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Steve Smith
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River’s Voice

Bill Fontana’s latest installation at Somerset House is a true journey, Fontana has charted the life of the river from its upper tidal reaches to the sea through many facets of sound that make the rivers voice. A multitude of speakers set around the vaults that surround the Somerset House courtyard are not just integrated but insinuated into the architecture. Descending the stairs to the vaults we step into a truly believable soundscape, in the distance the sound of a wailing foghorn rises into the sky above us. We hear the sound of bubbling water emanating from some subterranean structure, a ghostly inner world with the water almost breathing. Dripping through structures, the surrounding air fizzes with sound, this underground space with its dusty bricks absorbs the soundtrack, alters its frequencies and then emits the rivers history back to us. The multiple rhythms within spaces both interior and exterior can be felt through the recordings, under the large arch at the riverside entrance to Somerset House and within sight of the Thames speakers relay the sound of water constantly lapping under the floor in dialogue with the river adjacent, the sound of the traffic disrupts the voice of the river but rather than dominating it weaves itself into the recording as if attempting to join with it.

In Fontana’s hands the Thames is imbued with spirits, we feel the river as relentless, unstoppable and immortal. References to our interaction with the river in the sounds and video projections of buoys, the cables of the millennium bridge, tolling of warning bells and the clanking of chains one begins to see the river not as a benign, passive presence, but a living breathing entity, one which we speak to every day, one that gave birth to our city and will be here in all its incarnations to ultimately claim the city from us, it is protector and taker of life. One thinks of the river as place of history with its traces marked and etched into its surroundings but with this installation it also becomes a predictor of the future. Film projections of the sites of engineering along the river are a microcosm of our lives intertwined with the river, the cables of the millennium bridge hum a meditative song for the Thames, almost a tribal call. The quality of the sounds Fontana presents resonate at frequencies we would normally overlook at the edges of the sound spectrum. The river is quiet but relentless and beautiful.

The interior spaces of the vaults reflect and absorb sound, from high frequency, harsh and piercing through easily recognisable mid range to sub-audible felt as vibrations through our bodies and the surrounding architecture. A sub-bass boom channels round a vaulted arch of a tiny room and its pulse vibrates through the body, we feel the power contained within the rivers watery body. We see and feel the Thames for what it is, beautiful and gentle but with monstrous power and danger lurking within. The impression of river as a living being is finally reinforced as we hear the cry or wail of a taught chain that moors a ship.

Exiting the installation I hear seagulls, my mind drifts to thoughts of the mouth of the river, of estuarine mudflats, the end of the rivers journey and into the sea beyond only to find that rather than emitting from a speaker it is the sound of real gulls overhead. Swooping, sheltering inland from some coming storm in the territories I had just imagined, a paramagical and poetic impression of the great River Thames insinuated into my understanding somewhere between the real and the imagined from Fontana’s recordings and the reality of my existence just a few yards from the rivers banks.