Tom Lawrence: Water Beetles of Pollardstown Fen

Eisuke Yanagisawa: Ultrasonic Scapes

Issued in a 50-copy run as part of Gruenrekorder's Field Recording Series, Eisuke Yanagisawa's Ultrasonic Scapes makes a strong argument for the accessibility of the field recordings-based recording. It does so by doing two things in particular: drawing upon diverse subject matter in its ten tracks and by presenting its contents with concision, as the CD squeezes its material into a lean thirty-five-minute running time. What we get, then, are snapshots that whet the appetite for more of Yanagisawa's alien-sounding material. It must needs be said, however, that although the tracks were captured in real time and were left unprocessed except for a little amplification, the sounds are not natural in the wholly unmediated sense as they're ones that exist beyond our audible range, Yanagisawa having recorded them using a bat detector—hence the Ultrasonic Scapes title. It's another in Gruenrekorder's “silver box” releases, with Yanagisawa's CD-R, like those that have come before, housed within a shiny metal case and accompanied by sleeve notes printed on a translucent sheet.

As a field recording often does when the visual component is stripped away and we're left with raw sound, Yanagisawa's material sometimes casts the natural phenomenon in an entirely new light. “Bat Calls,” for example, brings into sharp relief the rhythmic side of the creatures' echolocation in such a way that, as strange as it might sound, the micro-percussive chatter comes across as rather Autechre-like. And with its title removed, “Cicada Chorus” could as easily pass for the amplified sound of an overhead plane, the locomotive chug of a train engine, or the fire of artillery weaponry as much as a seething chorus of buzzing cicadas. Likewise, “Street Light#1” uses street and store illuminations as sound sources in a piece that could be heard as the amplified soundtrack of a heavily frog-populated pond. Ringing bells and muffled clatter of varying kinds dominate “6th Floor,” which was recorded at a department store near Shijo Station in Kyoto. A skeletal drone emerges when Yanagisawa applies his bat detector to the CRT-based “TV” in his room, while loops of scratchy flickers and clicks emerge from the innards of his PC during “Dell.” Admittedly a sound purist might quarrel with the naturalness of the results, given the manner by which Yanagisawa captured the tracks' sounds. The results speak for themselves, however, and the micro-universes presented on Ultrasonic Scapes are often compelling.

Tom Lawrence brings an impressive set of credentials to his own Field Recording Series project, Water Beetles of Pollardstown Fen. A wildlife sound recordist, musician, and educator, he's worked with directors for BBC, Disney, and The History Channel, among others, and works at the School of Communications, Dublin City University where he lectures on film music, recording practice, and sonic art and works with Max/MSP/Jitter and spectral analysis software. Like Yanagisawa's, Lawrence's CD captures an alien world, in this case an aquatic environment of a sonic character radically different from what most listeners will have been exposed to before. Certainly the recording makes good on the quote by David Dunn included in the acompanying booklet, “All of the sound we hear is only a fraction of all the vibrating going on in our universe,” and not many of us will presumably have spent a whole lot of time listening to water beetles. With Lawrence capturing almost all of the sounds by placing his microphone below the water surface at Pollardstown Fen, an alkaline marsh of approximately 550 acres located in Northern Ireland, his recording offers a remarkable glimpse into a part of the natural world we generally overlook, despite it being, in some sense, as close to us as the nearest country pond. Among the water beetles and water bugs captured on the CD are the Water Scorpion, Greater Waterboatman, Lesser Waterboatman, Water Beetle, Great Diving Beetle, and Whirligig Beetle, each of whom generates sound through a process called stridulation, that is, the rubbing together of certain body parts.

Water Beetles of Pollardstown Fen opens with a time-lapse setting called “Point of Gibraltar” that Lawrence edited down from twenty-fours to the six-minute setting heard on the recording in order to reveal to the listener the subterranean world existing below the fen. Using computer software, he was able to capture sounds below the range of human hearing. The mating calls of Water Beetles and the clicking of the Great Diving Beetle are just two of the sounds that appear amidst the teeming sonic activity documented by Lawrence. The warbling cries of Water Beetles introduce “Seven Springs” and are then joined by the ammo-like firing of other bugs' calls, while an autumn storm of thunder and drizzle segues into the spiraling song of a Waterboatman during “St. James's Well.” Perhaps the disc's most representative track is “Hawkfields,” as it includes a broad range of sounds from a variety of types, with the incessant crackle of a Great Diving Beetle's martial drumming, the singing of Water Beetles, and the calls of a community of Whirligig Beetles among the variety on display. “Grand Canal Springs” takes the project concept to its furthest extreme and, admittedly, may prove taxing for even the most devoted listener. We hear the stridulating sound of a single waterbug, the Water Scorpion (the hydrophone positioned one inch away from the insect) for thirteen minutes—though the insect—in a “heightened antagonistic stance,” Lawrence informs us—stridulated in this way for a full nine hours.

Like Yanagisawa's recording, Lawrence's material often brings in unrelated associations, such as when the Water Beetle calls in “Moore's Well” suggest the revving of a motorcycle engine. “Clongownagh,” on the other hand, at times could pass for a decades-old field recording capturing on tape the drumming and calls of a newly discovered tribe in the African jungle along with assorted wildlife sounds as the backdrop. Be forewarned: Lawrence's disc is as uncompromising as fields-recordings releases get, and seventy minutes of material of this type is a lot—it's not for the impatient, in other words. There's no question, though, that the world Lawrence has documented is a fascinating and incredibly rich one.

November 2011