“Would you recognize a river by its sound?” This is the question posed by Lasse-Marc Riek and Thomas M. Siefert (rhein_strom), but the question is much less interesting than the execution. Why? Because the answer is “no.” Not all rivers sound alike, it’s true ~ but we’d wager that if one were to blindfold Riek, Siefert and Annea Lockwood (A Sound Map of the Housatonic River) and play pure river-based recordings, they’d have a tough time identifying their favorite subjects.
Only a few water-based locations possess clearly identifiable sounds, and even these may be confused with others: Niagra Falls, for example, or the cracking ice of Lake Baikal. But Riek and Siefert are not dealing with simple water. In this voluminous recording, they include other hints: local birds, industry, the sounds of local residents. To paraphrase, we can recognize a river by the sounds around it. By following the river from source to harbor, the field recordists offer a secondary entry point as well, in that anyone familiar with the Rhine who walks the entirety of its path may well recognize this as the Rhine, as they will recognize the order of sounds. That is, unless the seven years of recording have blurred such sounds; climactic and seasonal changes may have eradicated certain nuances while introducing others.
It’s possible that a person may say, “this species of bird is found only in this area, a short day’s journey from this crossing bell.” By this we realize that no water-based source exists out of context. Even in the middle of the ocean particular timbres abound, affected by plankton and shipping lanes. But outside sources keep this set interesting; the 73-minute soundscape incorporates the river’s entire sonic field. In one segment we hear snow melt, another a raging torrent. Planes fly overhead; warning horns sound. Some of the transitions are jarring (the sudden stop of the rapids in “rheinfall bei schaffhausen”), but for the most part – pun intended – the album flows smoothly, and the separation of tracks by number is merely a guide.
Does the recording succeed? It’s not meant to trick the listener, nor to challenge global travelers. Instead, the album seeks to philosophize by asking an easy question with complicated implications. Can a soundscape be “pure” in the company of human intrusion? Can an environmental viewer ever be subjective when immersed in a landscape? It’s a modern take on the old question, “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Yes, of course it does, yet the real question is not that one, but the one we take with us. Like it or not, this is the Rhine, and since we can’t separate the Rhine from ourselves, we can recognize it ~ fair or unfair as this answer may be. (Richard Allen)