Water of Life may be the evolution of field recordings. Presented in an enormously appealing package, the 45 is accompanied by letterpress artwork and a series of essays that address Edinburgh’s water flow. As the first edition of the larger Imagining Natural Scotland project, it makes a wonderful first impression, and an even better second impression as the listener delves into the structure of the recordings and the background of Edinburgh. Is it possible for people around the world to be interested in a Scottish water system? Amazingly, yes. In the same way as a good novel makes one care about characters and settings that one has never visited, Water of Life makes its subject seem so interesting that the music itself seems almost an afterthought.
Take for example the following description: “Side B is based on confluences through the city: the pipelines, storm drains and sewers leading to sanitation and the sea, ending in a set of voices singing an excavated children’s song about a watery spirit said to haunt the Pennybap boulder by Seafield Sewage Works.” Okay, honestly, who wouldn’t want to hear a short song (4:32) that packs all that in? This project is about so much more than water; it’s about the ways in which water moves, mutates, and is integrated into human lives. It’s not just something that comes from faucets and dwells in lakes. Water occupies our cells, courses through our veins, provides solace to the afflicted and when agitated, breaks through every barrier.
In “Planning for change: the river as a work of art”, St. John reminds his readers of the danger of floodwaters, then asks, “Does our visual and aesthetic sense of an environment enhance or obscure its history?” The essay “Sourcing water: controversy and confluence” traces disputes over the tapping of “natural” sources. “Common Springs: the moubray, peewit, sandglass and fox” asks questions about “what we choose to restore, and why”. It seems contradictory to say this, in light of the fact that the vinyl is recycled and the ink has been carefully doled out, but this release is an essential physical purchase; the music is appealing without the artwork and essays, but deeper when regarded as one.
As expected, the purest field recordings are found at the beginning of Side A, as the sounds of three springs are merged with a swiftly developing tune. The unexpected arrives 90 seconds in with the arrival of a 1960s transistor organ. It all sounds groovy and mod, a welcome occurrence in the midst of what we were all taking so seriously. This confluence may echo the confluence of rivers, but it is instead a confluence of disciplines: field recording and music, nature and art, memory and vision, and a huge dollup of happy awareness. The aforementioned “Liquid City/The Shellycoat” finishes with the sound of joyful children. Perhaps we’ve all been too dour about this conservation business. A smile is more effective than a frown, and that’s what Water of Life provides. (Richard Allen)