By: Will Pinfold
Kate Carr | facebook | bandcamp | soundcloud |
Released on August 26, 2016 via Rivertones
Context is everything in Kate Carr’s I Had Myself a Nuclear Spring, released through Caught By The River’s Rivertones label. Part field recording, part ambient composition, it’s an album that presents a carefully pieced-together sound portrait of a month the artist spent recording in the flooded fields around a nuclear power plant in Marnay-sur-Seine, France. With this knowledge, it’s a fascinating and often unsettling listen, which seems to demonstrate both the way in which nature assimilates and adapts to humankind’s interference without comment, and also the emotional complexity that results when we process this same interface through the filter of our human consciousness and our conscience. Without knowledge of the context it’s hard to say exactly what the album’s impact would be, especially as it falls pretty squarely in the murky ‘docudrama’ area between straightforward documentary field recording and emotionally-engaging music.
As a starting point, ‘Under Wires’ sets the scene in quite a literal sense. As quiet or as loud as you want to make it, the track is essentially the sound of the area in all its cacophonous depth; birds, rushing water, insects, wind and what could be the sound of distant traffic. In the midst of all this is the crackle/hiss of the titular wires. The human (or possibly-human-generated) sounds, like the odd clunk or rustle, are sometimes indistinguishable from the natural ones, and are sometimes – like the sound of a passing plane – more obvious, but as a portrait of a place in sound, Nuclear Spring shows that this is really a false distinction; whatever the nature of the landscape, human beings are clearly as much a part of it as the birds or floodwater. With the second track, ‘Confluence’, Carr begins to blend the buzzing and hissing with somewhat ominous music though, and the tone of the album changes significantly.
The bird noise is still there, but swathed in echo, stripped of its neutral background, it becomes a less harmonious, perhaps less happy part of the sound picture; nature dominated by humankind, rather than sharing space with it. The line of nature/artifice is further blurred by ‘The Darkness Of Riverbeds’. Whereas ‘Confluence’ is clearly a composition utilising some field recordings, ‘The Darkness Of Riverbeds’ erodes the division between captured, naturally occurring sound sound (water, the buzzing of equipment) and sound deliberately created by the artist. Blending hissing, buzzing, ambient noise and some musical elements, it’s a tense, resolutely un-soothing collage, which again presents the listener with the sound of nature trapped and distorted within a human context. Given the gradual increase of tension, ‘Rising Waters (alone in the dark)’, despite the ominous title, comes as something of a relief. Far less ambiguously ‘music’, it’s built around a pretty, stark and extremely atmospheric guitar melody, the electronic hums and buzzes interlacing with trickles and sounds of nature in a strangely wistful way. Here, the human, technological element not only dominates the natural world, it also mimics it; the chirps and bleeps of machinery a counterpoint to the sound of the birds, while the ebb and flow of mechanical buzzing echoes the noise of the flooding river. The brief field recording ‘Mooring Chains’ acts as an interlude of strange, lifeless sound, leading the listener into the flood water itself, everything muffled except (presumably) the clunking noises of the chains moving with the current.
If ‘Mooring Chains’ sounds like the absence of life, both animal and human, the latter is malevolently present in ‘Flicker, flow’, a loud ambient piece built around the hissing and buzzing of electricity, disturbingly punctuated by a breathy human sigh. Powerfully unsettling in the context of the album, it’s a dramatic piece that seems to take the listener farthest from the pure sound of Marnay-sur-Seine and into the consciousness of the artist. With the very short closing piece ‘Plumes and Sunsets’, Kate Carr seems finally to disengage from the landscape she has been involved with. Like the opening ‘Under Wires’ it’s a richly textured blend of found sound; birds, river, weather, this time with a human voice shouting in the distance, giving the impression of the listener being called away and ending, somewhat abruptly, the intimate connection with the setting. In bookending the album with these pure sound pieces, Carr strengthens the conceptual sense of the album as a fleeting visit, a night spent in an alien and not necessarily pleasant location, but one where the tourist immerses (pun intended) herself in every aspect of the surroundings.
In dissolving the boundaries between field recordings and ambient composition, I Had Myself A Nuclear Spring¸ questions the very possibility of objectivity in field recording; the act of recording itself makes up part of the texture of the sound, for better or worse. The title encapsulates this; this is not just a ‘nuclear spring’, but Kate Carr’s experience of it, recorded and amplified/distilled into a collection of unsettling, ambiguous sound pictures so that the willing listener can experience a version of it for her or himself. As an album, it’s both extraordinary and mundane and is best experienced as a whole. Parts (especially the beautiful ‘Rising Waters’) are definitely enjoyable in their own right, but the whole is far greater than the sum of those parts and hopefully the physical release will be accompanied by notes from the artist to give even further depth/breadth. The caveat to all this of course is that Nuclear Spring is often barely music and not quite a field recording either; whether it’s a vacation you wish to take is entirely up to you.