Caught by the River

Surface Tension

Rob St. John | 9th April 2021

Rob St. John introduces his ‘Surface Tension’ LP — made over the course of a year spent walking, recording and photographing the Lea Valley in East London — which is to be issued on vinyl for the first time.

Surfaces can both reveal and conceal. They bridge the spaces between one state and another – water, air and earth, perhaps past, present and future, or the human and non-human. These layers of exchange can form filters and catch imprints, traces and residues of what exists beneath and beyond. But nothing can ever be cleanly cut in two, whether that’s the natural and the unnatural, the native and the non-native, the clean and the polluted, the real and the imagined. The space between states creates surface tension: the friction and turbulence of a gloopy boundary, where what seems static may be constantly in flux. Tension suggests resilience, the potential energy to stretch and cling and a tightly stretched layer between deep upwellings and surface pressures. Surfaces are mirrors for the imagination, our own image reflecting (or refracting) back at us. The water’s film as a magnifying lens, an optic through which we’re drawn to peer, to try and make sense of things. The river’s surface as a clouded window onto constellations of underwater life: temporary equilibriums of nature after nature.

In summer 2014 I was approached by Ben Fenton from the river conservation charity Thames21 with an unusual commission in mind: to design a project drawing from both art and science to creatively explore pollution on the River Lea. This record is a product of that project, the result of almost a year of walking, field recording, photography, research and experimentation. The name Surface Tension comes from the variety of different ‘surfaces’ in the Lea Valley: the polluted river surface, overgrown with eutrophic flares of blanket weed, plastic bags and beer cans; the crumbling brick and rusting metal surfaces on old buildings colonised by lichen-like graffiti; and the boundless, shape-shifting role of sound in telling us about people, places and the environment. I thought of the Lea Valley landscape as an ongoing experiment of imagined ruins and often far less imaginative regeneration. The grand architectural circles of empty gasometers, the Olympic Park and (glimpsed from the Lea’s ‘estuary’ at Trinity Buoy Wharf), the Millennium Dome, each, in a way echoing the structures of microscopic algae, plastics and diatoms in the river: shapes persisting between scales, bridging states.

Perhaps it is because the Lea is taken for granted in many ways – more canal than river, but neither, really – that its ecological value is overlooked and underestimated. Hence we tip gallons of fluorescent chemicals into the river as an artistic statement, or continue to allow London’s Victorian water network to remain pockmarked with gaps and misconnections, so that pollution – cooking oils and fats, dairy products, chemicals, engine oils, industrial waste, plastic particles and so on – can run straight into the river. The Lea’s tributaries are part of this neglected network, streams like the Moselle, Salmon’s Brook and Pymmes Brook channelled in concrete, winding largely unnoticed as carriers for pollution, buffered in part by reed beds and vegetation on the bankside. So, with this in mind, Surface Tension became about noticing what was in plain sight in the Lea Valley, be that the patterns and processes of pollution, the life that swells up around the river, or the ways this landscape is being rewritten and reimagined, and the surfaces upon which the tensions of change might be recorded and read.

Towards the end of the summer of 2014, I walked most of the length of the Lea. In days and nights of rhythm and repetition (the ‘Mark E. Smith approach’ to landscape enquiry…), I made a set of field recordings with binaural microphones, underwater hydrophones and contact microphones. At the same time, I took film photographs on both an old 120 camera and a 35mm pinhole camera made from a Lesney toy matchbox. Walking with no fixed itinerary – save for gradually following the river – gave me time to stop and sit, to let the recorder run and open the camera lens to long exposures, to slowly try and make sense of things. I wonder sometimes whether we’ve developed the vocabulary to keep up with emerging self-willed spaces of tangled nature and culture like in the Lea Valley. Commonly (over)used words and phrases like edgeland and liminal space don’t really seem to cut it, often seeming to deaden and flatten complex places. As a result, sound and photography became central to how I approached this project, seeking to catch traces of the various surfaces – both sonic and visual – along the river.

Over the autumn and winter of 2014, I processed the recordings and photographs using production methods designed to echo the pollution of the Lea to create the music and images for this release. Tape loops of field recordings and new music composed for the project were soaked in tubs of polluted Lea river water – duckweed, decaying leaves, oil slicks and all – for a month, the tapes flickering like elvers in the developing trays. When finally replayed, the loops slowly disintegrated, the river etching new channels and tributaries onto the tape, and the surface flaking off in tiny metallic shards reminiscent of a Lea oil slick, causing new eroded rhythms and melodies to emerge. The negatives of the film photographs were given the same river water treatment, their prints developing odd new microscopic marks, layers and flares, as if they were viewed through a surface layer of dirty glass. On some negatives, the images became blurred and seemingly out of focus, while new highlights and patterns were picked out on others, the emergent properties of an experiment in abstraction.

This record is the document of walking through a remarkable landscape in summer, and a winter of processing it all. The end result can only scratch at the surface of the landscape. It is not a literal (sound)map or linear accompaniment to the river, but a set of music and images inspired by the tangled, always changing web of natural and urban environments in the Lea Valley. This is produced, deteriorated and disintegrated by various river-led production techniques; and interwoven with a diverse set of field recordings – bikes, boat propellers, football matches, photosynthesing pondweed, parakeets, scrapyards, African church choirs, parties on the marshes, Olympic ceremonies, trains, lock gates, dredgers – and those twinkling sonifications whirring up from the murk. I wanted to venture off into experimental realms then bring back the results to create something accessible. Hopefully I’ve got somewhere close, with this, my abstraction of the River Lea.


This essay appears in a longer form in the record’s liner notes, alongside essays by Richard King and Benjamin Fenton.

The 12″ vinyl edition of ‘Surface Tension’ (BH005V), limited to 300 copies on eco-mix vinyl, is out via Blackford Hill on Friday 14th May. More information and preorder details can be found here.