Occasionally a recording artist does something so thoroughly and so well that it puts most other artists to shame. Rob St John is this sort of artist, and Surface Tension is only the latest of his productions, arriving on the heels of Water for Life (with Tommy Perman) and a series of curated releases on the Folklore Tapes label. The physical edition, again designed by Perman, is a lovely 52-page perfect bound book, filled with photos and a descriptive essay, backed by an elaborate site page that includes a sound map, more photographs and news of an exhibition. Of course, none of this would work if the sounds were not intriguing as well, but once again, the artist rises to the occasion. One can listen to the field recordings separately online or blended into a half-hour soundscape on the CD. (For those who are about to rip their hair out, learning that the second edition is already sold out, the download is free.)
Even a quick look at the sound map is enough to demonstrate what the multi-media release is about: London’s River Lea, “one of Britain’s most polluted and human-altered rivers.” The phrase one of causes one to pause; how many such rivers are there? When listening to “Metalworks Below Old Ford Lock” and “Hackney Wick Bridge Construction Work”, one loses the sense of natural beauty established by the more enticing sounds of the river and its avian neighbors. A similar effect takes place when contrasting the placid cover with the words inside. St John writes, “The name Surface Tension comes from the variety of different ‘surfaces’ in the Lea Valley.” So far, so good. But then he goes on to list “the polluted river surface, overgrown with eutrophic flares of blanket weed; plastic bags and beer cans; (and) the crumbling brick and rusting metal surfaces on old buildings colonized by lichen-like graffiti.” Paradise has been abused and obscured.
This is not to say that the human presence is entirely unwelcome. “Dog Walker” features a likable canine and its walker, who pleas, “Come on, Kira.” “Olympic Park Ceremony Rehearsal” offers the nostalgic tinge of a carnival. When St John writes about the old Lensey Toy Factory, he does so with affection. Humans may have messed this place up, but they’re not all bad. This dualism sets St John’s project apart from others of its kind; he’s still warm in tone, still cheerful, still hopeful about humanity.
The warmth applies to the recording as well. When reading about the “tower of foam a mile long and ten feet high (moving) slowly down the River Lea like an eerie chemical procession,” one imagines the tower sonically reflected by a crushing drone, or at the very least a haunted, dissonant tone more suited to Devon Folklore Tapes. But no. St John loves the pure sound of the river, and is horrified by what it has become; but he’s also enchanted by the sound of children and laughter. His unified soundscape is as soft in tone as his essay is (gently) accusatory, as if to remind listeners and readers that they are all in this together: both the pollution and the potential cleanup. Anyone who reads about the gallons of chemicals dumped in the river while listening to the sound of children playing without at least taking a pause is one heartless bastard; but St John never states anything so obvious. Instead, he soaks his tapes in Lea Water (reminiscent of the boardroom scene in “Erin Brockovich,” in which polluters are offered glasses of their own water). This results in abraded surfaces akin to those of the river. The only downside to this approach is that the recordings do sound beautiful, and some people do find beauty in decay (especially decayed tape loops); this minor note could lead to the opposite reaction of wanting more garbage in the Lea, but we suspect most people will get the point.
The full-length recording comes across as a sonic melange, with field recordings joined by drowned tape and the comforting sounds of piano, guitar and cello. Birds dive in and out of the mix; factory workers perform their chores; footballers frolic; a dog walks its man. And the river flows or trickles on, oblivious. After listening to the sound map, it’s fascinating to hear how the sounds have been integrated into a large, cohesive composition. When the CD ends, one may want to take a walk near one’s own River Lea, which may not even be a river; it may be a stretch of beach, a forest path, or even a city park. And if one then feels protective about the nearest spot of nature, then Surface Tension will have done its job. (Richard Allen)