New album featuring water-powered instruments released by student composer

Bass violist playing in a river

PhD student and composer Benjamin Tassie’s album, ‘A Ladder is Not the Only Kind of Time’ has been released today (Friday 24 November) by Birmingham Record Company, a record label that celebrates off-beat work that sits between genres.

Recorded and filmed in the historic Rivelin Valley in Sheffield, the album features three new water-powered musical instruments that Benjamin designed and built together with the instrument maker Sam Underwood.

The recordings on this album combine music produced by these instruments with the sounds of the environment and live performance to engage with ideas of place, heritage, and our changing relationship with nature.

The Rivelin Valley, now a haven for wildlife, was once a hub of water-powered industry. Today, the ruins of watermills and mill dams can be found along the river’s length. Working at dawn or dusk, each track on the album was recorded as a single take at the site of a former watermill.

Played by the river, the three water-powered instruments – a harpsichord, hurdy gurdy, and a water organ or ‘hydraulis’ – produce sound mechanically. A waterwheel operates a mechanism that plucks the strings of the harpsichord. Within the hurdy gurdy, another waterwheel rubs another wheel against two strings to produce a resonant drone.

The hydraulis uses the river’s water to displace air in its chamber. As it is submerged, organ pipes are sounded in a system based loosely on an Ancient Greek design.

Ten locations were used in total, and on some tracks, musicians perform alongside the river, playing both ancient and modern instruments. Rebecca Lee plays the Renaissance bass viol and Rob Bental plays the Nyckelharpa – an historical Swedish instrument – while Benjamin plays the Medieval rebec and lap steel guitar.

Benjamin said: “Playing beside the water meant becoming attuned to its sounds and pace, to the way the river played the instruments, to how the environment dictated the tempo and feeling of a track. Recording was a process of listening as much as it was of making sound; of standing still and becoming attuned, momentarily, to the landscape. I hope that ‘A Ladder is Not the Only Kind of Time’ offers the listener a moment of such connection with the river.”

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