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Listening Party

Tom Lawrence: Water Beetles of Pollardstown Fen

The microsonic world of a collection of aquatic insects biding their scant days on this earth in the waters of an alkaline marsh in County Kildaire, Ireland.

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Tom Lawrence

Water Beetles of Pollardstown Fen


There is a sense of building to “Point of Gibraltar,” from the first low, tectonic-sounding rumbles to a sort of sizzling static sound, punctuated by periodic oscillations, like an especially minimal pop hook. A new intermittent tone—almost like an electronic whoop or shriek, far in the distance—kicks the track into a higher key/gear, shadowed by a varying croaking sound. You can practically picture the synth operator turning a knob, or maybe pawing at a laptop touchpad lightly. At last a buzzy drone, like an old analog dial tone, ushers out the five-minute-plus cut. And thus, you have been introduced to the microsonic world of a collection of aquatic insects biding their scant days on this earth in the waters of an alkaline marsh in County Kildaire, Ireland.

Tom Lawrence, an academic, ecologist, and sound artist who died Oct. 19, acknowledges in the liner notes that he boiled the events of a 24-hour field recording down to that five-minute-ish length, and that he raised the frequency of certain sounds captured that might otherwise escape human hearing, but other than such interventions the sounds on Water Beetles of Pollardstown Fen are just that. There’s nothing electronic or, other than a little carry-over rain and thunder here and there, from the world above the surface of the water. And the sounds he captured, if not likely to supplant whatever’s happening in minimal techno or experimental drone music right now, prove a fascinating eavesdrop on the rich sonic worlds that coexist with ours, all around us.

The disc isn’t all quiet hums and bubbly burbles. “St. James’s Well” features a wheedling, almost shortwave-radio static-y call from a bug known as a waterboatman, followed by froggy croaking from a water beetle and what almost sounds like metronomic percussion from various other six-legged sources. Final track “Grand Canal Springs” culminates the disc in a collection of low-frequency rumbles and squawks from a water scorpion that sound for all the world like a chainsaw idling. This is both a varied and surprisingly regular sonic environment, at least in the sense that the sounds are often orderly in their arrangement, with rock-solid rhythms. The painstakingly recorded and exquisitely presented Water Beetles of Pollardston Fen probably constitutes background music, at best, at least after the first few listens, but the fact that it passes for music at all is a revelation.

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