Black Water Brown Water (2007-8)

Black Water Brown Water Soundwalk Map
Black Water Brown Water Soundwalk map. You can download the complete soundwalk as an MP3 from Soundcloud.
black_water_brown_water_soundwalk_map_2009.pdf (615kb)

Black Water Brown Water began as a site-specific headphone piece for the island that separates the river Severn from the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal at the Sourport Canal Basins. The colour of these two water systems becomes a central metaphor in the work, which is presented as a dialogue between James Brindley, the great canal engineer and Sabrina, mythical Goddess of the River Severn. The piece has subsequently been re-worked into a number of other forms including a book, a radio programme and a concert performance.

The locks that flank the island form an interface between two water systems - On one side; the black, still, oily serenity of the canal and on the other; the brown, turbulent ooze of the river Severn. The island between them is contested ground, the space where 18th century industrial ingenuity meets something much older and wilder.  The island is also the site of a weir; filled by the black, temporarily transformed into white only to fuse a moment later with the brown.  This near-continuous transfusion of water-to-water defines the sonic landscape of the island, forming a background above which all other sounds must attempt to be heard.  Its broadband noise commingles with the hum of the road nearby, with the lap of the river and the articulate swish of the wind in the trees.  Only occasionally does it cease altogether, and for around 200 years, it has whispered or roared a reminder of some kind of pulmonary or cardiac function, not of the island itself but relating to the regulation of the canal system it protects from the river.  It was into this noise that the original version of Black Water Brown Water was devised, where sounds in the headphones were intended as a punctuated relief to the sound of the weir, the dominant sound-mark of the site.

In researching these two water systems, two names percolated to the surface: James Brindley[i], the great canal engineer and Sabrina, Goddess of the river Severn.  Drawing heavily on John Milton’s Comus both for his rendering of the Sabrina myth and for the license he affords us to play with the genealogy of these characters, Brindley and Sabrina enter into a dialogue here, in which the ‘island as interface’ becomes a device through which a matrix of themes can be explored concerning our use of, and attitudes towards water, which are at once historical, geographical and gendered. The canal system is a quintessential manifestation of our human desire to have dominion over nature: to tame and to exploit water for its power.  By contrast, the ‘liminal’ river, as described by John Milton is, as he writes, ‘intemperate and un-ownéd’, representing something not just inherently untamed but also something both fecund and illogical: a combination which would have challenged any 18th Century industrialist.  And what could be a better metaphor for a defiance of logic than the Severn bore, traveling backwards up the river?  With its last sentence running back into the first, Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake illustrates the paucity of language to deal with this non-linearity beautifully, with a structure apparently influenced by the flow of the river Liffey. It is difficult to express this kind of trajectory through the linearity of an audio recording however.  Not only does time unfold in a straight line, but the listener doesn’t even have the opportunity to intervene in the speed with which it does so. In the sited version of the piece, the linearity of the programme material is given a welcome disruption by the ever-changing sound of the environment in which the piece is heard. In the book, broadcast or concert forms of the piece, you have to rely on your imagination.

In the non-sited forms of the work, there has been a necessary concatenation of the seven discreet sections of the original version of the piece and some of the audio material used in the headphone version, simply wouldn’t make sense when heard off-site.  However, what these versions do is to shift the emphasis away from the imagined presence of Brindley and Sabrina on the site towards a deeper engagement both with the fabric of the sounds themselves and the relationship between what these two characters.

Black Water Brown Water was one of six commissions made by British Waterways as part of the Arts Commissioning Programme within the Stourport Canal Basin Regeneration Project.  Devised by pro/POSIT (Dave Patten and Maurice McGuire), and funded as a joint initiative between British Waterways, Wyre Forest District Council and Arts Council England; the aim of the programme was to place artists at the forefront of the design process.  The development received the Waterways Renaissance Award for Outstanding Achievement, run by the Waterways Trust and BURA (British Urban Regeneration Association) and then won Best Heritage Project in the National Lottery Awards in 2009.

Black Water Brown water is now available in book form, which contains a stereo audio CD of the work, a full transcription of the text, an introduction by David Prior, specially commissioned essays by John Hall and Dugal McKinnon and illustrations by Claudia Schmidt.  The book is available to order through the Acts of Language website.

Full length Broadcasts (stereo)

Full Length Performances (Stereo)

  • 6th-8th June 2008, Church House, Stourport (continuous loop)
  • 27th September 2008, Music and Mind Conference, Jill Craigie Cinema, University of Plymouth
  • 3rd March 2009, Sharpham House, Ashprington, Devon

Full Length Performances (8 channel Surround)

  • 19th November 2009, Studio 3, University College Falmouth, Dartington Campus
  • 9th May 2010, PW10, Main Auditorium, Arnolfini, Bristol


Main text references:

  • [i] For information on the life of James Brindley, I made particular use of Richardson, Christine (2004)
  • Joyce, James 1939 Finnegan’s Wake Penguin Books 1967, Harmondsworth Middlesex
  • Burton, Anthony and Pratt, Derek, 2001. Anatomy of Canals: The Early Years. The History Press
  • Corble, Nick, 2005 James Brindley: The First Canal Builder. The History Press
  • Drayton, Michael The Poly-olbion
  • Richardson, Christine James Brindley: Canal Pioneer. Waterways World, Staffordshire
  • Geoffrey of Monmouth, History of the Kings of Britain London: Dent, 1963, pp. 29-32.
  • A Mask (Comus), ll. 824-847  (Milton, John Poetical Works ed. Douglas Bush, London: Oxford Univesity Press, 1969, p.134)