Words and pictures: Rich Hughes
“The green gardens and pallid fenlands.” WG Sebald, The Rings of Saturn
Below Sea Level is a multifaceted project by Simon Scott. It’s the culmination of two years of field recordings taken in and around Holme Fen, which is officially the lowesat place in Great Britain. It sits 2.75m below sea level on the outskirts of The Fens – 1500 sq m of countryside in East Anglia which is often derided for its dullness. Most of the area lies only a few metres above sea-level with the highest part of the area being the Isle of Ely, on which Ely Cathedral sits, a mere 39m above sea-level. Originally the Fens consisted of fresh and sea water wetlands but they were artificially drained in the late 18th and early 19th century to turn the area into one of the major arable agricultural regions in the UK. This drainage caused much local unrest, many villages were destroyed and the residents’ way of life changed forever. The drainage is continued to this day with the help of extensive drainage runs, called dykes, and pumps (both electric and wind powered). Interestingly, in 2003 a project was started to help return certain areas of the Fens back to their original habitat, Wicken Fen being the most successful of these to date. This history, coupled with its very nature, ensures that the area is in a constant state of flux – a running battle between the environment and man, one never quite winning out.
Simon Scott picks me up at a ragged looking bus station and, after a short car journey, we find ourselves on a bowed road surrounded by large, long fields. We cross the east coast mainline’s quadruple tracks and end up on a pitted road continuing out into a stretch of countryside where only the far horizon can contain your thoughts. Once out of the car we stroll to the official posts that commemorate Holme Fen’s low lying accomplishment. There are few obvious sounds as we get out of the car, the sound of its cooling fan filling the air, occasionally punctured by bird calls. We are officially in the Fenlands.
There was something about The Fens that harassed Scott’s mind prior to him moving back to Cambridgeshire: “I used to literally dream of being out with my family and hearing the skylark and it kind of haunted me, it was nagging away at me. And then I moved back and it was, like, why did I spend so long in London, when it drove me away from myself? The whole time I lived in London was a time when I was really inactive in music. I couldn’t quite grasp what it was that I wanted to do, so I didn’t compose for a while, and instead learned how to use a computer as a musical instrument. I got really bored of using the guitar. Even though I still use it live, and there is guitar on the album… you kind of get bored to death of hearing instruments.”
Which led him to this latest project. The making of Below Sea Level was a chance for Scott to combine the past and the present – returning to the areas he explored as a child and making music from his surroundings using self-taught skills that he’s picked up more recently “I wanted to use this environment, to use the land and nature. I was born and brought up in Cambridgeshire, right on the edge of the Fens. I used to come here with my family. I used to find it quirky, I used to find it interesting: it was different and quite remote. I really wanted to find new sound sources, I wanted to find some things to put into the software that weren’t digital. Like when you see a child running about on the beach, getting their feet wet and screaming with with just sheer natural delight. I wasn’t actually setting out to capture an essence of my childhood; it sort of coincided with coming out here and thinking, you know, I’m going to record the Fens and see what happens.”
The result is a thick and complex combination of field recordings, textured guitars and electronics. To keep with the organic and non-digital feel of the field recordings, snippets of thumb piano and wind-up music boxes are infused, adding to that childhood charm and wonder that permeates the album. We head out towards one of the lakes that borders the area and acts as a moat to protect it from the encroachment of civilisation. Scott produces some of the equipment with which he made his recordings and we begin to tune in to the sounds beneath the surface. A delicate but waterproof piezo device is submerged into the water and, upon wearing the headphones, I’m transported to a completely different place; a noisy and alien world that I barely recognise. As my ears become accustomed to this new environment I pick up quieter sounds that I hadn’t heard initially. This is something that Scott is keen to stress: “it took me a long time to actually listen to the sounds of the environment – re-tuning my ears to the place where I’d tuned out of.” When listening today the shudder of the passing trains shatter this illusion, but as Scott plays the finger piano and wakes the music box from its slumber, they all combine in a surprisingly natural way. The weather conditions prevent me from hearing some of the more delicate sounds, the wind making the water revolve in a choppy rhythm and the water boatmen that live on the meniscus are hidden from me.
Moving through the area we place the delicate microphones on other pieces of the environment. This time a fence post holding a series of wires in place, all in various states of tautness. Just placing the microphone near one of these picks up the oscillations created by the wind – a whispy metallic twang that’s floating in the air. Plucking these wires gives an altogether different sound, an eruption of noise not too dissimilar to an electric guitar, whilst dragging it down the spiral bind of my notebook creates a wonderful blast of crashing notes that blaze in my ears. All these bits of experimentation are recorded – from the natural sounds of the wind to our artificial interactions – and then taken to form parts of a future composition. But that composition process is a long one: “It took me 2 years of actual recording, because it took me that amount of time to build up sound banks, or music libraries where I discard probably 99% of a recording, and just use a segment. If I was very lucky and I was recording, say, 3 or 4 hours until the batteries went flat, if I was really lucky there might be a 15 minute section I could use.”
Then the importance of technology and the digital aspects of Scott’s approach become apparent. Using a series of patches that Scott developed himself using Max software, the album started to come together: “I would process all these sections. So the start of the album, I think it was Adventurer’s Fen, a really clear day with no wind, and there was a hum, an environmental hum, I put it into the patch and found that it had this pitch. So I played it in the studio and re-recorded it back into the patch, and it created a feedback loop. So that kind of “woo-woo-woo-woo” sound you can hear at the very beginning of the album before the guitars start coming in and the album kicks off, that’s like a feedback loop of the environment.” But this wasn’t just using computers for that sake of it, Scott was keen to use it as an additional tool in the music making process “I knew those things could be done with sound, and I really wanted to explore them, and get into them, because I was really bored of using traditional instruments solely to create music.”
We discuss the process itself over a beer at the closest pub to Holme Fen. It sits on a crossroads near the train line, the only building for quite a considerable distance. You wonder how it still makes a living, but the car park is full. Once settled, Scott opens his laptop and shows me what looks like a messy tube map of rectangles and linking lines. “This is presentation mode. Two banks of reverbs here, and you affect and control the liveliness, and you control the length.” Scott imports some recordings made this evening; one from the lake and one from the gate post. I watch as the two recordings are modified and blended together, their pitch shifted, the speed slowed down and their volume increased or decreased, Scott trying to find a spot where it makes musical sense. “You can scrub around and find little areas and loop that. If I had my interface here, this would pick up what I’m recording, so if I was sitting here playing the thumb piano it would record. You can add reverb and add more field recordings. There’s the beginning of a composition. Then it’s like making a cake – I always think music’s like cooking: you bring it to the boil, you season it, and see what comes out.”
These recordings have been recently reworked as a second release on the Touch records imprint, TOUCHLINE. The piece was originally put together live at the Krakk Gallery in Manchester, and it’s designed as a more honest reflection of the far reaching horizontal landscapes of the Fens. The album in its original format on 12K was presented as distinct tracks, but this reworking allows the music and field recordings to be explored as a more active listening experience – less textured and layered. It’s a striking work, allowing the quality of the recordings to shine through and reveal their more subtle charms.
So is this a love letter to the Fens? A chance to set the record straight, to show that it’s not a dead, dull and boring part of the country? As a listener it certainly feels that way and after chatting with Scott, I can tell that this project is definitely a labour of love – the amount of work that has gone into each aspect of this is astounding. The music and the book combine to document the Fenlands and give you a chance to hear a landscape that is almost forgotten about. We return to the fact that the Fens have never really been championed as a place, either by being captured in art or by being used as a form of inspiration for it. There’s also the odd mention in Pullman’s Northern Lights or Peter F. Hamilton’s science-fiction operas. Robert MacFarlane called Cambridge a remote place and felt that it was just an access point to the wildness of the Fens. But Scott and I both agreed that his description of Cambridge itself as a part of the “wilderness” felt flawed – it’s not, it might be small and a bit isolated, but there is an energy here.. There is, of course, Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, but he wasn’t exactly complimentary about the area. The closest, musically, might perhaps be The Caretaker’s recent soundtrack work for the Sebald documentary, Patience (After Sebald), whose sprawling soundscapes and haunted tones bring to mind the ghostly mist-covered stretches of fields. But that isn’t truly linked to this place. Scott concludes that “In terms of finding actual music from the Fens, and actual documentation of the landscape of the Fens, that is informed by what happened when Vermuyden drained the land, there wasn’t anything. So I just thought – here’s a great opportunity, I’ll do this full time, I’ll get on with it, and there is going to be something there. It was almost like I was driven to do it, in a funny sort of way. Which is why I’m really fiercely proud of it, actually. The actual going out and discovering that this was working was really poignant. You know when you look back on a period in your life and you think – I’m not sure why I did that but thank god that I did.”
We featured Below Sea Level on this site when it was released in 2012. Read David Hemingway’s piece here.
Rich Hughes is an occasional writer, broadcaster and promoter. Originally from Pembrokeshire, he’s made his home in Cambridgeshire for the past 15 years.