Water Line/Estuary Almanac

photo by Anna Friz

A 365-day generative radio piece that follows the rhythms of tidal waters at the river’s edge.
by Absolute Value of Noise and Anna Friz © 2023

Commissioned for the annual project KONTINUUM by Deutschlandfunk Kultur (Berlin) and Ö1 Kunstradio (Vienna), April 2023 – March 2024.

Listen to the live stream here

At the mouth of a river, salt meets sweet water. Tides fluctuate. The river floods and dries with the seasons. The muddy delta shifts position over centuries. At the tideline, life persists. It exists both in and out of the water. A sand spit rises once a day and disappears again. It’s a home for clams, oysters, other molluscs, anemones, sand dollars, shore birds and seals. A rock shelf full of tidal pools is filled with tiny fish, crabs, urchins, starfish, bivalves, and seaweed. Fish swim down the river to the sea and return to spawn. Plants and trees are engulfed or left high and dry. As a consequence of (over)use by modern cities and societies, extractive industries dominate a major river and its ecologies, then atrophy and decay, replaced by new modes of global commerce, tourism, and shipping. As ice packs diminish, the seas warm,. Water levels rise and rain patterns change. The spaces between high and low water become more and more exaggerated. The dynamics of change seesaw across the year, creating dangerous patterns in this time of climate crisis.

Water Line is a generative audio piece that imagines the space between the tides and between the salt and the muddy waters. Depending on the height of the tide, listeners are oriented below or above the surface, from deep sea to thousands of meters in the air. Combining field recordings (acoustic and electro-magnetic) with poetic composition, Water Line works with both documentary and imaginary riverspace, the creatures and organisms that live there, the human and the more-than-human. The dynamics range from the roar of engines and turbines to the very subtle sounds of clams, the scuttle and high pitched hisses of crabs, or the scattering of sand fleas. Environmental sounds meet electronic compositions to express the many perceptions of being above or below water. From the undersea kelp forests and high tide zones across the mud flats and swampy areas; from the industrialized river to nearby rocky coves; the artists incorporate field recordings mixed with imaginings and playful interpretations of the river to craft a composition that oscillates across the day, the month and the year.

The piece is centered on the muddy, shifting delta of the river that is called stal̕əw̓ by indigenous hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓-speaking Musqueam people, or stó:lō by indigenous halq’eméylem speakers, Coast Salish peoples who still inhabit the river valley of what is also known as the Fraser, which winds through the greater metropolitan area of the city of Vancouver. The Fraser’s colonial legacy is one connected to extractivist enterprises such as fur trade, logging and pulp mills, mining, fishing and farming; eventually the suburbs of Vancouver encroached across the river delta displacing farms with houses, parking lots, and an international airport. But the river is still its own, a place that the salmon have defined ecologically in many ways, and currently stó:lō still has the largest salmon run of any river in Canada.

Water Line is not only a generative audio piece unfolding for 365 days with the help of generative software custom-created by Absolute Value of Noise, it is also a piece that accumulates sounds across the year, as the artists continue to record and compose, and as the electronic elements in the piece oscillate between foreground and background. The piece stages fictional confluences of stó:lō with distant rivers, as though a river could receive a transmission or dream of the life of other rivers like the Danube, a similarly long waterway traversing mountain and plain, spilling out into the sea. The compositional accumulation includes the flow of the Danube, canals of the Mur, in the constant stream of sounds upriver in an urban riverscape prone to flooding.

At the end of the year, the piece will become Estuary Almanac, a compilation of rivertimes, documented and imagined, with our ears attuned to the waterline. Though the river banks are built more and more concretely, though the waters hold ghosts of the past that the summer drought brings into view, these are vital rivers whose life spans have and will surely outlast empire.

Listen to the live stream here