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Geography, Music, Space

Jonathan Hicks (Music, King’s College London) - Tunnel Hearing

14:00-15:40 - Session III: Performance spaces: hearing, playing, feeling

The Thames Tunnel was an underwater walkway connecting the docklands of Wapping and Rotherhithe (it is now, paradoxically, part of the London Overground network). Although it was not fully opened until 1843, it had been listed among the capital’s “Public Amusements” since the late 1820s. Contemporary responses to the Tunnel suggest both reverence and ridicule: this was an engineering marvel and a leaky arcade, a vision of the future and a pipeline for disease. More importantly for our purposes, a number of accounts record the peculiar acoustics of this first crossing under the Thames. “As we descend [into the Tunnel],” observed the German traveller Max Schlesinger, “stray bits and snatches of music greet our ears. ... As we proceed, the music becomes more clear and distinct.” Later in the same decade, the American W. O’Daniel remarked how “the strains [of barrel organs] echo along the arches and up the shafts.” For O’Daniel’s countryman J. T. Headley, the effect was quite disturbing: “that strange humming grew louder and louder ... Hastening forward I came to the farther entrance of the Tunnel, and there sat a man and boy, one with a violin and the other with a harp – the innocent authors of all the strange, indescribable sounds that had so confused me.” In this paper I use descriptions of the Tunnel as a point of departure for considering the geography of music on the move: while this passageway was in many ways unique, I suggest that its history prompts more general questions about the importance of mobility in the shaping of urban performance and hearing.