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David de la Haye

With Ears Underwater

by Ian Mann

July 06, 2022


A fascinating audio experience.

David de la Haye

“With Ears Underwater”

(New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings NEWJAiM10)

David de la Haye – underwater recordings, Graeme Wilson – tenor saxophone, Mark Carroll – cello, Adam Stapleford, drums, percussion

Wesley Stephenson’s Newcastle based New Jazz and Improvised Music Recordings imprint was established in 2020 in order to give jazz and improvising musicians in the North East and beyond a creative outlet during the pandemic.

The record label is a spin off of the Newcastle Festival of Jazz and Improvised music, which will return in September 2022. The label was first founded when the 2020 Festival was cancelled due to Covid and has since established its own identity with a set of excellent album releases, most of the music being at the more avant garde end of the jazz spectrum. The majority of these recordings have been reviewed elsewhere on The Jazzmann.

This latest release is arguably the label’s most esoteric yet.  It features a series of underwater recordings captured by musician, field recordist, sound technician and producer David de la Haye. Originally from Jersey de la Haye studied at Leeds College of Music and at Newcastle University and is now based in Durham.

As a musician he has played with the folk acts Monster Ceilidh Band, Shona Mooney, Jez Lowe and The Bad Pennies and others. He has also promoted experimental music events in the North East and was the recording engineer on the recent NEWJAiM release “The King’s Hall Concert” by the trio Telemaque (Joe McPhee – sax, trumpet, John Pope – bass, Paul Hession – drums). Review here;

As a sound recordist de la Haye has completed commissions and residencies for the National Trust, Great North Museum,  Natural England, ArtHouse Jersey, the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art and others. He is currently a Composer-Curator commissioned by the Sound and Music organisation.

“With Ears Underwater” has its roots in the Sound and Music commission and also in the involvement of Jazz North East with British Science Week, which saw Stephenson and the NEWJAiM label participating in The Sound of Science Festival. This event, which takes place at Gosforth Civic Theatre sees musicians collaborating with scientists to explore the connections between science and music in a series of presentations and performances.

de la Haye’s album represents an audible manifestation of those links with his field recordings being deployed as the basis for ten tracks that also feature the talents of improvising musicians Graeme Wilson (tenor sax), Mark Carroll (cello) and Adam Stapleford (drums, percussion).

The album is subtitled “Exploring the underwater soundscapes of Sunderland” with de la Haye’s liner notes describing the resultant recording thus;
“This album brings together a trio of improvisers to respond to environmental recordings made in water. Sourced from surrounding docklands, salty rock pools and urban ponds the listener is invited to forget preconceived notions of the life aquatic. These spaces are overflowing with sonic richness and beauty, where overlooked invertebrates and aquatic plants truly have a voice. The recording is a document of aquatic soundsapes as much as it is an artistic exploration of interconnectedness beyond human senses. The sounds have not been processed; this is how we would hear With Ears Underwater”.

The underwater recordings capture the sounds of marine life, freshwater invertebrates and aquatic plants at various locations around Sunderland. These include docklands, industrial mudflats, the marina and estuary of the River Wear, the salty rock pools of Roker beach and the freshwater ponds found beside Sunderland’s factories.

The album is also a celebration of World Water Day, which took place on March 22nd 2022. The relevant page on de la Haye’s website offers an insight into this event and includes a short but highly informative Youtube documentary about the making of the album, which includes footage of the recording sessions, plus interviews with de la Haye, Stapleford, Wilson and Carroll.

De la Haye’s notes also offer brief insights with regard to the individual tracks, beginning with “Water Bugs and Factories”. He states; “near to Nissan’s manufacturing plant there is a pond where invertebrates stridulate against background urban hum”. Captured by de la Haye’s hydrophones (underwater microphones) this is exactly what you hear, this appears to be a pure field recording without any input from the musicians themselves. It still makes for strangely compulsive listening, with its own form of musicality. Marine and freshwater creatures use sound to communicate underwater, plants create complex rhythms as they oxygenate the water.

“The Pond Listener” is described as “three musicians taking a dive into freshwater”. The sounds of Stapleford’s range of shakers and “percussive gizmos” are prominent as he and his colleagues attempt to replicate and respond to the sounds of the field recordings. Wilson’s sax pipes eerily and Carroll’s bow scrapes or strikes the strings of the cello as we are taken into a soundscape that is even beyond the traditional realms of free improv.

“Cello and Rockpool” features “limpets and seaweed filtered through the body of a cello”. The eerie sounds of aquatic life both animal and vegetable are teamed with the equally other worldly sounds of Carroll’s cello, his bowing feather light and ethereal and informed by the extended techniques of free jazz and improvisation. He also plucks and scrapes the strings, and possibly deploys the body of the instrument as percussion. Throughout the album it’s not always easy to distinguish between the ‘natural’ sounds recorded by de la Haye and the ‘human’ input of the musicians.  In any event
there are no ‘conventional’ cello sounds here.

“March Towards The Light” is described as “the unrelenting process of photosynthesis in the early spring”. The sound of plants combines with the low frequencies of Stapleford’s percussion, which is reminiscent of the sound of discarded oil drums clanking as they roll around on the sea bed. I’m also reminded of the music of Echo City, the London based percussion ensemble famous for building giant musical instruments from waste and industrial material and for building ‘sonic playgrounds’. Echo City’s ranks famously include Van Der Graaf Generator drummer Guy Evans.

There are more exotic percussive sounds from Stapleford on “Six-Limbed Drummer”, a piece that de la Haye describes as being “somewhere between drum kit and invertebrate”.

The “Ears Underwater” video sees de la Haye making comparisons between ‘reeds’, as in vegetation, and ‘reeds’ as in saxophones and other woodwinds. The track “Reed Solo Amongst The Reeds” takes that analogy to its obvious conclusion with Wilson’s haunting tenor sax explorations set against a backdrop of aquatic sounds both vegetable and animal. As de la Haye describes it “the saxophonist ventures out beneath the marginal zone”.

“Plant Based Rhythms” is billed by de la Haye as “a study in aquatic rhythms”. Here his recordings invite the three musicians to respond to the found sounds, which they do to create a free jazz performance shaped by the rhythms of the natural world. Stapleford delivers an engrossing array of percussive sounds, Wilson produces eerie sax multi-phonics while Carroll plays largely without the bow, gently plucking and strumming.

“The Strangest Tales Are Heard At Sea” is a celebration of “the coastal communities”. This includes more familiar sea sounds such as surf and seabirds alongside the now familiar aquatic crackle of submerged plants and animals. There also sounds that appear to be more ‘industrial’, documenting human economic activity and the industry for which the North East is justly famous. As far as I can tell the whole piece is comprised of field recordings. I couldn’t detect any discernible input from the musicians.

Wilson’s sax introduces “Winter Gardens”, a piece recorded at “an overlooked urban pond containing many stories”. Cello and percussion also feature on a piece that again incorporates the extended techniques of free jazz and is essentially an improvised musical performance with the field recordings less obvious than elsewhere.

The album concludes with “Aquatic Plants Swimming In Sun”, described by de la Haye as “the vibrant sound of life giving oxygen, before it stops”. As the man says it’s a field recording that is truly bright and vibrant, both full of life and life affirming. The unwitting plant musicians express an inherent musicality and sense of rhythm. It’s a strangely uplifting way in which to end this fascinating album.

“With Ears Underwater” is a good fit for NEWJAiM’s adventurous musical policy and also for the label’s ethos of sustainability. de la Haye’s work draws attention to the ecology of the North East and of Sunderland in particular and the recording helps to raise awareness of biodiversity and other environmental issues; thus expanding upon the legacy of World Water Day and British Science Week.

“Rendered binaurally – best experienced with headphones” advises the album package, but I have to confess that I didn’t actually listen to the recording this way. Nevertheless the album represents a fascinating audio experience, although it may not be a recording that most listeners would be likely to revisit on a regular basis.

de la Haye’s work occupies a similar area to that of the more celebrated Chris Watson. It would be good to see “With Ears Underwater” getting similar exposure on programmes such as BBC Radio 3’s “Late Junction”.

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