If the Route

Beatrice Gibson and Jamie McCarthy
(resonanceFM & Studio Voltaire, 2007)

‘Where to, guv?’ It’s not for nothing that the London cab driver’s traditional greeting inspires confidence. In order to drive one of the iconic black taxis, each cabbie must complete the Knowledge – 320 routes and 30,000 streets covering a six-mile radius of central London. The examination (created in 1851 after complaints that taxi drivers couldn’t find their way to the Great Exhibition), and its mnemonic methods are unique; a system enabling such detailed topographical knowledge (from major landmarks to obscure stretches of road) that your average London cabbie can outstrip any fancy GPS unit.
This was the point of departure for ‘If the Route: the Great Learning of London’ (2007), a radio project by artist Beatrice Gibson and musician Jamie McCarthy. A set of seven broadcasts on resonanceFM, by various trainee cabdrivers, musicians, architects and writers, ‘If the Route’ collided the Knowledge with the principles of composer Cornelius Cardew’s The Great Learning (1968–71); a score in seven instructional paragraphs, written for any professional or amateur performers.

The first broadcast (performed at Studio Voltaire) was created in collaboration with ten Knowledge students and involved enacting their daily ‘calling over’ tests – whereby novitiate cabbies recite routes to each other – to the accompaniment of four improvising string players. Opening with rapid-fire solo voices (‘Rolls Road to St Martin’s Theatre: leave by Humphrey Street right Old Kent Road comply Bricklayers Arms roundabout …’), the calls gradually layered over each other, until joined by long, arcing string notes – dramatic counterpoints to the alert recitations of the vocalists.

The second episode featured two talks commissioned by architect Celine Condorelli; management analyst Walter Skok on the Knowledge as a successful model of community expertise, and trainee taxi driver Jonny Hare reading from the Greek Ars Memoria (The Art of Memory), an ancient text with startlingly contemporary resonances. Cab driver of 18 years, writer and poet, Simon Phillips presented broadcast three: seven poems, seven taxi-related songs (including tracks by Hanoi Rocks and Angel Corpus Christi) and seven texts by his father, Phil Phillips, a well-known writer for taxi trade magazines. Entertaining and poignant, it was in stark contrast to Eyal Weizman, Peter Mörtenböck and Helge Mooshammer’s dense, theoretical response. A fictional panel discussion wrought from cut-and-pasted voices elaborating on ideas of (small ‘k’) knowledge production, each voice was recorded in a different location. The various room ambiences created a kind of topography encoded in sound, saving the piece from academic stiffness. Tom McCarthy broadcast a phantasmagoric radio transmission – sheets of shortwave static from which drifted voices reciting Homeric odes to Hermes. Kaffe Matthews’ ‘Packington Square’ was built from information gleaned during walks through east London; the high-pitched tones and fragmented found sound of her palimpsest composition complimented McCarthy’s spectral signals. The final programme returned to Gibson and Jamie McCarthy’s own pieces – electronica as abrasive as rush hour and affecting as empty streets at dawn.

Although owing a big debt to Cardew (who was, ironically, killed by a hit-and-run driver), and Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt’s ‘Oblique Strategies’ (1975–
ongoing), ‘If the Route’ was engagingly thoughtful – a radio project which never let you forget that, as Phil Phillips put it, ‘you have to see the city to know the city’.

Issue 109

First published in Issue 109

September 2007

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