Surface Tension

Rob St John’s river songs were recorded with microphones dipped into the River Lea

In September last year, what one commentator described as a ‘foam moloch’ was seen advancing down the River Lea from the Lea Bridge Weir near Hackney Marshes. The wall of foam – believed to have been caused by a detergent spill and over three metres at its apex – was greeted with a mixture of amusement and concern by onlookers who took to social media to describe what they were witnessing.

Sound artist and photographer Rob St John had finished gathering material for his River Lea-based album Surface Tension just before the foam took hold. The whole incident made me think about how we see the river. We’re content to pollute and neglect it while romanticising ones that are long gone. That’s an interesting tension in itself.”

Commissioned by the Love The Lea campaign, Surface Tension comprises a book, an exhibition of photography and an album of the same name. It was recorded over four weekends in August and September as Rob walked the length of the Lea Valley from Waltham Abbey to the Thames, armed with a selection of cameras and recording devices.

His aim was to bring the river to life, capturing what’s happening underneath by, as he called it, fishing for sound. Using a hydrophone, Rob uncovered a sub-aquatic world full of unearthly sounds, from the pottering of a dredger engine to the crackle of minute oxygen bubbles on pondweed. He melded these with binaural microphone recordings (where recordings are made with two microphones to create a 3D sound), disintegrating tape loops soaked in the Lea's water along with cello and piano played by Pete Harvey to compose an album that evokes the changing nature of the landscape – and echoes the pollution and reshaping of the valley.

As you listen, there’s an eerie feeling of being gently transported downriver by the sounds, at the outset cascading, then fuller and gradually shifting, then more insistent and industrial. You hear the noise of football matches, dog-walkers, spinning fishing reels, the metallic bustle of scrapyards and passing trains while birdsong and lilting music punctuates your course downstream.

It’s often difficult to tell which noises are generated artificially and which are the result of the field recordings Rob made during his weekends along the Lea and subsequently manipulated. “The  recordings and music are deliberately blended and smudged,” said Rob. “Sounds are abstracted from their source and the instruments and melodies I chose are inspired by them. The idea is to highlight the ambiguity between what’s imaginary and what’s real and show that, despite appearances and what people think, there’s lots of life in the Lea.”​

It’s a spellbinding soundscape, the aural equivalent of spending hours gazing at a passing river and letting your imagination drift along on the current. 

Words: Ben McCormick

Surface Tension is released on 10 April on limited edition CD, housed in a book of Rob’s photographs and writing, designed by Tommy Perman. The exhibition runs at Stour Space, Hackney Wick, London throughout April.

Last date edited: 13 April 2015

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