Review of Below Sea Level [12k1071]

Textura (CA)

<i>Below Sea Level</i> is Cambridge-based Simon Scott’s most pastoral and nostalgic recording to date. A wonderful complement to to the 12k aesthetic and its recent catalogue, the work—seven musical settings plus texts (handwritten notes and an essay by Scott titled “An Exploration of the Subterranean Fenland Environment”), drawings, and Polaroid photographs included in a lavish seventy-four-page booklet—takes its inspiration from two years Scott spent crisscrossing the Fens in the eastern UK, an environment he visited as a child and that underwent significant environmental change when the one-time wetland’s nutrient-rich soil was drained in the seventeenth century and the land sunk below sea level. Using hydrophones (underwater microphones) and contact mics, he ventured into the area with the idea of capturing in aural form the environmental devastation wrought by the drainage of the land. The material collected includes sounds of waterboatmen but also wire fences, steel bridge supports, and ice, with both the unseen, below-surface world and visible, above-surface realm documented.

A slightly different tone is struck on this recording compared to past Scott releases. Here the musical and field recording elements achieve a more equal balance, with the guitar playing generally able to cut through the dense mass of natural sounds and make itself audible as a lead voice, even if that’s something that happens only occasionally. One thing that is much the same as before is Scott’s tendency to segue through multiple episodes within a given piece, such that a constant flow is generated throughout the recording. And though the field recordings material lends Below Sea Level a distinctive character, it’s ultimately an electro-acoustic work of a specific thematic kind that slots itself naturally into Scott’s discography. The natural and synthetic merge when the crackle and fuzz of digital processing streams alongside sounds of wildlife and the natural elements.

“_Sealevel.1” immediately situates us within the Fens locale when the stridulating chirp of a water boatman, birdsong, and water dribble appear alongside gentle electric guitar ruminations. In one of the album’s most stirring moments, a three-note figure enters two minutes into the piece, the guitar’s reverberant twang imbuing the setting with a grace and wistfulness that’s subtly present elsewhere. As rich as the extra-musical elements are, the strongest pieces are those that feature Scott’s guitar work prominently. The relaxed guitar commentary running throughout “_Sealevel.5,” for instance, helps render its scene-painting more memorable, as does the tinkling of a music box, itself strongly redolent of childhood memory. Even when there’s a hyperactive level of sonic activity in play, such as during the texturally rich “_Sealevel.2,” the material largely retains its pastoral quality, in part because Scott forsakes aggressiveness and ear-piercing volume. That changes somewhat during “_Sealevel.6,” on the other hand, when he dials up the intensity in such a way that whatever natural elements are present are smothered by the barrage of processing treatments to which they’re subjected. By contrast, the final setting, “_Sealevel.7,” unfolds with becalmed deliberation to bring the recording to a dream-like, serenading close.

The book component is fascinating all by itself. The formal essay makes for illuminating reading as it provides an in-depth account of Scott’s process as well as reflections on the ideas of Pierre Schaeffer, John Cage, and R. Murray Schafer, among others. The grainy colour photographs enhance the nostalgic dimension of the work, while Scott’s revealing hand-written notes bring a sense of intimacy to the project and make it feel all the more personalized. As one reads them, his characteristic humility often comes to the fore; one passage, for example, reads: “I don’t own these sounds. They belong to the Fenland environment, not to me. My music is of this place but not taken.” Maybe so, but he has, however, granted access to what for many will be a new locale and provided enlightenment about its dramatic history.

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