CD Reviews

Thursday 7th July

July 8, 2011

Tonight a CD that perhaps doesn’t really fit the mood I have cultivated today from my gallery trip and reading on the train in and out of London, but as I am trying to work my way through the backlog of CD in some kind of organised fashion, and because this is the disc I have been listening to over recent days its the one I am writing about!

The CD then is a set of field recordings, if indeed field recordings is the correct description here, made in and around the Pollardstown Fen body of water in Co. Kildare, Ireland. The album is named Water Beetles of Pollardstown Fen and is by Tom Lawrence, released on the Gruenrekorder label. The ten tracks here then each portray the amazing sounds made by beetles, other insects, and assorted pondlife, much of it vegetative found in this kind of area. Now a good few years back I was lucky enough to go to a semi-stagnant pool up in Derbyshire with a few others to hear Lee Patterson drop a home made hydrophone into the water so we could hear the incredible set of sounds made by insects as they carry out something known as stridulation, which I believe is the act of rubbing together various body parts, often the back legs to create vibrations and sounds much louder than something so small should in theory be able to make. The sounds then are like buzzing synthesiser groans, or early computer game sound effects, often rhythmic yet remarkably uniform and consistent. The recordings here mostly capture these sounds as different creatures, and in some places bubbling, fizzing plantlife are recorded going about their daily, hidden, and somewhat noisy lives.

Now the sounds here are fascinating, and very well recorded. I don’t have any recordings of Lee Patterson’s work in this area so I can’t really compare it to anything, but it feels very cleanly recorded, with the sounds mostly uninterrupted, and when they are, its by thunder, or rain on the water, or other natural impacts that enhance the recordings rather than spoil them. It is impressive to hear this hidden world in all its glory, to share in the insectual conversations (are they conversations?) that are usually out of the reach of the human ear. For those that have not heard anything in this particular area before, but have an interest in field recording this CD will probably be a real ear-opener, as I remember how I felt when I was first made aware of the rich catalogue of sounds to be found under the water’s surface. The problem though, is once you have heard the sound, once the surprise is over, this CD essentially becomes a piece of nature documentation, a catalogue of amazing sounds brought to the human ear, but perhaps not really music, or rather, not really music of any great purpose or conceptual weight.

This isn’t a criticism at all, but this album falls, for me anyway, into the category of natural documentation as much as it does creative music. Aside from some tastefully simple crossfades there isn’t any editing, enhancements or attempts to sculpt these recordings into anything more than the remarkable audio photographs that they are. Subsequently then, my connection with these recordings becomes one of technical awe and natural wonder perhaps rather than one of emotional or engaged response. I don’t want to seem to be dogmatic about my response to field recordings, requiring direct input from the composer, or needing the recordings to be treated in some way, as this isn’t the case- I can enjoy listening to something like this as well as the next guy, but I do think I would prefer these sounds more if they were subsequently taken and applied to something more directly creative, composed, interacted with by a human hand/mind. Of course when a CD like this is put together, and longer tracks are cut up, decisions are made over which piece should sit beside which other piece, where a track should fade in and out there is plenty of compositional intervention taking place, but ultimately this CD sounds to me like an audio scrapbook of fascinating sounds more than it does sound like any kind of statement from Tom Lawrence. Again, this needn’t be a criticism, and I guess that if I had not heard these kinds of sounds before then I would be far more excited about hearing them here for the first time, but as I listen to the bugs chirruping and buzzing away again for the third time through tonight I can’t help but wonder what could be done with these sounds if placed into the hands of a strong compositional mind.

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