I admire people with a passion. And when they are clever enough to share their passion with others, I adore them all the more. I’m not that bothered by what the particular passion is, but if they can make it appeal, if only for a bit of time, I am all for it. So when I heard about composer and conceptual artist Claudia Molitor’s musical homage to Waterloo Bridge, I had to experience it. The Singing Bridge is an auditory feast that both responds to the reality of Waterloo Bridge and encourages a dreamy, unhurried meandering over and around the physical structure. Her art is to transform the ordinary, things we take for granted or even downright begrudge, so that we see them with fresh, full of wonder eyes and unbiased ears. Molitor chose Waterloo Bridge because it is a place she knows well, but also because bridges interest her. As she explains in the narrative at the beginning of the walk, bridges are often the first thing to be destroyed during conflict and the first things to be rebuilt in peacetime. The desire to connect and to divide ourselves seems to be part of our genetic make up, and bridges are both a metaphor and a reality of human interaction. The Singing Bridge, part of the Totally Thames festival, is free, always a bonus. So, on this recent rainy Saturday afternoon, with my girls in tow, I gave it a go. And loved it. I loved Molitor’s voice and her narrative. I loved her compositions and that of the other musicians. Perhaps not to everyone’s taste, my girls weren’t so sure about all the pieces, but, for me, the ethereal, electronic, at times faux folk (is that an actual genre?) worked beautifully. I was completely of the moment with Waterloo Bridge and my youngest captured the magical nature of London and the Thames in the rain, all that tangible mist and shadow, on camera The walk begins at Somerset House, where you are handed some large, trendy white headphones and a map, but are immediately told the route is optional. That said, you are crossing a bridge, so the options are limited. The idea is to slowly, thoughtfully and with a heightened sense of awareness cross Waterloo Bridge to the south, have a short stroll round the National Theatre and then back across the bridge. Normally, this can be done in about 15 minutes or less. Quite to my surprise, we took a bit longer than the 40 minutes of audio. Despite the weather and the tourists and the crowds of charity walkers and runners, we dawdled with pleasure, refusing to let the frantic pace of London rush us along. Just as Molitor designed. You really do feel that you are looking at the city and the river with a detail you have never noticed before. It is an incredibly relaxing sensation. Romantic even.
Waterloo Bridge, for most people, is iconic for two reasons. The French Impressionist Claude Monet painted a stunning series of paintings from it, capturing London and the Thames in ever-changing light. Two of these paintings can be seen in the National Gallery. And the Kinks sang about lovers crossing the bridge in Waterloo Sunset, “dirty old river,” below. When my eldest daughter was in Year 2 (7 years old), her class went to Somerset House, home of the Courtauld Gallery collection of impressionist works. Part of the day was spent on Waterloo Bridge drawing the view, as Monet did more than 100 years earlier. I was a parent helper on this trip and was beside myself with joy at the sight of my American daughter drawing on Waterloo Bridge, like the famous French artist himself….the gorgeous cultural mix alone made me giddy. But of course Lizzie wasn’t really drawing as Monet had done, because it was a different bridge. Monet’s Waterloo Bridge was opened in 1817 but closed in 1924 due to disrepair. During WWII the bridge was rebuilt, by a mostly female work force, so it is referred to by people who know these things as the Ladies Bridge. Even better, the Portland stone cladding atop the reinforced concrete releases cleaning chemicals whenever it gets wet…as in whenever it rains. So it self-cleans. Now that is properly clever…well done ladies. It was also the first bridge in London to have electric lights. And it links Somerset House, home of art and ideas of every description, with the National Theatre, an institution dedicated to offering plays and musicals of the traditional and the modern in often new and unexpected ways. Two bastions of London culture, on either side of the mighty Thames, connected by Waterloo Bridge, which for the month of September, sings for you. What could be better?
When the girls and I came up out of the Tube, rather wet but happier for our singing bridge experience, this notice greeted us in the ticket hall of our station. The opening stanza of The Water is Wide, a folk song covered by so many famous voices including Bob Dylan and James Taylor. Could there have been a more fitting note to this day. Thank you London.
For more information on the Totally Thames festival: http://totallythames.org/