A foghorn blast and the call of a gull reminds many of the sea, sounds that can be layered with memory and the lives of those who feel attachment to the water, a wordless element that hears all who visit it. Encapsulating these narratives in a unique installation is What the River Told Me, an audio piece broadcast by a stream of water from the Thames Estuary as part of the inaugural Estuary festival.
“Imagine a kitchen radio with an antenna,” says Cathy FitzGerald, the radio producer behind the piece. “Essentially we’ve replaced its metal antenna with a jet of salt-water from the Thames. Salt water conducts electricity and the jet creates a similar shape to a normal antenna.”
FitzGerald, who grew up near the area where the River Thames meets the North Sea, got the idea of a seawater broadcast after the US navy conceived a communication transmission signal using ocean water. Sea water providing a natural magnetic induction, FitzGerald thought it would be the perfect medium to tell the Estuary’s emotive stories.
“The key idea is that the river flows through the landscape like a liquid antenna, as if it’s receiving all these thoughts and voices from along its banks,” says FitzGerald. “The water of the Thames carries the stories of the people who live alongside it.”
Having spent weeks exploring the Estuary and meeting its visitors, FitzGerald recorded interviews with various people to compliment the sea sounds—ferries, tugboats, tankers and birds, for instance—found in the 20-minute piece What the River Told Me.
“People often come every day,” she tells The Creators Project. “I wanted to know what that was about.”
A widower, a fisherman, and a sailor who never was, are some of the voices heard throughout the piece, which is installed on a lightship, the LV21, located in Kent, England. Working with technician Tony Churnside, the recording was broadcast on an FM signal, then picked up by the saltwater antenna.
“Visitors to LV21 can sit on the deck and watch the river as they listen to the piece,” explains FitzGerald. “I’d like to make them stop and look, really see what they’re surrounded by. I love how a real bird can fly past overhead while you’re listening to a bird on the audio. The universe has the final say on the mix.”
While this was FitzGerald’s first venture into the more artistic realm, her previous experience in abstract-like radio documentary aided in the project’s production.
“The river does something to the sound, absorbs it, I think,” says FitzGerald. “So you have all these massive boats and factories and yet very little noise, like a dream. It’s also a very absent landscape. There are all these signs of human presence, but very few humans. Old boats rotting away in the marshes, fly-tipped sofas, industrial plants with no visible workers. It’s as if everyone disappeared at the same time and we’re left to walk—very quietly, in case there are monsters—through the deserted landscape.”