Caught by the River

Waves: The Sounds of Britain’s Shores

1st May 2012

Compiled by Cheryl Tipp, wildlife sounds curator at the British Library.

A review by Chloe Evans.

Nonagenarian author and über-editor Diana Athill has said in her memoirs that superfluous words are a mark of bad writing. With this in mind I found it tricky reviewing these recordings which are full of sounds that are hard to put into words. Trying to pare back the adjective fat I found myself repeatedly sidestepping the problem and writing instead about the British Library, or how waves in the sea are formed (more complicated than simple, harmonic motion it seems).

Sticking to the point however, which unlike the tides is relatively straightforward, these recordings are a really great listen. I’d disagree with the blurb, which suggests this is an identification guide; it is much more a record of the natural, musical qualities of our varied coasts.

The month and location of each recording is provided in the sleeve notes, but even without consulting this, the influence of seasonality is obvious. Winter waves at Howick have a more frantic, splashy quality than the softer sounds recorded at Cullernose in summer. Mull Gully has my favourite sound, which is a beautiful pouring, presumably through the gully. Shingle is the most melodious; Birling Gap and the Sand and Shingle on the Isle of Wight have repeated runs of pebbly, chromatic rattling. And though sandy beaches wouldn’t have been my go-to for nature recordings, after a few times round with this CD I found them the most interesting. They yield complex sounds with a lovely, sighing quality that I hadn’t expected.

So, not an identification guide, but also much more than background music for beauty therapists. The BL excels at this sort of unclassifiable thing and I love them for it (as I do the walled sanctuary of the St John Wilson building in London, and that in, their own high-level domain, there is a way in which a library is on a par with a government). These recordings are best thought of as sound art, and act as both documentation and interpretation, but also (with apologies to Miss Athill for my past and future verbosity) a celebration of the British coast in all its glorious, cold dampness.

[audio:|titles=Waves_Mull Gully Waves_British Library]Waves, Mull Gully

Cheryl Tipp will be conducting a wildlife sound quiz at at the launch of Matt Sewell’s Our Garden Birds exhibition at Rough Trade East, London E1, at 11am on Saturday 5 May.

Copies of Waves can be bought from the British Library shop, priced £10.