Water of Life unveils a magical history

Rob St John takes sound recordings during one of many field trips around Edinburgh for the Water of Life project
Rob St John takes sound recordings during one of many field trips around Edinburgh for the Water of Life project
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ANYONE who has made the journey from Leith to Portobello or vice versa on a hot summer’s day probably won’t be of the opinion that Seafield Sewage Works is a place to go to for positive inspiration.

Yet for the creators of a new musical project funded as part of the Scottish Government’s Year of Natural Scotland, it offered a unique perspective on the natural and man-made watercourses of Edinburgh.

“As part of our research, we found out about the Pennybap Boulder,” says Rob St John, “a glacial erratic which now sits in the car park of office buildings by Seafield, and was historically said to be home to a mischievous water spirit, the Shellycoat.

“At Seafield, the industrial, folkloric and ruined all muddle into each other and this has really helped inform our underlying thinking about how we perceive, manage and use water in the city.”

St John – a musician who has collaborated with the well-regarded Edinburgh groups eagleowl and Meursault – describes going on regular trips around the city with field recorders, hydrophones, film cameras and notebooks, alongside his partner in the project Tommy Perman, formerly of FOUND.

This has coincided with lots of time spent in libraries and archives, says St John, “attempting to excavate and retell otherwise marginalised stories. The sites have all captured our imagination in one way or another, a messy blend of the natural and unnatural, the planned and unplanned.”

Their source recordings have been cut-up and reshaped to create drones and beats, creating the material for two forthcoming live performances this week and a two-track seven-inch record.

“One track’s inspired by historic visions for water in Edinburgh and the other by Seafield and the unseen pipelines through the city,” says St John. “We’ll put out a longer, album-length release in the future, which will be more abstract and sound collage based.”

The music is just one part of a project that also includes drawings and photography by Perman, essays by St John, and specially digitised screenings of the film Rain on the Roof, a 1964 Edinburgh Corporation production about future plans for the city’s water system.

“As our research progressed, we uncovered incredible stories and alongside them themes emerged,” says Perman. “When it was time to start producing the audio for the seven-inch, it felt right to compose some music that responded to these stories – and I found them really inspiring and easy to write to.

“This project was about process, and the research phase shares equal importance with the final outcome. We’re both fascinated by new discoveries in places you think you know really well, and I’m amazed that the small city I was born in 33 years ago can still surprise me on a daily basis.”

• Water of Life is at Summerhall, Edinburgh, tomorrow and Friday. The single is released on Saturday. www.edinburghwateroflife.org