Institute of Landscape and Urban Studies ~ Melting Landscapes / Dammed Landscapes / Buried Landscapes (Bodies of Water Trilogy)

A famous saying goes, “One waits forever for a taxi, then two arrive at once.”  Melting Landscapes was released in 2018, and in 2022 Dammed Landscapes and Buried Landscapes have followed only a month apart.  For those who waited to make a purchase, a box set is now available including all three tinted vinyls and booklets as Bodies of Water.

Any joy at the arrival of a beautiful box set is tempered when one recalls the project’s theme.  Christophe Girot and the staff and students of the Institute of Landscape and Urban Studies have been tracing the activity of water in various permutations, from glacier to dam to pipe, and have identified one unifying, alarming trend: every aspect is endangered.  They began at the source, hiking to the Morteratsch Glacier region to trace its erosion and exponentially-increasing melt.  Four years later, the world has been through a pandemic, a violent conflict, an annexation and a period of economic stability, and much attention has shifted from climate change to the crisis of the day.  Meanwhile, “natural” disaster after natural disaster has wreaked havoc on the planet, with deniers continuing to insist that such cataclysmic events are all within the cone of normalcy.  In 2018, we wrote that the work of the Institute was “especially relevant now.”  If anything, it has gained in relevance and can now be called immediate.

Once again, the packaging is exquisite, including short essays and a generous grouping of album-sized photographs.  As everything about the project has been so precise, we suspect that even the color of the vinyl was taken into consideration: the first an alpine white, the second an icy blue, and the third a deep sea aqua.  It’s as if the records were melting along with the landscape.

Dammed Landscapes soundtracks “the Modernist pride of Switzerland,” the hydraulic dams that harnessed what was once thought to be “the eternal water providers of the nation.”  But what happens when the melt overwhelms the dams, then slows to a crawl?  One side of the LP records visits to the pumped-storage water plant Punt dal Gall, the other the Ova Spin.  The cavernous sound provides an indication of scale; everything is larger than what one imagines.  The titles provide location links: “Pendulum,” “Tube,” “Stairway,” “River.”  At each juncture, things seem to be running smoothly, although the industrial sounds of “Border” hint something may be amiss.  “Cave” is immediately engaging, as it bears the sound of healthy, flowing water, aided by the resonance of the location; but the contrast of the quiet “Tube” implies that something more ominous may be unfolding in the more remote locations.

“Pipe” offers a connection to the trilogy’s finale.  Buried Landscapes is a reminder of the invisible network of pipes, turbines and reservoirs that are essential to human settlement.  The recordings were made at a water gallery, an underground lake pumping station and a concrete water reservoir.  Unlike the prior LPs, Buried Landscapes offers three long pieces, together approximately the same length as the other two albums combined.  This allows the listener to sink into a state of meditation while they consider the power and promise of this no-longer inexhaustible resource.

The lushness of “Kohlboden Spring Catchment” is as lulling as rain, or an afternoon by a glacier-fed stream.  The fifth minute is as crushing as a waterfall. Only at the end does one glean the sound of industry, which folds into “Water Works Lengg” as a rhythmic hum sets the pace.  The flow grows so soft that one can hear the nearby birds.  Is this a healthy flow?  Is the alarm that sounds in the seventh minute a transitional beep, or something that needs attention now?  Smaller systems run through our homes, our places of work, our public spaces.  Many are corrupted by rust, root, and inattention.  The end of the piece is loud and enthralling, but the sound of water has receded.

The closing “Reservoir Lyren” begins with a single droplet, then a batch, implying a scarcity of resources.  These drips are reminiscent of Melting Landscapes, a sonic reminder of glacier melt, although at the other end of the journey.  One might also associate this sound with an untended leak.  A human voice tests the air.  Are we close to a requiem?  Unintelligible whispers imply awe, even fear.  A more insistent alarm begins to repeat; will anyone hear it?  Will anyone act?  And if they do, will it already be too late?  As the piece fades into silence, we honor the Institute for not being silent; this is their warning, and it deserves to be heard.  (Richard Allen)

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