I Had Myself A Nuclear Spring, the latest album by field recordist Kate Carr.
Reviewed by Luke Turner
Update 17/05/16: Since this article was written, we have announced that I Had Myself a Nuclear Spring will be released via Rivertones in August 2016. The album is available to preorder here from the Caught by the River shop.
Ever since Charles De Gaulle created the Commissariat à l’Énergie Atomique shortly after the end of the Second World War, the French government has displayed a marked enthusiasm for nuclear power, with 75% of the country’s electricity coming from its 59 fusion reactors. After the Fukushima disaster, however, public opinion on nuclear energy in the country has waned, with a majority of people now opposing, rather than supporting its use.
Given that the Japanese disaster was caused by a tsunami inundating the Fukushima plant, Kate Carr’s I Had Myself A Nuclear Spring makes, at times, for an unsettling listen. Carr had travelled to the small French town of Marnay, two hours to the west of Paris by train, to make recordings of the Seine, a river that has fascinated her since as a child she read a book about an artist attempting to paint it. As she arrived, the river was in spate after heavy rains, and a Front National candidate had recently booted out the socialist mayor.
A glance at an aerial photograph of the Centrale Nucléaire de Nogent, just outside Marnay, reveals a mosaic of soggy vegetation in differing greens closing in on the eddies of the Seine, the twin cooling towers and steel and concrete of the reactor complex hard against it. Plumes of steam drift away across the marshes towards the regimented farmland of northern France. The Seine is a river lodged in our English imaginations largely for the stretch that flows through Paris, prettified by dimly lit embankments and crossed with bridges straining under the weight of locks put there by the lovelorn gullible. In the same way, few in Britain think of the Thames for the marshes of Grain or the old Victorian rubbish dumps at Tilbury. For me the Severn is one of the rivers where I learned to fish, rather than the estuary where French company EDF, which operates the Centrale Nucléaire de Nogent, is hoping to build the new Hinkley Point C nuclear power station at exorbitant cost to the UK taxpayer.
Nuclear power of course has always had a symbiotic relationship with water, but in her liner notes, Carr doesn’t reveal how much or indeed whether the marshland habitat that surrounds the power station is there despite or because of it. This is no bad thing – the ambiguity rather suits nuclear power itself, with its ability to offer an alternative to fossil fuels on one hand, and its risk to both human safety and the natural world on the other. She explores this by keeping her sound palette in perfect balance, both soggy and industrial, wild and harshly electric. On Confluence, for instance, there’s a background humming drone that might be a recording from the power station itself, or created from samples, sequencers or instruments at a later date. There are melodic plips and whistles that could be dripping water or bird calls, and occasional guitar eddies, like a stick being carried on the river’s surface through the reeds. Such was the electromagnetic interference that the sound artist’s usual tools of the trade frequently didn’t work – hydrophones, for instance, were apparently largely useless. The power station blocked Carr’s interpretation of the natural landscape, which is perhaps why The Darkness Of Riverbeds is all gently pressing tension, hums and sudden popping release, creaks of undergrowth and whistles that might be lost from a submarine sonar, bouncing upriver from the North Sea.
The guitar refrain on Rising Waters (alone in the dark) is what gives the piece its emotional, elegiac heft. Carr’s great success throughout is to use melody quietly and sparingly to draw the ear towards the uneasy dialogue between simmering electricity and the sounds of the marsh, the nuclear and the wildfowl. Indeed, I rather like the way that to me I Had Myself A Nuclear Winter doesn’t seem to make any judgements as it paints a vivid portrait of technology, flora, water and fauna in unexpected proximity. It does, however, seem to end with a question. Final track Plumes And Sunsets combines a straight field recording of bird song, machine hum, water and the distant shout of a man whose breath is lung-full, suggesting that he might be running. This though isn’t the strange concluding moment of threat, but the sudden cut, after forty-seven seconds, to silence.
After reading Luke’s review I’m sure you’d like to know more about the recordings. Here are Kate’s excellent liner notes in full:
I was one of the only people to hop off the train from Paris at the tiny Nogent-sur-Seine station. Looking around for someone who looked like they might be meeting me, I spotted a very unexpected sight – a large nuclear power complex not far off in the distance. I had arrived in this part of France, about two hours by the fast train to the west of Paris, to undertake recordings of the Seine, in a tiny town called Marnay. Unknown to me the river, which at this time is icy cold, had just started to recede after bursting its banks.
Marnay is a town of just over 200 people. It is small, and its population appears to have dwindled dramatically. During the month I was there I often found myself cycling along empty streets. The town’s pub and hotel were shuttered and abandoned. There were no shops, and even the church was closed and unused, although its electrified bell still tolled the hours. Elections took place that month, and the National Front took over the mayoralty from the sitting French Socialist Party candidate who told me on the night she lost about her memories of taking to the streets in May of ’68.
I have loved the Seine since I was a child and read a book about an artist trying to paint the river, and when I arrived it was certainly doing justice to my memories of that book, swollen and mighty, perilously cold and formidable. In some places it was so flooded it was impassable. The river, and its series of tributaries and canals, some of which appeared to have been created to serve the nearby nuclear complex, had established vast marshes of bog, particularly in the area which approached the rear of the reactors, and water birds had arrived in their hundreds to enjoy this vast increase in habitat.
It was in these areas that I focused my recording.
It was an astonishing landscape. Most of the vegetation was covered in either water or mud or both. I found fields of abandoned farming machinery, and a deserted quarry with a vast array of rusting equipment. In part it was almost an apocalyptic landscape. These muddy marshes filled with buzzing electrical towers, corroded machinery, shrieking birds and canals feeding a nuclear complex were like nothing I had ever seen. The high capacity electricity cabling itself rendered some types of recording almost impossible – hydrophones no longer captured underwater sounds but, due to high levels of electromagnetism, a rather bracing electrical hum.
And there were temporary wetlands almost everywhere: behind a highway, next to the TGV train tracks, adjacent to the nuclear canals, and even one vast one in what I decided was a large and abandoned goose farm. At all these sites the water birds were intent on breeding. They nested in metal struts of the huge power towers used to transport electricity from the nuclear plant, and the crackle of the overhead current mingled with their calls below. They laid eggs on temporary islands next to the railway lines and in an abandoned boat moored on a waterway within the rusty quarry. A pair of white swans had even made the nuclear plant’s own cooling pond their territory, and regally swan up and down it.
And every evening as the sun turned a violent pink as it set through the water vapour of the nuclear plume, ducks could be heard calling along the length of the Seine while in the distance the bell in the empty church tolled.
Kate Carr, Marnay-sur-Seine, France, March 2015.