The Dutch and their water
Water is the most intrinsic aspect of Dutch identity. The Dutch rival Poseidon when it comes to controlling bodies of water. They can repel it, guide it, expel it, build cities on it and bend it to their will. They use it for profit, at sea or in the port. They enjoy its beauty and derive intense pleasure from aquatic activities and a trip to Amsterdam isn’t complete without a photo of a canal.
As their closest friend, water is equally the country’s worst enemy. The country is literally sinking into its own figurative grave as reclaimed peat moors dry out and compress. Land that once existed at or above sea level now lies a few meters lower. The powers that be struggle daily to keep the land from falling prey to the ever rising groundwater, rising sea levels, and encroaching saltwater. Beneath the surface, bending nature to one’s will is not as calm as it appears from above.
It’s a relationship that has visibly shaped Dutch existence from the landscape, politics, culture, and economics.
A challenge from the RE:VIVE initiative
Irish electronic music duo, Lakker are equally adept manipulators when it comes to sound. Lakker turn found sounds into transcendent musical landscapes that transport listeners to different places that are both tense and freeing, dark and light.
The theme, “The Dutch and their water” was presented to them as part of a residency at the behest of the RE:VIVE Initiative. RE:VIVE aims to bring together archives and artists around the world to create new music out of - and inspired by - curated sets of archival material. It is set up to be a challenge for both musicians wishing to explore new sonic terrain and for archives to open up their collections to the world for re-use. Through music and collaboration RE:VIVE will bring hidden collections into the public spotlight and change the way we hear the past.
Lakker who, sampling a curated set of audiovisual archival material from the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, were challenged to capture the complex emotions and history of The Dutch and their relationship with water in a new release.
The cooperation with Lakker is a new and exciting way for the archive to explore its role within a broader cultural context, a fantastic chance to give historical footage a new and fresh lease on life by connecting it to contemporary artists and creators.
The result of this collaboration is the EP “Struggle & Emerge”, which derives its name from the motto of the Dutch Province of Zeeland: “Luctor et Emergo”.
From the gloomy and reflective sister tracks “Open Clouds” and “Broken Clouds”, via the pummeling “Maeslantkering Gating”, and the industrial sounding “Reclamation” and “Ever Rising” to the more serene “Emergo”, “Struggle & Emerge”, the EP sonically and emotionally explores the tumultuous relationship of the Dutch and the water that surrounds them.
Deconstructing “Struggle & Emerge”
In the following chapters we will explore and deconstruct five tracks from “Struggle & Emerge” shedding light onto Lakker’s creative process as we go. Tracing the tracks back to their archival roots, and the story these historical films and sounds tell about the “Dutch and their water” we’ll dive into where Dara Smith and Ian McDonnell’s inspiration came from, what struck them about this quintessentially Dutch story and how exactly all of it ended up in their album.
...or listen first to the full album on Bandcamp:
As the expression goes, “God created the earth but the Dutch created Holland”. Dutch hands took pallid clay from the sea and drained the polders to shape the country into habitable land. The windmill has been a recurring image in Dutch art throughout the centuries but not everyone is aware that windmills were used to drain water from land the Dutch wanted. The 19 windmills that still stand at the Kinderdijk are a visible testament to the Netherlands’ veracity at reclaiming what they viewed as theirs.
The modernisation of the Netherlands in the 20th century has close ties with the state’s survival: the need for its infrastructure to be able to contain all waters - both river and sea - that threaten to submerge it on a daily basis. The most striking examples of this modernisation being the Afsluitdijk in North Holland and the Delta Works in Zeeland.
This ‘sea change’ also meant the work method of the Dutch people moved from a harmonious, symbiotic working relationship with water to ‘attack and conquer’. But this new mindset and approach did not come overnight. When Minister and engineer Cornelis Lely proposed the shortening of the coastline of the Zuiderzee in 1891 his plans were rejected. A project of such scale was deemed unfeasible and unnecessary. That was until 1916 when a flood wrecked havoc on the northern Netherlands and Lely’s Afsluitdijk was approved so the creation of new, protected lands began.
In the end, the Afsluitdijk was a modern engineering marvel. The amount of laborers working on the dyke at anyone time could reach 7,000 men. It took 23 million cubic meters of boulder clay, 13.5 million cubic meters of sand, 18 million bundles of willow switch all of which were covered by 16 million bricks, and 1.5 million basalt blocks.
80 years later the Afsluitdijk is in desperate need of improvements and modernisation. While the sea remains at bay, mother nature cannot be controlled forever. The Dutch government has set aside hundreds of millions of euros to be spent on bringing the Afsluitdijk into the 21st century.
160 kilometers to the south of the famous Afsluitdijk is the Maeslantkering, a massive storm surge barrier located at the mouth of the Maas river. The Maeslantkering marks the end of the Delta Works, a series of industrial, futuristic barriers that shortened the southern Dutch coastline. They protect the province of Zeeland and the largest seaport in Europe, Rotterdam. It’s is one of the largest moving structures on earth and can withstand a storm predicted to occur once every ten-thousand years.
The sound of taking back land from the sea
The Delta Works have taken the idea of struggle and emerge to the extreme. This is what Lakker seeks to capture musically: the scale and power of Dutch hydraulic engineering. In the interview below they dive in to how they went about this creative process.
Finding rhythm in noise
For Smith and McDonnell, inspiration can hide in the smallest of things. For example the sound of a perforated film that is transformed into the intense drum loop that runs beneath “Reclamation”.
The sound of perforated film
For a long time, film and sound were located on the same reel. An optical sound strip next to the imagery made sure that the image and sound were synchronized.
Some filmstrips however have perforations on the exact part of the reel where the optical sound strip usually is to be found.
The actual sound used by Lakker stems from this mix up. Strictly speaking it isn’t part of the original footage, but a side effect of of the digitization process the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision used when the source film was digitized for conservation purposes a couple of years ago. The sensor - unable to distinguish a sound strip from a perforation, read the perforation as an optical sound, resulting in a sound that - oddly enough - resembles an angry, running film projector.
Turning two ship horns into a Reese Bassline
Another sound that struck Smith and McDonnell was that of two ship’s horns screeching, which reminded them of the classic ‘Reese’ synth. The source of the boat horns is a film about the building of the Afsluitdijk in 1932. Fittingly the sound was taken from the precise moment two tug boats blow their horns to celebrate a significant victory for the Dutch over their eternal enemy: the very moment the causeway is closed, changing the ‘Zuiderzee’ into the ‘IJsselmeer’.
A raw approach to finding balance
Based on their experiences creating “Struggle & Emerge”, Smith and McDonnell ruminate about how the use of the archival material from Sound and Vision as a source forced them to simplify their production process. Using quality ‘found’ sounds made them opt for a more ‘raw’ approach, as they continuously searched for a balance between the different sounds, without over-processing them and losing their unique timbre.
About the film 'Afsluitdijk' (1933)
For "Reclamation" Lakker made use of one film from the Sound and Vision archives in particular: "Afsluitdijk" (1933), a historic film about the completion of the causeway in 1932. The film is part of the core collections of the institute: the Polygoon Cinema Journals, which stretch from 1922 all the way to 1987.
There are many different Polygoon Journals showing the construction of the Afsluitdijk but the most exciting film depicted the closing of the Afsluitdijk on May 28, 1932 and the image of a car driving over the new landbridge.
Documenting a building process on film wasn’t always as normal as it is today, and the development of the Afsluitdijk was one of the early Dutch examples of the use of documentary film by the government, companies and unions. This usually took the form of cinema journals. Often these journals were commissioned to prove the value of the considerable (publicly funded) investments to society.
...or you can listen to the entire track:
Living in harmony with water is a widely known aspect of Dutch culture. Artworks by Hendrik Avercamp, photos of Amsterdam’s canals or cyclists riding along a dyke capture water as a friend. Afterall, if the Dutch weren’t extracting joy from water, why on earth live below it?
On a lighter note
Smith and McDonnell discuss how they took an entirely different approach to working with the samples and the theme with “Emergo” arguably the lightest and happiest track on the album.
The film referenced by Smith is “Schipperskinderen” (Sailor’s children), a short documentary from 1965 in which we see life aboard a ship through they eyes of a sailor’s child. We follow him and his family during their daily chores while traveling by sea and river from Amsterdam to Rotterdam.
The Dutch rivers are important, ships transport many goods from and to the harbours of cities like Amsterdam and Rotterdam into the country. Families live and travel on the water, the children (Schipperskinderen) go to special schools. This educational documentary was made for school kids.
It’s a colorful film, based on an illustrated book by the same title from 1959. Visually it seems to take its cue from the flow of the river on a calm day. It’s an ode to the beauty and serenity of life in the Netherlands, where even the water is part of the family. Which is what precisely what struck Smith and inspired “Emergo”:
All you need is a whistle and a squeak
How can a squeaky tailgate and rusty door become beautiful angelic synths? Lakker talk you through making the melodies in “Emergo”.
A whistle from a closing sluice
One of the sounds Smith and McDonnell discuss is originally from field recording of a sailing trip to Schiermonnikoog (one of the Dutch islands in the north), in which you can hear the closing of a sluice at Lauwersoog.
In essence sluices can be seen as elevators: because so much of the Netherlands is below sea level, the water level of rivers and lakes is often lower that that of the surrounding sea. In order to make it possible for ships to cross over from sea to river, sluices control the different levels of water between between both. A lock with gates and a water pump is used to transport boats smoothly from one water level to the other. The lock was recorded at the moment that the gate was closing and the boat was temporarily locked in the sluice.
The recording was made by an employee as part of an earlier Sound and Vision project around open data called The sound of the Netherlands, in part aimed at crowdsourcing field recordings from all over the country.
A squeak from a tailgate
The other sound Smith and McDonnell discuss is from an audio fragment in which you can hear the loading and driving away of a truck at the Delta Works in Zeeland, It’s part of an obscure field recording about the closing of a sea inlet at Ouderkerk.
Carving out a beat
White noise is the best for creating drums. And you can use the sound of 1930’s machines hard at work closing a sea inlet. Lakker show you how it’s done.
A historical reason for optimism (Giving up God)
During this same era secularization became bigger in the Netherlands as well. In the past the fear of water was partly instilled by religion and the Calvinistic belief that flooding was a punishment from God. The fast modernization of the Netherlands in the 1950s and 1960s showed an enormous optimism about the make-ability of the land. Throwing secularization into the mix, the Dutch people arguably gained more faith in technology and human inventiveness than in God’s divine flooding powers.
But as with the rest of the world this prosperity came to an end in the late 1970s. Nevertheless the Dutch managed to keep their feet dry and the fear of invading neighbors both human and aquatic slowly but surely became things of the past.
.. or you can listen to the full track:
Fear of flooding is a recurrent theme in art that dates back to the Old Testament. Today, climate change has obviously exacerbated this fear and television has brought catastrophic floods into the homes of those around the world. Yet the Dutch people are not wary. They trust the authorities (“Rijkswaterstaat”) to manage the water and keep the nation’s feet dry. It’s become a ‘non-problem’. The popular contemporary Dutch TV program “Nederland van Boven” (2012-14) is a case in point: it shows all aspects of living in the Netherlands from up in the air. The show’s images don’t instill fear but are rather beautiful and effectively portray how the Dutch have conquered water.
1953: the flooding of Zeeland
For older generations, a different image is often recalled; the 1953 flooding of Zeeland on the night of January 31st. It was one of the first national disasters that was covered by modern media. Cameramen from the Polygoon Cinema Journal arrived in Zeeland as fast as they could, filming the disaster from every angle possible. And quick they were: Polygoon’s newsreel premiere in cinemas was on Monday, February 2nd and depicted the aftermath in impressive fashion. It’s these same that have stuck with the Dutch people ever since: the aerial footage of destroyed homes, displaced people and catastrophe are simply unforgettable. It was after this flood which had rippled effects across the whole nation that the Dutch finally planted their foot down and vowed: never again!.
It’s the only disasters that really unite people.
A false sense of safety
However, in the years of prosperity that followed the North Sea Flood of 1953 Dutch citizens seemed to forget the power of nature. The Afsluitdijk held, construction started on the Delta Works, their impressive size and innovation looked ominous and colossal and were declared guardians of Zeeland. But just 42 years after the flood of 1953 the Netherlands found itself submerged again. The flood in January 1995 served as a reminder that even more new actions for a safer river delta were necessary. No one died in 1995 but the flooding displaced 250,000 people and ruined many homes in Limburg and cities that line the banks the major Dutch rivers. This time as well televisions had made their way into every home and the national Television Broadcasters aired the the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people and rising waters continuously.
While looking calm from above the Netherlands is a land that walks the razor’s edge. Whether it be inclimate weather, invading forces or aging constructions the water is only meters away from reclaiming what it wants. Still the Dutch feel safe and trust the government and structures in place. The engineers working for the Rijkswaterstaat, researchers at Delft University of Technology and the countless other bodies researching flood control, defence, prevention are unparalleled in their ability to keep the possibility of flooding out of the minds of the Dutch. Therefore, unless another disaster occurs sometime soon it will be the archival images and fading memories that keep the fear alive because fear is the greatest motivator.
For Lakker this duality is mirrored in the tracks “Broken Clouds” and “Open Clouds”. Both are built on the same sample, which was taken from the film “De Oude Vijand” (The Old Enemy), shown above, but with completely different results.
Starting the project, Smith and McDonnell chose to approach this project from two totally different angles. Smith immersed himself in the video footage while Ian preferred to stick to the audio only. But the footage of “The Old Enemy” struck a chord that has found it’s way into both sister tracks. Smith: “it’s funny how the footage affects the track in a weird way. You just get an atmosphere or an emotional tone watching it. And I thought: That must be such a strange place to be, up in a helicopter looking down on all this. it’s something not many people get to see; it’s that intense noise, looking over this flooded area, being able to see the sea.”
"I like that tone"
For their core sample both honed in on that dense helicopter noise, a sequence of the 1953 flood footage which stunned Smith both visually and sonically.
The human element to "Broken Clouds"
To add a human element to this dark track Lakker turned to another piece from the Sound and Vision archive: a radio broadcast from the inundation of the Wieringermeer in 1945.
In this broadcast the presenter travels by boat through the flooded land, heading for one of three submerged villages. He reports on the desolation around him, and the efforts to reclaim the land. He fails to cover up his anger at the reason for this awful sight: the intentional flooding of the land by the Nazi occupiers in the final stages of WOII: “The reality of this moment is ashen and startling! If you look at the Wieringermeer, falling dry as we speak, you feel the anger rising when you ask yourself: what was this good for? Was there any military purpose to this heinous act?” During the report he meets one of the stricken farmers, who has moored his boat at his flooded barn - all that remained of his livelihood.
During World War II the dykes that kept the rivers and sea at bay were strategic structures for the Nazis Occupiers. Dykes could be rigged with explosives and blown up, inundating the polders and thwarting the liberating invaders. With the end of the war in sight, on April 17, 1945 the Occupiers blew up the Wieringermeer Dyke. The town of Wieringermeer, which was the first parcel of land reclaimed from the Zuiderzee after the closing of the Afsluitdijk 15 years earlier was destroyed in 9 hours. However, there were no casualties. The Occupiers informed the residents the day before they planned to blow the dyke.
Creating a massive sound for "Open Clouds"
Lakker talk about the production techniques that they used to create massive stereo sounds based on the helicopter sounds. McDonnell ruminates on the unique variety of dynamics and textures they found within separate sounds in the archival material, a richness which made it possible to create these massive layered sounds, just from one sample.
The joy of finding the 'good' sounds
Lakker talk about how listening and focusing on the source material can get you into a the right creative mindset; a flow in which isolating the most evocative sound can unlock entire tracks.
or you can listen to both tracks first:
Many sports in the Netherlands are water sports like sailing or skating. Dutch speed skaters remain the world’s best and this is no coincidence. However, the affinity for ice skating arose out of efficient necessity rather than leisure. You see, farmlands in the Netherlands are segmented by small canals. When these canals freeze over they transform entirely: instead of being obstructions, they turn into shortcuts.
Smith explains the childlike joy he got from watching and learning about Fierljeppen.
A short history of Fierljeppen
In the province of Friesland - also famous for its “Elfstedentocht” - a grueling ice skating contest which takes participants past 11 cities in a single day - this particular detour-issue was common as well. But the Frysians were not going to wait for the canals to freeze over, and their particular solution to this problem has become an integral part of the Frysian heritage: either out of convenience or plain laziness to avoid having to walk some meters to a bridge, Frysian farmers started jumping these small canals.
Of course we’re talking about the sport ‘fierljeppen’. The word is Frysian, a language somewhere between Dutch, Danish and English, thus “Fier-ljeppen” translates to “Far-leaping”. Originally, fierljeppen became essential for farmers who needed to get from one side of their field to the other. So, they simply took a long pole, shoved it in the ground and leaped from one side to the other. And, just like ice skating, over the centuries the practice became a competitive sport. In 1956 the first official Fierljeppen game was organised and in the cinema this folkloric event was screened almost every year in the Polygoon Journaal.
Professionalisation and commercialisation have affected many sports. But some traditional and local sports like the Elfstedentocht and Fierljeppen are still deeply connected to the old Dutch traditions where the water is a Dutchman’s closest friend.
...or you can listen to the entire track:
RE:VIVE is an Initiative by the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision which brings together the worlds of electronic music and archives. RE:VIVE seeks to bring archival material back to life through new commissions and telling unique stories about the rich archival material.
visit www.revivethis.org for more info on upcoming collaborations, activities and workshops.
About The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision
The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision is the audiovisual archive of the Netherlands. It contains over 1.000.000 hours of AV archive material. Sound and Vision focuses on collecting and preserving most of the audio-visual heritage of the Netherlands and making it available to as many users as possible. The Institute’s collection forms an important part of the Dutch cultural heritage.
Lakker is Dara Smith and Ian McDonnell
Filmed by Studio Lin Davis and Kasper van der Horst
Edited by Gregory Markus and Harry van Biessum
Text by Gregory Markus, Bas Agterberg, Erik van Tuijn
Layout and design by Thijs Horseling
Storytelling and editing by Erik van Tuijn
Maartje van den Heuvel, Tracy Metz, Sweet & Salt: Water and the Dutch, NAi Publishers, Amsterdam, 2012.
Petra J.E.M. van Dam, De amfibische cultuur: een visie op watersnoodrampen, oratie, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, 29 oktober 2010, 26 p. Ook gepubliceerd op: www.DARE.nl: http://hdl.handle.net/1871/18457
Petra J.E.M. van Dam, ‘An Amphibious Culture. Coping with floods in the Netherlands,’ in: Peter Coates, David Moon, Paul Warde (eds.) Local Places, Global Processes (Oxford: Oxbow Books 2016).