Robert Barry braves the unscheduled diversions of the London St Pancras to Margate line, upgrades his dumb-as-it-gets phone and listens to the composer's new app-based musical journey piece
When I got the call inviting me to the opening of a sound art exhibition on a train, I somehow imagined an installation broadcast through the tannoy speakers in each carriage. I pictured myself wandering up and down the aisles taking notes on the reactions of unwary travellers whose daily commute had unexpectedly been infiltrated by all manner of strange noises. So it was with a sigh of disappointment – and no small feeling of foolishness – that I learnt Sonorama was to be an earphones installation, sent from an app to the listener’s smartphone.
And then panic. I don’t even own a smartphone. In fact, my phone is about as dumb as phones get. It has trouble texting. You can forget about internet access. Fortunately, the organisers have an iPhone they can lend me, but I still end up feeling a bit like the kid who forgot his PE kit on sports day. Then there’s the question of what, exactly, is being assumed about the audience for a piece that’s only accessible through a device that 30–40 per cent of the UK population doesn’t possess.
There is a school trip-like feeling as we board the train at Saint Pancras with our special tickets and matching coffees. Sonorama’s composer Claudia Molitor is bouncing to and fro handing out pastries as we take our seats. “Croissant? Swirly thing?”
Born in Germany but trained in the UK, Molitor’s PhD at Southampton was supervised by UK composer and pianist Michael Finnissy. While the two share an ear for fine details of texture and extended instrumental sonorities, there’s a warmth and an openness to Molitor’s music that overflows the formal rigour of her former tutor. She has since composed commissions for Apartment House, the London Sinfonietta, and Ensemble Resonanz, but increasingly her work is of a more conceptual or interactive bent. My first encounter with these more performative pieces was at Bristol New Music early last year, where Molitor had arranged an installation-cum-sound walk around the rarely seen back corridors of the city’s Colston Hall. Sonorama takes the music-as-literal-journey trope to a whole other step.
“I think of the train line as the score that I’m then interpreting,” she tells me later in the afternoon. “But I didn’t want to just create a soundtrack. It had to be related to that journey. Then because I knew I was going to work with the British Library because of the archive there, it had to start in Saint Pancras. And then, well, where do you go from Saint Pancras?” As Molitor points out, our route this morning, from North London to Turner Contemporary in Margate, would trace multiple historical trajectories: the Roman Road to the South East coast; the Pilgrim’s Way to Thomas Beckett’s shrine in Canterbury; now the country’s first high speed rail line and the gateway to Europe – “the potential,” as Molitor put it, “of going somewhere else”.
Pulling out of the station produces an experience of time travel. The Sonorama app launches into a “Tunnel Waltz”, a wheezing and piping of scraped strings approximating less the smooth airlessness of modern high speed rail, more the shunting of old steam engines. But when I listen to the same track again later at home, I discover many more layers of bass rumble and low-end concrète that are simply lost on the actual journey.
As we become fully immersed in a tunnel, the muted rush of air produced by the train itself engulfs all the sound from the headphones. Our playlist can only acquiesce, submitting to the roar and only piping up again as we pull towards Stratford, when the crackly voice of one Gerald Cock, in a 1933 recording unearthed from the British Library’s Sound Archive, begins to intone the many species of ducks that inhabit the Thames dockside in the solemn, liturgical style of the Shipping Forecast.
I find myself looking around at my fellow passengers, each one wired from the ears to their wireless devices while gazing pensively out of the windows in silence, lost in a strange kind of shared private world. Michael Bull, a Sussex University academic known affectionately as Professor iPod, has written extensively about the “privatising” effect of mobile headphone listening. For Bull, iPods and related technologies are a means of “screening out the world”, separating ourselves from others and transforming all space into non-space.
Molitor’s project, then, with its stated hope (in the catalogue accompanying Sonorama) to “challenge [the] disconnect between the traveller and their journey” could come across like a fool’s errand in choosing for that task a technology with a tendency to do the reverse. If the hope was to create a seamless dialogue between the embodied experience of travel, the sonic journey broadcast through the app and the view from the window, this hope was about to get further derailed by peccadilloes of UK rail travel.
Shortly after Ebbsfleet, an onboard announcement begins, apologising for an unscheduled diversion. We are not going via Canterbury anymore. The carefully planned synchronisation of Sonorama’s playlist to Southeastern’s stated itinerary is starting to look woefully optimistic. And this is just the beginning. Outside Ashford we grind to a halt, “currently awaiting a platform” for an unspecified length of time. A fidgety, lumbering, piano based “Interlude”, intended to shepherd us along the way to Canterbury, thus soundtracks instead a dead stop amid banked shrubbery.
Before long it becomes apparent that the driver of this train does not know where he is going. “The chances are,” he murmurs uncertainly, “we will continue on to Margate.” Meanwhile, the LCDs in the carriage are adamant that we are now going to Sandwich. Molitor’s Woodland Variations No 14 are rustling and crackling in absorbing evocation of yomping through a forest that is nowhere to be seen through the window, because by now we’re sailing through Maidstone, a town that we were never supposed to go anywhere near. The mismatch between app and itinerary is beginning to intensify the very feeling of disconnection it was intended to dispel. Perhaps it might work better in a country that hasn’t spent the last 50 years deliberately and systematically hobbling its own train service?
Later, Molitor admits to me that she herself is not one to spend train journeys plugged into an iPod. “Never. When I’m on a train I spend a lot of time looking out of the window and thinking. In fact I’m not very good at listening to music over headphones.” Neither am I. Does that disqualify me from passing judgement on the work? Maybe. “But sometimes you make work,” Molitor tells me, “because it’s not your natural inclination to do it.” The work becomes a way of asking “how can I make this more interesting to myself? If it related to this journey, maybe I could engage with it.”
Personally, I found the Sonorama playlist – and that, really is what it is, a playlist that could just as easily have been on a cassette – much more enjoyable when I listened again at home. Then I could enjoy the often brilliantly composed music without losing half of it. I could find the quotations about the experience of train travel from the likes of Rainer Maria Rilke and Jean-Luc Nancy interesting without feeling like they were telling me how I should be relating to this journey. Separated from any actual journey, it wonderfully evoked the feeling of being on one – as music so often does. But real journeys are already so filled with noises and unexpected drama that attempting to soundtrack one in so rigid and inflexible a fashion is doomed to end up as a bit of a train wreck.
Sonorama: Listening To The View From The Train by Claudia Molitor is now available at The Wire Shop.