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plumbing and irrigation of south asia ( 2003 )

Selected field recordings from south and south-east Asia.

A survey of water's many manifestations in Asia for the headphone tourist. Packaged in a DVD case with an essay on water use and policy by Claude Willey.

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takeoff 4.5 MB Takeoff heard from an irrigation cistern, Bagan plain, Burma. On a hot, dry bend of the wide Irrawaddy River in central Burma, thousands of Buddhist stupas dot the Bagan plain. On the outskirts, near an airport and a series of rarely visited six-century-old cave-temples, I lay on the ground and stuck my head in a concrete irrigation cistern to capture this gurgle.
oil drum 4 MB Oil drum collecting rainwater, Bhaktapur, Kathmandu Valley, Nepal. We visited medieval Bhaktapur in the Kathmandu Valley on a rainy day: dark overhanging roofs dripped water on uneven cobblestones, and where puddles collected they reflected the carved figures looking down from the eaves. Children rightly wondered, what is that man doing?
rice pounder 2 MB Water-powered bamboo-pipe-fed rice pounder, outside Sa Pa, Vietnam. Hiking near a waterfall outside Sa Pa — the 'Switzerland of Vietnam,' mere miles from the Chinese border — we discovered clever grain pulverizers powered by bamboo irrigation pipes. Water fills a cup on one side of a carefully balanced piece of wood; when the cup grows heavy enough, it lifts the rock on the other end. When the cup rises, it spills its water — and the rock swings down to smash the rice placed beneath it. We called it a 'water baby'; our book identified them as 'grain robots.'
drainage pipe 4.3 MB Capitol Villas pond drainage pipe, outside Madikeri, India. Peaceful Kodagu: lush vegetation, rolling hills, cacophonous birds, fireflies at dusk, a deep green pond filled with carp kept fat by a daily feeding. At the edge of the pond, a drain pipe sputters.
hotel sink 1.5 MB Hotel room sink, Nha Trang, Vietnam. Nha Trang, not far from China Beach, is famous for its tropical beaches. We walked them in an unseasonable rain relentless enough to flood the roads and rails out of town. With our train canceled, I amused myself by playing with the sink, as documented in this recording.
communal well 4.7 MB Communal well outside Nyaungshwe, Inle Lake, Shan State, Burma. In the countryside outside Nyaungshwe on the south shore of vast, mirror-still Inle Lake, we came across this deep, wide well. Bell-clad water buffalo wait patiently for dinner nearby; in the distance, diesel engines push long boats.
prayer wheel 5.4 MB Water-powered prayer wheel, Tibet-Nepal border. A hundred feet up the hill from Kothari, the last Nepalese town along the 'Friendship Highway' to Tibet, a racing stream spins a five-foot prayer wheel. The two recordings here capture the wheel ringing a bell as it spins and the water-wheel underneath pushing it. Making these recordings, I became an unwitting dinner for a few leeches.
irrigation cistern 4.4 MB Gurgling irrigation cistern at 13,000', Annapurna region, Nepal. An inexplicable bit of buried irrigation on an arid hillside above the tree line in the Manang valley of Nepal. Hiking past, I heard this deep-sea gurgle and of course had to stop to capture it. What you hear is not manipulated in any way; it's just the mysterious burbling beneath a sheet of steel, and occasionally the wind blowing by.
plumbing 4.7 MB Plumbing resonance, Vang Vieng, Laos. When the stars align, resonance in our bathroom pipes makes them sing. Private indoor plumbing is a luxury reserved almost exclusively for tourists in Vang Vieng, a town that modernized rapidly from country village to a mandatory pleasure stop for backpackers making week-long Laos excursions from Thailand or Vietnam. (For anyone interested in a glimpse into my compositional process, this recording is a primary source for track 9, resonance, on Rockets of the Mekong.)
full-moon well 4.8 MB Pilgrims at a well outside Muang Sing, Laos, during a full moon celebration. This well-patronized hillside well just south of the Chinese border is guarded by a fierce animist protector deity, a lion-dog with a gaping maw. At the top of the hill, non-believing tourists are forbidden to join a spiraling procession around a Buddhist maypole, but welcome to shop in the surrounding market (the sweetened sticky rice steamed in peel-away bamboo is highly recommended)… or to donate to keep a pair of monks chanting all day over a PA.

sprinklers 4.6 MB Sprinkler system, outside Madikeri, India. Another recording from one of our favorite south Indian hotels (see track 4). Here, the sprinkler system fights to nurture broad, translucent leaves of the riotous front garden. Inevitable overflight by raucous crow.
gurgling hose 2.7 MB Gurgling hose, Annapurna Region. A hose brings water from a stream to a trail-side teahouse; roosters and children in the distance. Everywhere in the Himalayas is the white noise of water — or one of its thousand moods up close, as in this recording.
irrigation pipe 3 MB Rattling irrigation pipe, Karnataka, India. Somewhere along a precipitous one-lane highway in the hills of Karnataka, a metal irrigation pipe rattles with almost electric displeasure against its protective shell in the grass. That rare and treasured thing: light traffic.
water pump 2.1 MB Roadside communal water pump, Khulna, Bangladesh. Street-side water pump in friendly, tree-lined Khulna. We arrived by paddleboat overnight from Dhaka; on our rickshaw ride in from the dark, creepy riverfront, we passed a brightly lit flower market, and the scent of roses filled with me euphoria. In this recording, sounds all but inescapable in south Asia: horns, the bells of rickshaws, and crows. Bangladesh suffers from naturally occurring arsenic in some of its groundwater.
grain grinders 4.2 MB Two water-powered grain grinders, Annapurna region, Nepal. Micro-hydropower in Nepal turns prayer wheels, generates electricity to power VCRs, and, in these two recordings, grinds corn. The first grinder is outside a monastery in Bagarchap in the Manang valley: a rock tip on a stick suspended by rope hops up and down on a spinning millstone, like the stylus of a record player. The second is along a feeder river in the Jomsom Valley: two stones spin against each other as grain is measured and poured by local women.
lawn watering 5 MB Lalitha Mahal lawn watering, outside Mysore, India. The lawn irrigation at the outlandish, opulent Lalitha Mahal. Originally an out-of-town retreat and guesthouse for the royalty of Mysore, it's now a hotel with an excellent restaurant. Visiting for the latter, we wandered the grounds until dark and found this (and an Australian businessman to dine with) by the pool. Around the edges: wind, crickets, truck traffic on the nearby highway heading into Mysore, and night birds.
rubber pipe 2 MB Hissing, leaking rubber pipe, Annapurna region, Nepal. Alongside the trail, an enigmatic, mostly buried black rubber pipe leaks and hisses and spits. Partway through the recording, a bell-laden horse passes by. I’ve tried with EQ to tame the deep rumble of a nearby river, its higher frequencies hidden by the slope.
village pump 2.4 MB Village water pump, Shan State village outside Kalaw, Burma. On a short overnight trek into the countryside outside Kalaw, we stayed in the village of U Chi, a shaman (or as our guide called him, ‘medicine man’). He sold us medicinal balls made of tumeric (four varieties) and a small amount of opium as digestive aids. This recording was made as I walked at twilight through the hilltop village. The radios were battery powered; the village has no road access.
three gorges 3.6 MB Construction at Three Gorges Dam, outside Yichang, China. How could we resist a multi-day float down the Yangtze through the Three Gorges, soon to be flooded as part of the largest hydropower project ever constructed? We visited the small city of Yichang specifically to take a bus out to the infamous dam’s construction site, where I recorded this shoveling high on a recently completed bulwark.
waterfall 5.6 MB Waterfall on a reservoir, Rangamati, Bangladesh.In the hills of eastern Bangladesh we visited the resort town of Rangamati, which is popular with honeymooning couples for its scenery and boating. The lake there is a reservoir; thousands of people, mostly members of ethnic minority ‘hill tribes,’ were displaced by the creation of the reservoir. We got a concise, sad lecture from a teacher at one of the hill-tribe towns struggling to survive on a steep isolated slope across the lake; at issue was a plan to raise the level of the lake again, displacing even more people.
bottles 3 MB Children playing with bottles, communal fountain-waterspout, Patan, Nepal. In the middle of the breathtaking medieval architecture of Darbar Square in Patan, young girls play with discarded plastic bottles at a decorative fountain/well. Patan is only a short trip from the sprawl of smoggy, dense Kathmandu, but it has a relaxed, intimate feel.
toilet 7.4 MB Hotel Elite toilet, and thunder, Kathmandu, Nepal. The monsoon arrives as a general strike confines us to our hotel in Kathmandu. Here, the first night of the rains announces itself gruffly in the distance with thunder, as I happen to be recording the resonant acoustics of our bathroom and the toilet filling itself with water.