Tom Lawrence - Water Beetles of Pollardstown Fen

CD - Jewel Case

10 Tracks - 71 minutes approx

Track listing:

1. Point of Gibraltar

2. Seven Springs

3. St. James's Well

4. Moore's Well

5. Hawkfields

6. Miltown Feeder

7. Scarletstown Swamps

8. Clongownagh

9. Rathbride

10. Grand Canal Springs

Tom Lawrence is the prize winning composer and sound recordist behind award winning and multi-nominated films, TV series' and documentaries (please see Credits for a recent list). He is the recipient of the Adele Mellen Prize for 'outstanding work' (Edwin Mellen Press July 2008) and was nominated for the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching (May 2010). Tom has worked with directors for BBC, RTE, TG4, TV3, The History Channel and independent media on a range of music scores and soundworks for film, radio, television and new media. His work in bio-acoustics regularly appears in documentaries (please see Selected Works). Tom also creates documentaries for broadcast and installations and his work has featured in Denmark, Portugal, Canada, UK and Ireland.

Tom is on the staff of the School of Communications, Dublin City University where he is a lecturer in film music, creative recording practice and sonic art. His research interests are in the areas of film music and bio-acoustics. He regularly works with Max/MSP/Jitter and spectral analysis software. Tom has also worked as an external examiner for Dundalk Institute of Technology (Creative Media), Dublin Institute of Technology (Music Performance), National University of Ireland, Maynooth (Multimedia) and University College Cork (Law Dept.). He is currently an external examiner for Griffith College’s MSc Digital Media programme. He is a full member of the Irish Film and Television Academy, Irish Music Rights Organisation/MCPS, The Society for Musicology in Ireland (SMI), The Acoustic Ecology Institute and The Wildlife Sound Recording Society.

Tom Lawrence is the Chair of the MSc Multimedia programme at DCU and is the liason officer for the Royal Irish Academy of Music, Dublin. He is also the President of the DCU Music Society and an advisor to the President on cultural activities and a member of the DCU/MDI/RIAM/SPD Music Steering Committee.

Education: Ph.D (UCD), M.A. (NUI Maynooth), B.A. (UCC). L.T.C.L. (Trinity, London), MFTM (UCLA).

He gratefully acknowledges the support of the Arts Council of Ireland and Aer Lingus. Tom records exclusively with instruments by luthier Philip Woodfield A special word of thanks to SQN mixers and Nagra pro audio.


The Irish Times:

ANOTHER LIFE: CREATING OUR garden pond some 25 years ago, I blanketed the raw black plastic of its floor with a layer of earth and sowed this with roots of water plants dug out of lakes behind the shore. This rash and probably illicit strategy did, indeed, furnish the pond agreeably with rapid vegetation – bogbean, water mint, mare’s tail and the rest.

It also skipped a few stages in the natural ambition of ponds to fill themselves in with decaying leaves and stems. Today, tiring in my old age of dragging superfluous biomass out of the pond each autumn, I have settled for succession to a bean-shaped fen which, left alone, might even end up as a miniature raised bog.

For a few years, however, there was still enough open water to serve the annual multitude of mating frogs and encourage soothing meditations on the antics of aquatic insects. On the surface, pond skaters dimpled the skin of the water and whirligig beetles spun in circles of shiny ballbearings. Below, great diving beetles glided through sun and shadow in pursuit of tadpoles and water boatmen rowed up and down for necessary refills of air. All this was played out in a distant, subaqueous silence, while birdsong and bumblebees strummed around my ears.

To discover the underwater sounds of the insect world – to realise they exist at all – is a mind-blowing event in one’s sharing with nature, rather like hearing whalesong for the very first time or seeing Earth from space. For that I have to thank Dr Tom Lawrence, lecturer in sound and music at Dublin City University, acoustic ecologist and brilliant wildlife sound recordist.

Two years ago, he spent six months capturing the sounds of Lough Neagh, above and below the waves, for a BBC Radio 4 natural history programme. One morning he happened to catch the sounds of corixids – lesser water boatmen – stridulating underwater (I’ll come to that). It planted a seed of deep interest in the aquatic communication of invertebrates.

This led him to the ancient wetland on the northern flank of the Curragh in Co Kildare, where thousands of hours of hydrophone recordings have now been distilled into a 70-minute CD, Water Beetles of Pollardstown Fen*. Dr Lawrence calls it “a representative sonic ontology, a phonographic document of natural history?. Less formally, he talks affectionately of the “mini-moogs? whose synthesiser-like repertoire has filled him with frequent astonishment.

The first time he dropped his hydrophone into one of the drains that feed the lake at Pollardstown, his equipment overloaded with sound. Suspecting a fault, he tested circuits, changed his mixer and fitted new cables, only to find the caco- phony still there. Only when its volume wound down and “a beautiful song? emerged, did he realise it came from a colony of whirligigs he’d disturbed at the bottom of the drain.

The recordings, with great aural presence and atmosphere, are hypnotically alien, an endlessly varying chorus of clicks, chirrup- ings, churrs, buzzes and whines, pulsating and oscillating and sometimes of startling volume (like a sudden car alarm). Individual performances go on for many hours. For the water scorpion, Nepa cinerea, at the fen’s Grand Canal springs, the hydrophone was set about one inch from the insect. It kept up an angry, oscillating rasp, sometimes of 110 decibels, for nine hours. The disc samples 13 minutes of it, amid the exhalations of plants and discourse of other invertebrates.

Each of the insects is stridulating, a term more familiar from the terrestrial world of grasshoppers and crickets. In these, the penetrating, churring sound comes typically from rubbing a series of pegs on the legs across a stiff vein on a wing. In most water boatmen, a group of teeth on the front legs is rubbed against a ridge on the side of its head. This can also interact with air bubbles stored in the insect’s body to create a “song? at frequencies that sets up a sympathetic resonance in a partner.

Last month, scientists from France and Scotland reported on sounds made by Micronecta scholtzi, a water boatman just 2mm long (and not yet found among Irish species). The pulses reached at average of 78.9 decibels, making the insect, relative to size, the loudest animal on Earth. But what also drew headlines was its manner of noise- making – rubbing a ridge on its penis across ridges on its abdomen.

That does seem to match the motivation usually accorded to water beetles and bugs – competition in attracting a mate. But research suggests stridulation serves far wider purposes, as yet almost unexplored. In redefining our notions of underwater life, says Tom Lawrence, his CD “presents a world of alarming, sophisticated communication: a myriad of signal generation perpetuated by a plethora of intelligent species?. That might be pushing it a bit, but the nuanced alertness, alarm or aggression in some of the Pollardstown “voices? seems unmistakeable.

Cheryl Tipp (The British Library):

‘Water Beetles of Pollardstown Fen’ is a fascinating publication that takes the listener on an underwater journey through the heart of this ancient waterway. Situated in the Curragh, Co. Kildare, Pollardsdown is one of the last remaining post-glacial fens of its kind in western Europe and supports a vast array of both terrestrial and aquatic flora and fauna. The significance of this area has led to various forms of protection and today Pollardsdown Fen is listed as a Statutory Nature Reserve, Natural Heritage Area, Special Area of Conservation, Ramsar Site and Biogenetic Reserve.

The history and ecology of Pollardsdown is worthy of an article all to itself, but for now let’s get back to the recordings. The CD features ten tracks in total, each of which focuses on a particular location around the fen. The accompanying booklet provides excellent sleeve notes that explain the various sounds that can be heard through the course of each recording and really help when trying to visualise the scene. Tom Lawrence wrote in the booklet introduction:

“What is presented in this CD is a very alien world, a hitherto unheard aural environment that breaks with all our preconceived notions of what underwater life should sound like.?

This sums up the personality of the publication perfectly. It truly is like embarking on an adventure through some undiscovered realm where one is overwhelmed by the plethora of unusual and unexpected sounds that come together to form the sonic landscape.

So many weird and wonderful sounds are encountered during the course of this listening experience that it would be impossible to explain all of them. To give you some idea of the content however, one can expect to hear the bubbling sounds of photosynthesizing plants, alert calls from invertebrates such as the Great Diving Beetle (Dytiscus marginalis), Water Scorpion (Nepa cinerea), and Whirligig Beetle (Gyrinus substriatus), and the oscillating songs of different types of Waterboatmen. Rhythmical clicks, taps, trills and buzzes create a totally unique atmosphere that constantly changes as individuals come and go.

‘Water Beetles of Pollardsdown Fen’ is not your average soundscape CD but this deviation from the norm is no bad thing. As much as we all love listening to the amazing sounds of terrestrial locations around the world, there’s something exciting and refreshing about this voyage into the unknown. Tom Lawrence has shared this incredible melting pot of sounds with us and I for one am really grateful that he did.

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Tom Lawrence - Water Beetles of Pollardstown Fen

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