Sunday, September 27, 2020

Spectral Vectors

Chelsea Wharf, August 1986

Rainham Marshes, April 2017

Spectral Vectors was created for Come Hell Or High Water, a monthly series of live events on the Thames foreshore at Poplar, organised by Anne Bean, Hayley Newman, Harriet Latham and others. It takes as its starting point the idea of ghosts of the Thames; river revenants in the form of lost sounds of previous times from the river's busier industrial past, such as ship's horns, tugboat horns, foghorns and other industrial sounds.

Expanding on this theme, the idea of things lost/buried/hidden/removed came to mind. Documentary radio footage relating to sunken unexploded WWII ordnance and tragic drowning was combined with recent field recordings of mine made with contact mics attached to cabling beneath Millenium Bridge at St. Paul's, amplifying sounds hidden to the naked ear, when the bridge is animated by foot traffic, wind coursing through it and sun warming it.

Hydrophone recordings also capture hidden sounds – various vessels passing, sounding thin and insubstantial as wind-up bath toys from a submarine perspective. Delving deeper, recordings made inside Greenwich foot tunnel feature; resonant metallic sounds buried beneath the river itself echo along the tunnel's length.

Municipal greed and acts of resistance also form part of the documentary material with Bob Hoskins enlightening Barry Norman in 1982 about various development scams along the river, Malcolm MacLaren talking about the Sex Pistols' 1977 riverboat gig, and riverboat men going on strike. This footage is animated by the addition of lost ship's horns, populating the river with a lively, boisterous presence.

My first forays into field recording began whilst on summer work in the 1980s, when I bought a secondhand recording walkman, and my first recordings were made on the Thames at Vauxhall, capturing, amongst many things on a busy summer river, the sound of a speedboat whizzing past, dopplering downriver. This can be heard later in the piece, just after Hoskins says, “...regenerating the river.. bringing it back to life..making it a playground for the wealthy.”

The piece ends with recordings I made on a visit to Rainham Marshes in Essex in 2017, as the pace slows down and distant perspectives come into view. Sounds from the far shore can be heard, lending a widescreen feel, with the low hum of industrial barges drifting languidly past. Larks enter the frame, endlessly improvising metres above me as I sit on landfill overlooking the Thames estuary, while pigeons flap busily around the concrete barges, sounding like distant handclaps.

These concrete barges were the site of a particularly memorable TV appearance by Bow Gamelan (on Channel 4's Alter Image in 1986), playing on and in the barges and in advancing tides (up to their necks at one point). Invoking the spirits of Paul Burwell and z'ev, whose ashes are scattered in the Thames, I improvised on a large cylindrical metal item on site near the barges. An extract from this enters low in the mix, panning back and forth across the stereo field, before quietly exiting.

The main intention of my trip to the barges was to record myself improvising inside them. Traveling out from Battersea, I timed my visit at low tide. Despite this however, the exposed ground around the barges was way too treacherous to negotiate; I would've sunk up to my knees in squelchy sand. So near and yet so far...

The piece opens with a pitch-shifted combination of older ship's horns and foghorns, which hove into view, as though summoned from the depths. These reappear to close out the piece, very low in the mix, as though already departing and quite distant; sinking back into the depths.

In memoriam:

Paul Burwell 1949 – 2007

z'ev 1951 – 2017

Many thanks to Ian Rawes for directing me towards freely available and immensely valuable BBC archive recordings.

The piece is freely downloadable for transfer to other listening media.

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