent by myself and the Musicity team very early one Sunday morning in spring of 2019 collecting field recordings may well be the longest unbroken period anyone has spent standing in the vicinity of the tunnel. Second place would probably go to a passing member of the residents association who, perhaps not unreasonably, wanted to know just what it was we were up to.
To make up ‘Heavy Works’, these field recordings were then dubbed onto quarter inch tape back at my studio in Penge and played back at different speeds on three different reel to reel tape machines, gradually decreasing until they were some four octaves lower than their original pitch. Interesting tones and textures were identified, cut to loops, combined, played in reverse. The cyclic elements you can hear derived from exploiting a peculiarity in one of my vintage UHER tape machines known as ‘DAPHNE’ (named, of course after Radiophonic pioneer Daphne Oram) in which a physical gap between the record and playback heads allow for the creation of a sort of feedback loop, particularly when the tape passes across the heads very slowly. With the UHER simultaneously recording and playing back like a dog chasing its tail, an equilibrium of sorts could be achieved and the machine would begin to create roughly hewn rhythms and ‘grooves’ from the snatches of sound being fed in. Once ‘inside the loop’, these sounds would morph, distort and gradually return to the silence they came from. Barring a couple of additional overdubbed elements, the main structure of this composition was recorded live in a single take.
The particular sounds used here are simply the recordings of the space - there are no additional effects, artificial reverb, pedals or plugins. And yet despite this, I feel that the finished piece has unwittingly absorbed some of the architectural and geographic features that surrounded its inception. To me it conjures up images of cold concrete, brutalist right-angles, the crackle and fizz of electrical currents, subterranean car parks, thundering air conditioning vents and the rumble of trains underfoot. All perfectly apposite for a building project initiated at a time when both Brutalist architecture and magnetic tape were at the cutting edge; and when the replacing of war-damaged buildings and Dickensian slums with utopian ‘streets in the sky’ look set to be our city’s future. Both have dated in the intervening years, but to my mind they retain much of what made them so remarkable even now, half a century later. Each still possess secrets to unlock, potential to tap, depths to plunge…
While this piece is unlikely to convince that many people to spend excessive amounts of time loitering in the tunnels (and is unlikely to be heard clearly over the cacophony of passing traffic, come to think of it), my hope is that it might at least inspire the listener to think more closely about the hidden sonic potential of their surroundings, even here in this most liminal of spaces. My thanks to Nick, Ben, Edgar and especially to Solen, my second pair of ears!
‘Heavy Works’ by Robin The Fog (Howlround)
Robin The Fog is a sound artist and radio producer whose work largely falls under the broad term ‘Radiophonics’ and includes field recording, radiophonic composition and documentary.