London Through the Looking Glass- Works

Editor-in-Chief Tomi Haffety connects a Philip Glass concert to the diversity of experience in London.

Image courtesy of Catherine Hollander

Sitting in the Barbican theatre listening to the second of the six movements that comprise Philip Glass’ most accessible work, ‘Glassworks’, I experienced something of a renewed appreciation for my life in London and decided that I had to find a way to put them into words. Outside, it was a brisk Tuesday evening in November, but I was sitting comfortably in my seat, listening to an ensemble perform the music with an undisturbed fluency. As the concert progressed, I began to lose focus on the music and instead turned to the thoughts that I allowed to pass through, using the music instead as an esoteric score to my wandering thoughts. Throughout the ninety minutes, a multitude of emotions swept over me like a tide of nostalgia and memory. Glass’ music is commonly recognised as being melodically calculated to the point that it seems in and of itself, a perfect loop of instruments. I know very little about music and music theory, so I am unable to describe the technicalities of the movement, however, I am equipped to describe the passion that the musicians play their instrument/s with, and the destinations that I found my mind wandering to as I let my senses become awash with this encompassing melody around me.

Sitting in the row just below me, slightly to my left, was an elderly couple. Although they were sitting there throughout the whole concert, it is only in the last quarter that I noticed them. The ensemble began to play ‘Glassworks IV. Rubric’. As the melodic pandemonium filled the concert hall it struck me as something beyond the music, it embodied the space that I was in: The Barbican, London on this autumn evening, and the space that my thoughts were occupying. It took on all of the chaos going on in these spaces and gave them a sound, a body. I think it had a similar effect on the couple sitting below me. The man began to tap his hands on his knee perfectly in time for the music. Synchronised with the ensemble, the beat that he kept enamoured me and so for the rest of the concert, I continued to be drawn back to his constant tap. I became lost in my thoughts. Thoughts of the concert and the music, but also of London, and the cyclicality of the elderly couple sat in front of me and my own position, as a young person who has only recently moved to the city. It was at this point that I began to connect my thoughts to actor-network theory (ANT), as I often view my experiences in London as themselves occupying space as if they are visible on a map. In this way, it feels like the couple and I am access points to the city, two gates into this world, keeping London’s structure as a diverse metropolis stable. The concept of me being in this space, then living my whole life, and coming back here when I reach their age, feels like it would be an extremely notable and cyclical event. As the music reached its climactic ending, it all became very meta.

Image courtesy of Catherine Hollander

At the beginning of this term, I was sitting in an introductory lecture discussing what the objects in front of us said about London and then unpacking why these representations were important. Looking back, I spent a lot of the lecture staring out at Tavistock Square as it gleamed in the early autumn sunlight, thinking about nothing in particular. But now that I reflect, I think that is also important. Perhaps me experiencing my own thoughts, of my life in this city, is itself a representation of the city. The way that London represents itself to each of us is a deeply personal and distinctive concept. The concepts being discussed in the lecture were explaining that the thoughts I was having during the discussion were just another representation of London, perhaps less tangible, less analysable, but just as real.

Cities are constructed through the encounters between the people who inhabit them. We all have stories of London to tell, things that have shaped our connection to a place that is saturated with millions of constant triumphs and struggles. Cities gain their character through the conviviality of their residents, and to me, this idea has such relevance in a city where there is perpetual flux and change, where nothing is stationary but is made and remade through new perspectives and ideas that are being influenced by the city itself. Every experience is a two-way street. A concept that fits nicely with this idea is actor-network theory, which consolidates the role of everything human and non-human in everyday actions and shows the interconnectedness of materials around us. The basic premise of ANT is that nothing works alone, in isolation from other things or people, and every action has consequences. I use ANT to think about the Philip Glass concert where I first began to ruminate deeply about London. Without the architects of the brutalist wonder that is the Barbican, without the musicians practising their instruments for hours on end, without Glass himself sitting down to compose the movements, there would be no experience for me to have, and there would be nothing for you to read right now.

For a reason that I can still not pinpoint, this performance resonated deeply with me, and I find myself still thinking about it. It does not seem that connected to geographical themes, it is only when I think deeper about the connections between people and actions across London that it becomes obvious that there is something geographical woven into my experience of this performance. Now in my third year of a Geography degree, I find it hard not to trace everything back through the paradigms that I have learnt, or connect everything to everything else in the distinct way that geography does. Sitting in subsequent lectures, thinking about the agency of ‘things’, or the connections between spaces and ideas of home, or the access to nature across cities and beyond, I found myself drawn to the exploration of each experience through ANT, becoming obsessed with the quotidian connections that run so deep between both people and our environments.

To be sat in the Barbican on an autumn Tuesday evening and enjoying the genius of Glass’ work is a privilege that affords me the time to think about the agency of our experiences as we move through London. It reminded me how important it is to ground your body in the lacuna of everyday experiences, and think critically about the mechanisms at work with each event that occurs in the city, and beyond. As the movement drew to a dramatic close, and the musicians played ‘Closing’ with stupefying intensity, I breathed a sigh of relief that I had the vocabulary to articulate my appreciation for all things creative, all things London, and all things geographical.

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