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Water Of Life: A Liquid Cartography Of Edinburgh In Sound, Words & Images
Nicola Meighan , December 15th, 2013 11:55

Rob St John and Tommy Perman have created Water Of Life, a sound and visual art project devoted to the journey of water from the Scottish hills to and through the city of Edinburgh. Nicola Meighan interviews.

The city of Edinburgh has been re-mapped, thanks to liquid cartographers Tommy Perman and Rob St John. Their Water of Life (ad)venture is a fascinating underground city guide that includes performances, talks, a 7" with art prints and essays, and a ground-breaking water-borne sound-map of Edinburgh.

The endeavour is steeped in local history, geography, industry and mythology, as inspired (and choreographed) by Edinburgh’s water network, and it heralds a high-watermark in the careers of cult-pop artist Perman (ere of ingenious Scottish art-pop collective FOUND) and enthralling doom-folk topographer St John.

You can trace their collaboration back to St John’s Water Lives project (2012) for Oxford University – wherein he produced a collaborative project bringing Perman together with an animator, haiku poet and a group of freshwater biology scientists and academics – but we also have a domestic plumbing riddle to thank for Water of Life: a blocked pipe in St John’s Edinburgh flat, which was owned by Perman, gave rise to their nascent conversations about the beauty, chaos and mystery of water in the city.

The duo tapped water throughout Edinburgh, from mountain reservoirs to Royal Mile manhole covers (one such apparent drain, they discovered, was actually housing a waterfall) and Perman takes us on a journey to one of the key historic sites, now hidden within a housing estate: the graffiti-scrawled, nettle-entangled and partially-derelict 17th century Comiston Springs Water House, which serviced the city until the early 1700s. You can still hear its water burbling, if you put an ear to the iron door, and it provides one of many field-recordings that blurs with folksong and ambient electronica on the Water of Life compositions, some of which are available now as a limited, beautifully-packaged 7".

Each of the tanks in the Comiston Springs Water House was originally protected by a lead animal (fox, swan, lapwing, hare and, according to legend, a now-missing owl). These creatures give the nearby forgotten well heads and residential streets their names – Fox Spring Rise; Swan Spring Avenue – and their mythology (they were thought to represent a conduit between real and imagined realms) permeates St John’s accompanying essays, and Perman’s techno-folkloric visual art.

Comiston Springs Water House distils the essence of Water of Life: it questions perceptions of, and boundaries between, natural and man-made contexts; it demonstrates the inextricable (and harmonious) relationship between nature and industry, science and mythology; it reflects a constant, yet constantly unknowable, source. It gives water a voice.

Did the idea of Water of Life spring from any existing ventures, research or sound-maps?

Robert St John: As far as I’m aware, this is the first time anything like this has been done in Edinburgh. Ian Rawes' work on the excellent London Sound Survey is an ever-present inspiration, and he's put together a sound map of London's waterways.  Annea Lockwood's 'Sound Map of the Hudson River' and 'Sound Map of the Danube' were similarly inspiring, as recordings of water carry traces of voices, transport, industry, animals that surround the waterway. The burbles and drones in the recordings can sound like minimal ambient electronica, all the time a rich descriptor of the landscape the water briefly inhabits.  

In more general terms, I was excited about using water as a way of tracing new routes through the city, being led to stories and sites that I hadn't encountered before, all with a fair element of chance and uncertainty. I suppose we're inspired by the Situationist movement in some ways, attempting to find new ways of understanding and inhabiting the places we live in: place-making and storytelling.

How did you go about plotting and creating the sound-map, and with what goals? I'm curious about the extent to which it was informed by existing documentation / geography and how much it was shaped by your imagination / aesthetic / mythology.

RSJ: The starting point for plotting the sound-map was to scour an OS map of the city, marking all water (or traces of water) I could find, and these became the first points for fieldwork. The second strand was the archival research I carried out in the National Library of Scotland and City Archives, attempting to trace the histories of water in the city, which often wheeled off into fascinating social and cultural histories – for example, Seafield Sewage Works and The Shellycoat, and the Comiston Water Houses.

The goal was to create a sound palette which represented the different sounds of water in the city: a set of recordings which were kept intentionally brief (30 seconds – two minutes), taken using hydrophones, ambient and contact microphones. The sound-map aims to give a new way of exploring the city, revealing traces of water and the stories attached to them. We've been in contact with the sound archive at the British Library, where the recordings will form part of their UK-wide natural sounds map.

Rob, one of the ideas you touch upon in your essays is that Water of Life allows you to explore the ways that scientists and artists can collaborate to explore and interpret the environment in new ways. Would you agree that the opposite also applies? That tapping the environment's resources allows you to explore and understand music, and art, in new ways too?

RSJ: Water's interesting to think about in the city, as it is always in flux: from polluted to purified; refined and restrained to unruly and flood-making. I'm interested in how we think about conceptions of nature and 'naturalness' in the environment, and in this project, specifically how nature is thought about, used and managed in the city: finding gaps and niches for life to thrive amongst the concrete. This idea of collaboration between scientists and artists appeals to me (not least because I think I fall somewhere in the fuzzy middle between the two disciplines), because of some common guiding principles: a shared curiosity and creativity in understanding and reimagining the world around us.

In the Water Lives animation I produced a couple of years ago for Oxford University, I thought about these ideas a lot: how tiny microscopic lives – the unseen diatoms and algae in water – have beautiful, alien shapes and structures, and how admiring their beauty and learning a little about their biology could perhaps be done in parallel. I think these collaborations are at their most potent when scientists and artists work together from the start on a project in as many ways as possible, rather than artists solely being the translators and communicators of scientific work.

The Water of Life 7" is intrinsically linked to the project – its music and production has water as its primary source; its ambient, liquid electronica channels local aquatic folklore – but it’s also a fascinating artefact (and very fine record) in its own right. Can you please tell me a bit about the intentions and inspiration behind it?

Tommy Penman: We didn't actually know if it was right to make any music right until the end of the project. And then there was no doubt in our minds. There were so many themes and stories for us to respond to that writing the music was dead easy, everything flowed. For example, I wrote a piece of music responding to the Water House at Comiston springs which has a little scene for each of the animals – it seemed right to write a little melody for each – and one of them's not there, the owl, so that melody is kind of sparse.

RSJ: On the 7", there’s two tracks, each created using the recordings from the sound-map as drones, texture and percussion – dripping taps, stones moving underwater – alongside a limited set of instruments: a transistor organ, harmonium, synth and iPad. We intentionally wanted to use a mixture of the old and new; the hi-fi and lo-fi in creating the tracks, as it seemed to reflect the hybrid nature of water in the city: constantly in flux, a blend of the environmental and social; technological and folkloric.

The first track 'Sources and Springs / Abercrombie, 1949' takes a set of recordings close to the source of the Water of Leith, and leads into an organ melody which was inspired by Basil Kirchin and post-war plans for the city's environment. The second is based on the idea of water constantly being reworked, blended and channelled away under our feet in sewers, underground pipelines and, finally, the sewage works. We ended the track with a snatch of a tune about The Shellycoat, a watery spirit which is said to haunt a boulder The Pennybap, which was previously off the shore at Seafield, and now sits in the carpark of some office buildings next to the sewage works.

TP: We were inviting the unexpected with the 7", because I think that really leads you down a different path, and that extends to the making or the 7" itself, using what can be described as low-impact processes: we've letter-pressed the sleeve onto recycled board, and we're making 300, but each one will be slightly different because it's not a perfect process. Every time you make a copy there's a little imperfection in it, and it just seemed that that mirrors the whole narrative...

Can you please tell me a bit about the production of the record?

TP: The production was a joy, I loved doing that. Because we decided we wanted to have as many ways of using water in the creation of the sound, we carried on a technique called convolution reverb that I’d been using with FOUND – it captures the sound and reverberations of a space. I read up on how to do it for underwater spaces, and Rob brought underwater microphones, which we used in all kinds of environments – in river beds, reservoirs, lakes, bathtubs – and collected all of these underwater reverbs. The characteristics of those sounds are just bizarre, and we added them to all of our recorded musical parts, and they just give this really unusual character to the music, and of course they’re being played through the water.

RSJ: Similarly, we used field recordings of water across the city - lochs, rivers, puddles, pub barrel rooms, manhole covers - to create drumbeats and textures. The majority our music was inspired by the tones and textures in our field recordings. We made one recording in particular at Oxgangs Lochan in the south of the city, close to the Comiston water houses. It’s an artificial loch that was created in the early 2000s in the footprint of a demolished skyscraper. I dropped a pair of hydrophones into Canadian Pondweed at the edge of the lochan, picking up the percussive buzzes and scrapes of underwater insects flitting from stem to stem, and the rubber-duck squeak of moorhens cruising above and the faraway drone of the bypass. Our music-making quickly became restricted to a narrow palette of instruments inspired by this recording: the drones of a harmonium and transistor organ and the bleeps and crackles of a sampler and synth, reshaping, filtering and generally playing with the raw audio in our recordings.  

TP: Conceptually I loved it, sonically I loved it. And I think because of these working methods, this is the most inter-related of all of projects I’ve ever done. You can't extract anything, you can't unravel one thread, and not take the whole thing with it.

RSJ: I'm looking forward to using these reverbs on more projects: 'I think that drum kit needs more of a Duddingston Loch reverb on it!'

For more information on Water Of Life, please visit the project website