Sound recordist Craig Vear has made a sound poem of the River Esk which has been released on CD by 3Leaves. This is the review I did of the work, which was originally published in The Field Reporter blog earlier this year.
What does a river mean?
In some cases it means an obstacle, a barrier that needs to be bridged. For wildlife it means a range of habitats, both beneath the water and along the banks. A river geographically connects the towns and villages along its course. Rivers are often pressed into service as metaphors for life. They begin as unruly infants, high up in the hills, full of energy and exhuberance. Over time and distance they become languid and peaceful before finally opening out into the unforgiving sea.
Rivers have a multitude of meanings and can be read in many ways. Craig Vear’s sound poem Esk is a portrait of a 28 mile long English river flowing from its birthplace on the hills at Westerdale, through the North Yorkshire Moors National Park, and into the North Sea at the town of Whitby. Vear has produced a piece of work that is rich in detail and yet not cluttered or contrived. As with any portrait, a true appreciation of character emerges the longer and deeper you look.
Curiously Vear collected the raw materials for Esk by beginning at the outer harbour wall at Whitby, then moving upriver towards the source. After acquiring what must have been hours of recordings, the piece was then edited and composed in the order of the Esk’s actual flow. In other words in the opposite direction to which it was recorded. In a sense it is moving backwards in time as it gets closer to the sea. The seasons flow in reverse, proving that sound art can render time plastic.
Recording the flow of water in all its various forms is one thing, but what really defines a river is its banks. They channel it and give it form. The geographical nature of the countryside it passes through and the life around it imbue a unique personality. At various points along the route we hear the engines of vehicles crossing bridges spanning the water, and occasionally human voices. This work shouldn’t be taken as an idealised, pastoral portrait. It is grounded in reality and there are some surprisingly jarring sound events. Rough edges have not been smoothed off.
At several points we are plunged beneath the surface into the world of crayfish, dragonfly nymphs and trout. Hydrophone recordings always feel like eavesdropping on sounds that we as air-listeners weren’t designed to hear. They always take us into an unknowable place. We can picture the silver surface of the water undulating above us and the stone strewn bed beneath us.
There are many different facets to Esk, and it moves quickly between environments. On the moors insects buzz, in the trees birds call and in the fields cattle low balefully. We move on towards the sea, the natural direction of flow giving this work its linearity and purpose. The final sounds are deep water surges showing that the journey is complete and the Esk has been reclaimed by the sea.
As with all 3Leaves releases, Esk comes exquisitely packaged in a postcard sized cover depicting the river in winter. Snowblown trees and white banks speak equally of picturesque stillness and the harshness of nature. A fitting image.
What does a river mean?
According to Heraclitus it means change. In his words; ‘You can never step into the same river; for new waters are always flowing on to you’. Similarly, every time you listen to this piece by Craig Vear, expect something different being carried on the current.