Word of Mouth: Music in London

From storied concert halls to future-forward dance venues, our sonic survey of the city

There’s a lot to learn from London, a city with perhaps the most storied music history in the past 150 or so years. During a recent visit, we delved into several multi-sensory, sonically-driven experiences—some as simple as a live orchestral concert and others as creative as a five-story flat transformed into a living diorama of a time machine. It’s this kind of evolving energy that makes London a hub for future-forward dance music venues, too. Whether you’re traveling with family or friends, choose your own musical adventure below.

by Sun Bak

Royal Albert Hall

So much history has taken place within this uniquely large yet intimate venue since it opened in 1871. Royal Albert Hall, if you revisit oral histories or recordings of past concerts, is a testament to how well artists will perform in a safe space. It also happens to be the perfect place for experiencing a classical music concert lying down, for less than the price of a beer. For the annual BBC Proms season, the venue releases more than a thousand standing tickets the day of, and tickets start at £6—live classical music doesn’t get more accessible than that. Experienced attendees will head for the Gallery area, the Hall’s top level, to roll out their yoga mats by the wall, bring out their favorite book or current knitting project, and have their daydreams soundtracked by some of the world’s most talented performers.

Ronnie Scott’s

This basement jazz club with a Moulin Rouge-like cabaret vibe just celebrated 60 years of live music in the heart of gay Soho. It seems as if every great jazz legend has passed through: Ronnie Scott’s was where Jimi Hendrix would play his last public performance, in 1970, two days before he died; where Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone recorded live albums; where the audience could see every worn wrinkle carved into Chet Baker’s face as he played the trumpet; the list goes on. Ownership has changed hands, yet the venue stays intimate and inspirational in its showcase of raw energy and musical talent. Though Ronnie Scott’s serves dinner (and Sunday lunch), the entrees do evoke business-class airplane food, so stick to the cocktails, wine, or large pots of teas.

The Cause

For a warehouse-like vibe in lesser-trodden territory, The Cause is located a ways away from central London—in Tottenham, home of the Hotspurs—in a former car mechanic’s garage. The dance space and community venue, which houses independent distilleries and co-working opportunities, opened in April 2018 with a specific goal: raise awareness and money for mental health charities to improve resources, especially for musicians. (“Mental health is dance music’s most urgent issue,” a recent DJ Mag feature proclaims.) The Cause, always intended to end when its lease did, is set to close its current space in January 2020, which makes it feel even more special (and ephemeral). Here’s to hoping this wonderful idea of dancing the night with intention and supporting nonprofit organizations gets replicated far beyond London’s borders and carried around the world.

Courtesy of Dennis Severs’ House

Dennis Severs’ House

For those who can’t stand concerts and loud noises, we recommend the most unusual “storyhearing” experience: an unassuming five-story flat in Spitalfields known as the Dennis Severs’ House. It’s a historical fiction novel come to life, following a family through the years 1724 to 1914. Visitors are sworn to silence as they walk through 10 different rooms lit only by fire and candlelight (a reminder of how our eyes are so unused to natural darkness). Every room is inhabited by murmurs, smells (like half-eaten meals left on the table), and the subtlest of sound design. Each carefully arranged space looks as if the family has just momentarily left, and it’s up to you to fill in the blanks with the story of what’s taking place. Whereas museums seem to reward the eyes or iPhones, this “still-life drama” dreamed up by the late artist Dennis Severs is an exercise in concentration, imagination, stimulation of all five senses, and most of all, appreciating the ephemeral. Their annual Christmas installation, or interpretation, kicks off 24 November and runs through 6 January 2020.