Floodlines: Rain sounds recomposed

Rain makes some of the world’s best-loved sounds. They’re even better coming from a giant plywood recorder.

Collage of a window with the sea behind it

Throughout southern England, the second Monday of July last year started with rain. The rain turned into a downpour and the downpour turned into a flood. By lunchtime, eight London Underground lines had been suspended. By late afternoon, water had inundated the tracks at Southampton Central station. And by the end of the day, 120 people had been moved to emergency housing in Kensington and Chelsea alone, and a month’s worth of rain had fallen on parts of the UK.

Floodlines attempts, using only a recorder and a loop pedal, to reconstruct a field recording by Joe Harvey-White of the rainfall that caused the flood. In the same way that drawings taken from photographs can say something new and different to their source material, the piece strikes a delicate balance between sonic representation and emotional commentary. Its starting point is the ordinary sound of an extraordinary weather event, signalling a monumental change in the Earth’s climate.

When I first heard the field recording it sounded strikingly musical. Everything can be made to sound like music—that’s the whole idea behind musique concrète, the practice of using and manipulating field recordings as abstract music, developed at experimental French radio stations in the late 1940s. But what we did with the piece amounts to musique concrète in reverse: it imitates life with an artistic instrument instead of creating art from ordinary sounds.

Floodlines took a lot of rehearsal, partly for the electronics, partly to hone the sounds that we wanted from the recorder. Ultimately, though, the Paetzold, a blockish 5-foot-tall 1980s plywood contraption that looks more like an organ pipe from Star Trek than a recorder, did a perfect job. It’s quite similar in size and shape to a rainstick, the Latin American instrument made from dried-out cactus or bamboo tubes with the spines hammered through and seeds or pebbles sealed inside. The method of making sound from a recorder is obviously very different, and we had to work a lot harder to get rain sounds out of the Paetzold. 

There’s something to be said, though, for working any given sound out of an instrument that’s not designed to make it—partly for the creative challenge and partly just for the hell of it. And there’s always something to be said for making art out of climate disruption. It gives space for feelings that simply aren’t in the IPCC reports. Art goes deeper into the sensory aspects of the climate crisis, speaking not of what’s in our environment, but of what it means. ▪️