The Accidental Paradise

Acoustic Pictures of the Salton Sea / California USA

by Werner Cee 2013

produced by SWR, DLR Kultur and Goethe Institut

Radio Editor Manfred Hess / Marcus Gammel

For centuries, a region in the southernmost part of California, close to the Mexican border, had been a desert called the Salton Sink. The deepest point of this hot, dry and dusty place was at that time at about 80 m below sea level. Before the year 1900, there was practically no water – but then, scientists came up with the idea to divert the water of the Colorado river and thus convert the infertile region into farmland.

In 1905, heavy thunderstorms had the Colorado river swell, sediments filled the barrage, the water level kept rising and eventually, the dam broke – and from that moment on, practically the whole Colorado river swept down towards the deepest point in the Imperial Valley. There was no effluent, the water level kept rising. Almost for two years, the Colorado river continued to fill up a new lake – it was only then that the railroad society Southern Pacific Railroad closed the dam. The Colorado river had been driven back into his riverbed, but the Imperial Valley had experienced a fundamental change during the flooding years. An enormous lake had been created, blooming landscapes had emerged at its banks within a short time.

The SaltonSea today

Today, the Northeastern part of the lake lies deserted – the beach not consisting of sand or pebbles, but rather of a 30 cm layer of pointed fishbones and sharp sea pocks. Only few people are to be seen, there is practically no infrastructure, a lonely road leads through barren, eroded land for miles and miles.

For a short period, life had been pulsating all around the new Salton Sea. You will find traces of this time

when you leave the main road: abandoned motels, sunken houses, decrepit marinas. In the sixties, there were high-flying plans: marinas, motels and a complex infrastructure were built. The Beach Boys, Jerry Lewis, Frank Sinatra and the Marx Brothers provided international flair to the noble North Shore Beach and Marina. The lake was populated with a variety of fish species and they proliferated.

But the Salton Sea is a trap: All the water flows towards the deepest point, but there is no effluent. As a consequence of several tropical storms, the water level rose by another one and a half meters in the seventies. A lot of building structures close to the lakeside were submerged. Steadily, the region was abandoned; the new housing projects stayed empty, a net of tarmac streets still outlines settlements planned almost 50 years ago, just the houses are missing. Chemicals used in farming were washed into the lake; the salinity level kept rising, as the ground of the lake is really a salt pan and the water in the lake constantly dissolves this salt. Algae proliferated and at last, the lake ran out of oxygen. Only in August 1998, seven million fish perished within a short period. What was once an object of speculation had died.

Many residents have left, but one or the other of the abandoned houses still seems to be lived in: screendoors are open, and at some places, even the unwashed coffee cups are left in the sink. But there is a dense layer of dust on the furniture. Nobody has lived here for years. Disney couldn’t have thought of a better backdrop for one of his movies.

The Composition

This scenery settled in the tension zone between paradise and apocalypse has, in the passing of the years, attracted many photographers. But it is not the morbid beauty of the decrepit building constructions that makes this place so attractive, but rather its light, the atmosphere of a both artificial and natural landscape. And there are acoustic analogies to be found for these visual motives and phenomena. It was not my intention to document present acoustic phenomena, but rather to portray this place resorting to acoustic means and starting from field recordings of the audible sounding landscape.

To achieve this, I will not just fathom the topography, contemplate the current acoustic situation; rather, the sounds will be exposed in their semantic meaning. The result is a sound portrait based on the pure imaging but developing a poetic/musical form.

Conventional microphones were employed as well as contact microphones and hydrophones, in order to expand our familiar listening perspective. Decisions on recording positions, selection and placement of microphones have a fundamental meaning and will shape the composition’s character and sound aesthetics. The piece goes without text or any verbal hints. Semantics are communicated by sound processing and arranging alone.

The Salton Sea is a site of the Anthropocene. A hybrid place has been created from both natural conditions and cultural acts; the natural landscape is, at the same time, a product of art and culture. Neither the term „paradise“ nor the term „apocalypse“ apply.

The audiovisual version of „The Accidental Paradise“ including photography and sound

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