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01 September 2015

Surface Tension: a conversation with Rob St John part 2

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Last week we featured part 1 of a Q&A with writer, artist and composer Rob St John about his collaborative art / science project Surface Tension, an audiovisual work that explores pollution issues facing the River Lea. In the final part of this conversation, Rob talks about transforming field recordings  and scientific data into a musical composition.

Once the fieldwork had been completed, you returned to the studio and began to work on the final composition. In the accompanying book you say that you “processed the recordings and photographs using methods designed to echo the pollution of the Lea to create the music and images in this book”. What methods did you use?

One of the wider ongoing themes (and questions) in my work is how to incorporate environmental issues and ecological processes into creative production. I’m especially interested in how narratives about landscape and environment might be (re)made through the influence of creative work, particularly in a time that environmentalists are slowly coming to term the Anthropocene, which broadly describes a world in which humans have influenced every patch of the ‘natural’ world, however subtly. And a central part to this is the issue of uncertainty, hybridity and flux in the environment: terms like ‘nature’ and ‘wilderness’ lose their certainty.

I’m not saying I have an answer to any of this, but I think that by explicitly incorporating uncertainty and chance ecological processes into your creative work, you can respond to the various blurrings and hybridisations of natural/cultural, wild/managed, native/invasive descriptions and categorisations in the environment, and in doing so foster new, and hopefully fertile conversations and ideas amongst people who come across the work.

In Surface Tension, I was interested in the polluting and degrading properties of the river’s water. A key ecological narrative from organisations like Thames21 describes how the river is amongst the most polluted in the country, with regular fish kills due to high pollution and low dissolved oxygen levels. And this is pretty obvious to the naked eye when walking the river in the summer: there are blankets of luminous green weed, and hydra-head swirls of oil all over the surface of the middle and lower river, and litter washed up in every backwater. Yet, despite all of this, shoals of fish and flocks of water birds and insects still survive in the river (again, it’s that remarkable thing of species and ecosystems still somehow finding a way to keep ticking over, even in the most human altered landscapes).  Sadly, it’s only when there is a large fish kill (as happens most summers) that the diversity of the river is actually revealed (and of course, reduced again).

So, this has been quite a lot of throat clearing as a means of getting round to telling you about how I used water baths of Lea water to ‘process’ analogue tape and films in the project. Field recordings and new compositions for the project were overlain onto 1/8 inch tape, and then the tapes were spliced into short loops, usually about 10 seconds long. The tape loops were then soaked in the baths of river water – duckweed, oil slicks, water snails and doubtless numerous dissolved chemicals – for a month, shimmering like elvers amongst the murk. The tapes were then taken out, cleaned, dried and replayed. Inspired by the American artist William Basinkski’s Disintegration Loops, I recorded this replaying process, as over time the tapes began to disintegrate and fall apart whilst still spinning.  

Degraded Piano Loop 

The water bath had etched various tributaries and knickpoints into the magnetic layer of the tapes, meaning each recording disintegrated in a pattern partially determined by the action of the river: another form of water and chemical erosion.  Elements of the recordings were slowly lost, creating subtle new melodies, rests and rhythms. The film negatives were processed in the same way and rescanned. Here, another process of reshaping the images occurred, as they each developed new marks, light flares and imperfections from the river and its inhabitants.

Surfaces (1)

Tension (1)

How did you incorporate scientific data into the work?

As with the tape loops, I wanted to let elements of the river and ecology guide the production of the final sound and vision in the project. So alongside this more tactile, physical processing, I used the Ableton Live and Max MSP software to sonify pollution data sets taken by Thames21 and University College London at seven points along the river. Sonification is the process of translating data into sound, much as you might create a visualisation like a graph or map. There’s plenty of interest in sonification at the moment, partly as a creative way of communicating or remaking scientific research, and partly as a means of asking ‘are there certain patterns and trends in a data set that might be easier to spot through hearing, rather than seeing?’

So, for the sonifications, I mapped various pollution parameters (nitrate, phosphate, bacteria and so on) onto sound production parameters (LFO, hi and lo pass filters and so on) in a Max program called Granulator, which mixes hundreds of tiny micro-second samples of sound together. This seemed an appropriate method by which to make the invisible, dissolved pollutants in the river somehow audible. In doing this work, I very quickly realised that any sonification will inevitably expose a tension between the data set used, and the aesthetic and practical choices made in what sound to sonify and how. Is a simple sine wave the most ‘objective’ sound to allow the dataset to ‘produce’? I decided to use harmonium and piano samples (the harmonium, in part because of the reeds – reed planting is one method that Thames21 use to ‘buffer’ pollutants from entering the river), which were gradually remade into something more ambient and granular by the sonification.  

Pollution Data Sonification

And of course, there were aesthetic and practical choices here, too.  A shift in the parameters and the granulator would have turned out crackling noise: interesting, sure, but much less ‘listenable’.  Was there any noticeable trend in the sound in response to the data?  Not really: but these were large, complex and variable datasets.  We often hear sonifications of more predictable and smooth environmental data, such as tide oscillations.  Aside from producing interesting snippets of sound for the project, the sonifications here were of little analytical use, and I wonder if this is a major thing for people to think about if sonification is to become more expansive and useful as a technique: how to deal with complexity?

A final ‘sonic geography’ technique was to map the reverbs of a number of historical architectural spaces such as the Three Mills complex along the river. By creating an ‘impulse’ (a burst balloon, a starting pistol) in a space, and recording the way the sound decays, a convolution reverb which replicates the acoustic ‘fingerprint’ of that space can be generated.  Again, this seemed a neat and appropriate production tool when attempting to play about with ideas of how the Lea Valley landscape has changed (and will do in the future), by blurring various spaces in which water has flown, been mixed, polluted and abstracted in the past: echo chambers for the various traces of the river.

What’s the result of this work?

All these production techniques were used in tandem with a set of new compositions on guitar, cello, piano and analogue synth, recorded partly with Pete Harvey in Scotland. The final piece of music is half an hour of field recordings, music, sonifications and tape loops, all blurring and overlapping, and was released alongside a book of writing and photographs in April, now archived at the British Library.  A sound map of many of the recordings, and the locations where they were taken was also made, and some of the photographs have since been exhibited at Stour Space in London and The Lighthouse in Glasgow.

Surface Tension final

Surface Tension Excerpt

What do you hope people will take away with them when they experience Surface Tension?

I hope they enjoy it!  Despite all this theoretical wittering and pondering that’s gone into the work, I wanted to make something that’s really easy and enjoyable to pick up and listen to and read.  And then if something sparks your attention, there’s a whole bunch of contextual information that you can spin off into (like this interview, I guess).  And maybe to be encouraged to visit the Lea Valley, and to see it in a slightly different light, one that’s neither entirely natural nor urban, planned nor self-willed, but instead a brilliant, unique and odd entanglement of all these things and more.

Rob St John Press Landscape b C) Emma Cardwell

Rob St John (courtesy Emma Cardwell)


Surface Tension can be consulted in the British Library Reading Rooms (catalogue reference number 1SS0010348)

27 August 2015

Mátyás Seiber collection of recordings goes on line

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Seiber's own collection of recordings donated by his daughter Julia Seiber Boyd,  the Matyas Seiber collection, has been digitised and put on line on BL Sounds.

Mátyás György Seiber (1905-1960) was born in Budapest where he studied composition with Zoltan Kodály and cello with Adolf Shiffer at the Budapest Academy of Music. From the late 1920s he taught in Frankfurt where his classes in jazz were the first of its kind. He left Germany in 1933 and settled in England in 1935 where he worked as a freelance writer and did various jobs including writing music for films. In 1942 Michael Tippett offered him a teaching post at Morley College where during this decade he was a founder of the Society for New Music with Francis Chagrin, and the Dorian Singers.

Seiber wrote in many different forms including opera, ballet, songs and chamber music; he also wrote much incidental music for radio, television and film productions. Most of his finest works are represented in his collection of discs.

Seiber Kodaly talk disc 1943Some of these recordings are in poor condition being more than eighty years old, but they are unique and of great historical interest as Seiber recorded many of the broadcast first performances of his works.  Some important BBC talks from the early 1940s survive here including part of one on his teacher Zoltan Kodaly in 1943.  This is a glass disc coated with cellulose nitrate that was broken into three pieces.

A seven part series Composing With Twelve Notes was broadcast in 1952. Seiber’s Second String Quartet (1934-35) uses Schoenberg’s serial techniques and can be heard here in the first UK broadcast from 1957. The cantata Ulysses written in 1946-47 is given in a performance with Peter Pears as soloist while the incidental music for Faust, a radio play from 1949 by Louis MacNeice based on Goethe, comes from the recording session discs. The Cantata Secularis (1949-51) based on Virgil, survives here in the first broadcast performance from 1955 with Walter Goehr and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. 

Seiber Town like AliceIn addition to incidental music for radio plays, Seiber also wrote film scores including A Town like Alice, the 1956 Rank film starring Peter Finch and Virginia McKenna.

Seiber’s interest in jazz and blues is evident as there are recordings (mostly copies of commercial discs) of the great blues singers Josh White and Leadbelly. Seiber probably used these in his research for writing incidental music as there are also recordings by folk song collectors Alan Lomax and A.L. Lloyd. One early disc from his time in Germany is of Seiber playing various forms of jazz-influenced dance styles – ragtime, Argentine tango, slow fox-trot and Charleston,while the earliest dated recordings come from South West German radio in 1932.


25 August 2015

Surface Tension: a conversation with Rob St John part 1

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Rob St John is a writer, musician and artist who recently collaborated with the waterways charity Thames21 on Surface Tension, an audiovisual project highlighting the pollution issues currently facing the River Lea. Here Rob discusses the project and how he set about exploring this vast body of water.

Last summer you were approached by Ben Fenton from Thames21's Love the Lea project to produce a piece of work that explores pollution issues currently facing the River Lea. The River Lea is a pretty substantial stretch of water, running from Hertfordshire to east London and carving a route through a range of different habitats. With a brief like this, where on earth did you start?

With an OS map and some walking boots! Thames21 generally work on waterways within the M25, so the geographical spread was narrowed down a little, although that said I did walk further upstream, way past the motorway, mostly to get a better idea of how the valley changes as the river flows (or doesn’t as I increasingly found) south. Lea Valley has plenty of decent footpaths, so walking the river wasn’t really a problem; instead the challenge was to track different channels of the Lea, particularly as it splits off and out around Enfield. In the end, I walked from up past Cheshunt down to where the Lea meets the Thames at Trinity Wharf, and back again, over the course of a few weekends in the late summer of last year.


You made a range of field recordings during that summer. Did you have a clear idea of what you wanted to record or did you approach it with a completely open mind?

It was largely exploratory: after the first recording walk I pared down my recording kit quite substantially, relying largely on a simple field recorder and OKM binaural microphones. There’s something really enjoyable about being able to be so mobile when recording; to stop and quickly set up and capture an emergent or interesting sound. Binaural recording feels very attuned to your body – obviously in the way the microphones sit in your ears – but also in the ways it picks up your footsteps, the sound of you swallowing or your stomach rumbling…(an issue on some of the longer walks).  

There’s a wider conceptual thing here about how you approach field recording, I think. For me, binaural recording’s inherently mobile and bodily characteristics – coupled with the incredible, spatial recordings that it produces – make it an appealing approach to me. I’d much rather be led by my feet and ears in trying to catch traces of the soundscape, rather than setting up masses of kit in an effort to record a specific sound or set of sounds in the highest possible clarity and fidelity. Again, I suppose, this depends on what you want to do with the recordings. In this project (and in general) I didn’t record for reference sound libraries or similar, but rather as a means of providing a palette of natural (and non-natural) sound to produce, alter and generally tinker with in the final piece of sound and music.

Can you tell us about the types of recordings you made?

The binaural recordings were great for picking up the familiar sounds of the Lea Valley: boat communities, cyclists, parakeets, overground trains, aeroplanes, coots and moorhens, footballers on Hackney Marsh, dredgers in the estuary, riverside bars and cafes spilling people out onto the towpath. But in a way that’s more than representational of these individual sounds; binaural recordings are great for picking up wider resonances, overlaps and blurrings of different sounds, often anonymous and shorn of their source, prompting an uncertainty of what in fact you’re hearing.  

Enfield Coot family

I loved the way that parakeet calls would flit around car alarms; the way the rumble of traffic seemed to compensate for the lack of sound from a still river; and how coot calls would reverberate around echoing dry docks along with the clatter of machinery and hammers: an often unintended (and fascinating) blurring of the natural and non-natural, man-made and self-willed through sound.  And often there would be long, subtle drones and burrs in the recordings that I didn’t hear at the time: possibly the effect of my body acting as an antenna through to the rumbles of the ground (it’s perhaps never more evident quite how loud London is until you record there).

Parakeets over Hackney Marsh

In addition to the binaural recordings, I used two other types of microphones: hydrophones and contact mics.  Hydrophones are dropped beneath the surface of a body of water (a process that’s a bit like ‘fishing for sound’ I guess), and pick up the buzzes, scrapes and rumbles of the underwater soundscape: boat engines, insect activity, aquatic birds diving, and occasionally a sound that you cannot identify. Contact mics are stuck to various surfaces (drain pipes, walkway handrails, brick walls, sewer pipes and so on) with electrical tape, and pick up vibrations transmitted by the city (water, traffic, people, boats) conducted through various objects and surfaces.

Hydrophone in Trinity Buoy Wharf

The three techniques allowed me to collect a wide palette of sound from the Lea Valley, each transmitted and filtered in different ways: from the air, through solid objects and surfaces and from beneath the water’s surface. I wanted to let the environment lead me rather than being prescriptive in setting out to capture a specific set of sound: building an inherent sense of uncertainty, chance and serendipity into the approach. I mean, the Lea Valley soundscape (if you can be so general, scale is very important here) is constantly changing and fluid, and heard in an inherently individual and subjective way, so I thought: why try and necessarily pin it down to specific constituent parts?

The different recording techniques you used during your fieldwork allowed you to explore the Lea from both above and below the river’s surface. Underwater recordings are endlessly fascinating because they help you to eavesdrop on a world that is usually inaudible to the human ear. Could you tell us about some of the more unusual or unexpected sounds you encountered beneath the surface of the River Lea?

Listening to pondweed photosynthesise is always a hoot, particularly in the way that putting hydrophones into a seemingly ordinary, perhaps polluted, stretch of water can bring it alive: giving voice to invisible life below the water’s surface. When pondweed photosynthesises (the process of exchanging dissolved oxygen and carbon dioxide with the water), it releases streams of tiny air bubbles. When these hit the submerged hydrophones, they produce a variety of short percussive crackles and buzzes, a little like minimal electronica. Added to this, there are the sounds of various underwater insects flitting through the pondweeds, and striating their back legs in order to communicate and signal. Finally, there’s a sonic backdrop of the river itself: of boats passing with rattling hulls and whirring propellers; of mysterious and unseen swooshes that could well be passing fish.  

I ran a public engagement workshop at last year’s Thames21 Love the Lea festival last summer, where we had a number of headphones set up to listen in to the hydrophones. It was a real pleasure to get to talk about this underwater sound with dozens of people – young and old – most of whom brought different interpretations as to what they might be listening to. There’s a real creative, imaginative effect to listening to these obscured sounds in seemingly still and lifeless places.

How many recordings did you collect during that summer?  

Dozens of hours of recordings, which were then edited down to around fifty or so recordings for use in the composition and soundmap.

What other documentation did you collect?

I took photographs all along the walk, in tandem with the sound recordings. These were all taken on film, partly with a nice old 120 Zeiss Nettar camera, and partly on 35mm using pinhole cameras that I made from Lesney matchboxes. The Lesney toy factory was at Hackney Wick until relatively recently (I’m not entirely sure what it has been redeveloped as), so making new images using a cardboard ‘shell’ of Lea Valley history seemed appropriate. And whilst pinhole cameras are notoriously difficult to take decent shots on (I was using a piece of electrical tape as a shutter, and doing some mental arithmetic to calculate exposures…), some of the images that resulted were amongst my favourites. In a way I thought of the walks as ‘experimental’ or ‘creative’ geography fieldwork: tracking routes and sites in a way that echoes a field trip, but gathering information on the landscape through various creative techniques.


In the second part of this conversation, Rob explains how he transformed field recordings collected along the River Lea and scientific data into a musical composition and accompanying book.


Surface Tension can be consulted here in the British Library Reading Rooms (catalogue reference number 1SS0010348)