Chris Watson - In St Cuthbert's Time

Digipak CD + 24pp booklet
4 tracks - 58:28

Photography: Maggie Watson
Art direction & Design: Jon Wozencroft
Sound mastering by Denis Blackham, Skye

Texts by Chris Watson, Dr David Petts, Lecturer in Archaeology / Associate Director of the Institute of Mediæval and Renaissance Studies 
Dept. of Archaeology
 Durham University, and Dr Fiona Gameson, St Cuthbert's Society, Durham



The Sounds of Lindisfarne and the Gospels

To celebrate the exhibition of the Lindisfarne Gospels on Palace Green, Durham from July to September 2013, award–winning wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson has researched the sonic environment of the Holy Island as it might have been experienced by St Cuthbert in 700 A.D.

Track listing:

1. Winter
2. Lencten
3. Sumor
4. Haerfest

He writes:

A 7th Century Soundscape of Lindisfarne

Throughout human history artists have been influenced by their surroundings and the sounds of the landscape they inhabit. When Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, was writing and illustrating the Lindisfarne Gospels on that island during the late 7th C. and early 8th C. he would have been immersed in the sounds of Holy Island whilst he created this remarkable work. This production aims to reflect upon the daily and seasonal aspects of the evolving variety of ambient sounds that accompanied life and work during that period of exceptional thought and creativity.

Chris Watson – sound recordist

With thanks to Professor Veronica Strang, Executive Director, Institute of Advanced Study, Durham University



Notes:

St Cuthbert

Cuthbert was an Anglo Saxon monk, bishop and hermit who became prior of Lindisfarne in c. 665. In later life Cuthbert felt called to be a hermit and moved to the nearby island of Inner Farne to begin fighting the spiritual forces of evil in solitude.

Cuthbert became associated with the birds and other animals on the island and gave special protection to the Eider duck which is still known locally as Cuddy’s duck.

Reviews:

Drowned in Sound (UK):

It’s time to zone out in the ether once again, and gracefully gliding us into the realm of textural sound this month is former Cabaret Voltaire man turned award winning nature sound recordist Chris Watson. His latest record, In St Cuthbert’s Time, celebrates the current displaying of the Lindisfarne Gospels on Durham’s Palace Green by attempting to create an authentic sonic document of the Holy Island as it was when St Cuthbert arrived in 700AD. Of course we shall never be able to know quite how accurate Watson’s attempt is but there’s something about what is on offer here that manages to transport the listener to a world without the constant hum of modern technology. As impressively seamless as all his field recording works, the chatter of birds makes for the most memorable array of sounds present, but the whole mix is crucial to becoming fully encased by the album. Full immersion is like lying on the beach in the early hours with the wet sand stuck to your back and the sky breaking slowly into light, just as St Cuthbert himself might once have done. [Benjamin Bland]

The Wire (UK):

The island of Lindisfarne, just off England's Northumberland coast, was once the home of an order of Irish monks, who settled there in the seventh century and so gave the small place the monikor of the Holy Island, a name that has stuck today. It is renowned for the Lindisfarne Gospels, reputedly written by Eadrith, one of the monastery's bishops, and for St. Cuthbert, one of the monks that formed part of the settlement but who went on to be associated with the rich and diverse array of bird and animal life on the island, and in particular the Eider duck, found frequently on Lindisfarne and known locally as Cuddy's duck. In 2013, to coincide with an exhibition of the gospels, Durham University awarded field recordist Chris Watson a research grant to explore the sonic properties of the island, and in particular to try and recreate sounds as they may have been heard there back in the seventh century. Watson visited the island at various points along the Anglo-Saxon calendar that the monks would have observed, producing the four seasonal works included here.

The recordings are beautifully made, immaculately captured and framed. On the whole they seek out the wildlife of the island, and there are no remnants of human activity anywhere to be heard on the album [not true - ed.]. So we hear the chatter of ducks and wading birds in winter, with a deep moaning tone in the background, formed from the persistent tidal surf hitting nearby shores. Starlings flock over the wind hissing through reeds during the Saxon season of haerfest (autumn) and a never-ending array of other birdlife, each accompanied by the sound of the natural environment inhabit the album. Watson has done a fine job of capturing Lindisfarne's wildlife and nothing but. As a work designed to present to us what St Cuthbert and his cohorts might have experienced, it works exceptionally well. We feel transported to the place, a shift made all the easier by Maggie Watson's stunning photography included in the album's booklet. Watson has not sought to create music, but to produce an accurate aural artefact. Similar to how an archaeologist might work to rebuild an image of history through the research of remains, this recording attempts to recreate a moment in history, and on the whole has done it so very successfully. [Richard Pinnell]

Other Music (USA):

Field recordings appear to be having a moment in the spotlight, and in recent years the genre has affected contemporary art circles as well, notably taking a prominent role in MoMA's upcoming large-scale sound exhibition, Soundings: A Contemporary Score. There have also been ongoing exchanges with more popular strains of music, not in the least through the well-known work of Other Music favorites Boards of Canada, or the phonographic interludes on Julia Holter's avant chamber pop debut Tragedy. Given these continually developing trends and hybrid approaches, it remains inspiring to hear how the genre is explored in its purest form on each new release by British "sound recordist" Chris Watson. Using the microphone as an instrument to reveal sounds habitually unheard by humans, his recordings contain an almost unreal ability to place the listener directly within the environment that is being registered. On In St. Cuthbert's Time, Watson sets forth to explore the sonic properties of Lindisfarne, a scenic island off the coast of Northeast England, with a rich history that encompasses both Vikings and Sir Walter Scott, as well as Roman Polanski, who shot his 1966 film Cul de Sac on location there. The recordings are an attempt to provide an aural imprint of how Lindisfarne might have been experienced in 700 A.D. when St. Cutberth, a monk, bishop, and hermit, became associated with its wildlife. We hear chatter of ducks and wading birds in winter, and then go off on a series of recordings that reflect the quotidian and seasonal flows of the variety of sounds present on the island. The unidentifiable and unverifiable nature of many of these sources adds to the complexity of the listening experience. With an added level of historical and scholarly frameworks that made this project possible, and stunning photography included in the CD booklet, this work is a triumph in both its exactness and strangeness, straddling nature's complex sonic landscape and the uncanny effect of these sounds when registered through a microphone. [NVT]

Ondarock (Italy):

Chris Watson - indiscusso maestro della non-music per antonomasia – ha ancora voglia di stupire, ma soprattutto non vuol proprio saperne di appendere il suo microfono al chiodo. Dal treno fantasma alle rovine della famosa abbazia medievale di Lindisfarne, fondata da Sant Aidan nel 635 d.c. e principale fulcro dell’evangelizzazione britannica. Dagli industrialoidi e virulenti field-recording della linea ferrata messicana ai naturalistici suoni di campo della “Holy Island” inglese.

Per celebrare la mostra dei vangeli del 700 d.c. – da luglio a settembre 2013 - custoditi oggi all’interno della cattedrale di Durham, il nostro ex-esponente di Cabaret Voltaire e Halfer Trio, recandosi a Lindisfarne, rievoca i soundscape di quel periodo oscuro e violento, così come (forse) li percepiva St. Cuthbert di Northumbria nelle sue lunghe giornate da monaco eremita, prima che orde di vichinghi giungessero nella santa isola nel 793 d.C, devastandola.

È chiaramente un azzardo, nessuno può sapere che suoni ci fossero in quei luoghi e in quel dato momento storico, ma vogliamo credere che il signor Watson sia riuscito nell’impresa.

Sembrerebbe facile scrivere poche righe quando si tratta di field-recording a carattere ambientale. Ognuno con le proprie conoscenze naturalistiche può farlo e può sbizzarrirsi. Le domande da farsi piuttosto sono: sono tutti inseriti al posto giusto? Sono ottimamente curati? Rispecchiano fedelmente la realtà – da intendere senza uso di manipolazioni esterne?

La risposta è sì, anche se, a dirla tutta, suonano tristemente moderni. D'altronde, però, la Touch è un’autorità riconosciuta a livello mondiale, è una garanzia e Chris Watson è il suo profeta.

Per cui troveremo un vociare isterico d’oche, amabili cinguettii d’uccellini (probabilmente gabbiani del mare del Nord), e lo starnazzare impazzito d’anatre. Nebbia salina e minuscole gocce di pioggia si adagiano dolcemente sul fogliame autunnale/invernale (“Winter”), si mescolano alle gelide folate di vento, che, percorrendo il breve lembo di terra sabbioso che collega l’isola alla terraferma, in un attimo vengono rilasciate sulle verdi distese erbose come fossero lacrime di rugiada marina.

Non sono da meno le onde di mare, le quali pacatamente s’infrangono sulle piccole scogliere rocciose che sorreggono la collinetta, sulla cui sommità sorge il suggestivo e imponente castello.

Non stonano neppure i brevi intermezzi/inserimenti di campanellini, conferendo sensi di pace, quiete e rilassatezza. Tutto questo, poi, è accentuato nella traccia finale “Haefest”, laddove – accompagnati da molta fantasia – si riescono perfino a sentire inquietanti ululati notturni.

Al contrario d’altre etichette di musica cosiddetta sperimentale - come ad esempio l’austriaca Mego, sempre povera negli artwork - la Touch offre quest’immaginario sonoro dei tempi bui, accompagnandolo con ben 24 pagine di booklet. Una piccola precauzione: per una totale immedesimazione dei sopraccitati luoghi, “The Sounds Of Lindisfarne” va assolutamente gustato tramite una super-ermetica cuffia sonora.

Decoder (USA):

A small island measuring just over a mile across and two miles in length, Lindisfarne sits just two miles off the coast of Northumberland and something like 200 people call it home. Known colloquially as Holy Island, Lindisfarne is thought to have been populated as long ago as the 7th Century, when King Oswald invited monks down from Scotland to establish a monastery there. Cuthbert – monk, hermit and later saint – became the priory’s abbot and much revered until his death in 687, by which time he had retired to a smaller island and lived completely alone. In case you are interested, Cuthbert’s miracles include remaining “as flexible as a living man” for centuries after his death and continuing in such a state as to allegedly frighten Henry VIII’s church-wreckers into leaving Durham Cathedral during the Reformation.

Worshippers used Lindisfarne priory for almost 700 years, withstanding successive Viking raids and – if the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is to be believed –- “whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons.” The monks eventually left the island in 875, taking the body of St. Cuthbert with them (no records exist that state he ran alongside) and reburying him in Durham, but not before they could produce one of England’s greatest treasures in the Lindisfarne Gospels and, in particular, the St. Cuthbert Gospel, both of which now reside in the British Library.

Holy Island these days is accessible sporadically by road, but only when the tide recedes far enough to allow cars across. It is one of the most exciting trips a child from the UK can take, and I remember it vividly myself. In the back of my dad’s Volvo, faces squashed against the windows and the salty smell of sea in our nostrils, my sister and I looked out for seals and puffins, all the while slightly nervous the sea would have an abrupt change of heart and come washing back in to trap us. The dogs were sick in the boot, causing my dad to threaten them with exile halfway there and my sister to throw up in response. It was a great day out – not because of the history (boring!) or the shops full of mead (looking back this was a major oversight on my part), but simply because we were driving across the sea in a car. The priory’s ruins still remain, and many Anglo-Saxon relics are dotted right across the island. There is a castle there too, sat relatively solidly atop the cliffs due to an extensive renovation in 1902. The atmosphere can be strange, at once remote and bustling, and the town has taken full advantage of the tourists, offering everything from shells with your name painted on to miniature stained glass windows showing St. Cuthbert and his beloved ducks. Further away from the centre it is easier to imagine what the island must have been like in the 7th Century. Grey seals, a million birds and the sounds and smells of the crashing North Sea come together to create a feeling of true isolation; closing your eyes here and sitting in the grass can provide a genuinely spiritual experience.

If there is anyone working today who is qualified to capture this sensation it is Chris Watson, a founding member of Sheffield’s industrial music pioneers Cabaret Voltaire and currently a wildlife sound recordist for the BBC. His new album for Touch, In St. Cuthbert’s Time, was recorded entirely on Lindisfarne in honour of “that period of exceptional thought and creativity” in which Cuthbert and Eadfrith (the creator of the gospels, often considered the saint himself) were establishing religion on the island and the return of the original manuscripts to Durham Cathedral for exhibition this year. Made up of four roughly quarter-hour pieces, In St. Cuthbert’s Time eschews human interaction almost completely and focuses on the ebb and flow of the four seasons, named here in Anglo-Saxon. “Winter” is accordingly gusty, based mainly on the island’s rugged coastline; “Lencten” (or Spring) moves slightly inland and is relatively calm; “Sumor” (Summer) is busy with insects, and so on. The recordings are presented “straight” – that is to say they have not been manipulated in any way or subjected to any kind of sonic wizardry except for the editing. They are, therefore, remarkably immediate, dreamily captivating and wholly transporting.

“Winter,” the most dramatic of the four pieces, is battered constantly by the wind and rain as huge numbers of different sea birds fly overhead and gather on rocks. You hear their wings flapping, and their calls, screams and hoots both distant and right alongside the recording equipment. Any ornithologist worth his or her salt would no doubt pinpoint every single one of them (more than 300 species have been counted there over the years), but part of the experience for me was not having a clue what creature I was hearing. Some of the cries are unnerving: from somewhere deep inside the cold waves of “Winter” emerges a quite terrifying screaming sound – the Vikings, perhaps, landing to wreak havoc – but continued exposure reveals it to be avian after all. “Lencten” opens with the eider duck’s bizarre call; sounding repeatedly surprised, the ‘oohs’ they give out are more like those from a girl whose lover insists on unexpectedly grabbing her backside in public than a bird.

In St. Cuthbert’s Time is as “authentic” an experience as you want to make it, and you’ve got to think it will probably work better if you’ve actually had the pleasure of visiting the island or somewhere like it. You can imagine the CDs lined up for sale in the cathedral shop for punters who’ve ogled the Gospels but you can’t necessarily imagine the same people spinning the album at home. Watson recently talked to a Durham newspaper about his time on Lindisfarne and the installation at the cathedral. “What’s really interesting [about the island] is what’s not there now,” he said. “They’ve found a lot of bones there [including those of] the Great Auk. Obviously I don’t have a recording of that because it’s extinct.” This brings about all kinds of questions about the value of these field recordings beyond their use in art. “Sumor,” for example, features the distinctive call of the cuckoo, an increasingly rare sound in the UK and one that Watson was encouraged to seek out due to it being mentioned in text from around the time of Lindisfarne’s colonization. The Gospels, in fact, are packed with illustrations of wildlife, which Watson puts down to the close proximity in which Eadfrith must have lived alongside the birds, and legend has it that Cuthbert got so friendly with the eider ducks that they nested in his bed. So while we can wonder eternally about whether In St. Cuthbert’s Time provides a true reflection of how the island might have sounded in the 7th Century, we can say for certain it performs well as a sonic record of its wildlife for future generations.

For me the album is at its most convincing during the relative quiet of “Sumor” and “Haefest” but then these are the pieces I most naturally identify with having been brought up on a farm. They are gentler journeys, with a lapping sea and the hungry chatter of growing chicks born during “Lencten.” There is a steady shift inland which sees the breeze unveil the hum of flies, the twitter of field birds in the grass, and the burly low of cattle in the distance. I can recognise the scene almost straight away, and it is an idyllic one. You can practically feel the sun on your back and see the dazzle of buttercups along the ground; the frantic winter world of the cliff edges and rock pools seems a million miles away.

Whereas previous Chris Watson recordings for Touch have traded in subtle psychological horror (El Tren Fantasma), brooding intensity (Storm, with BJ Nilsen) and Gothicism (Stepping Into The Dark), In St. Cuthbert’s Time is somehow harder to pin down. It is certainly his most pedestrian set of recordings yet, which is not to say it is dull, but its success almost certainly depends on how much time and imagination you are willing to invest. For those without access to Holy Island, an extensive knowledge of 7th Century Britain or the exhibition in Durham Cathedral, that might be harder than you expect. [Steve Dewhurst]

A Closer Listen (USA):

We usually recommend the physical copy due to its specific beauty, but in this case, we do so because of the liner notes. Students of history, tradition, and religion will cherish the efforts made by the authors to place this release in context. The 24-page booklet is both educational and entertaining, making In St. Cuthbert’s Time a complete multi-media work.

Here’s the short version: on this album, sound artist Chris Watson attempts to reflect the environment experienced by the monks of the Holy Island (two miles of the coast of Northumberland) in 700 A.D. The sea, the birds and the iron prayer bells worked their way into the margins of the Lindisfarne Gospels, while influencing the spiritual life of the island’s faithful. Their closeness with nature can barely be imagined today, as modern humans tend to retreat from nature save for occasional forays to the mountains or beach. The livelihood of the monks was tied to their immediate surroundings: grain and fruit, farm animals and fish. A good year meant a good harvest, but drought could decimate a community. In the eyes of the monks, God would provide or He would not; and they trusted in His care.

While Watson could not, for obvious reasons, duplicate the island’s medieval soundscape, In St. Cuthbert’s Time bears the sounds of avian descendants. Many of the same species still occupy the island: still migrate, still return. By dividing his recording into four parts, one for each season, Watson is able to position each sound in its proper place. ”Winter” is marked by geese, ducks, and swans, “Lencten” (Spring) by skylarks, plovers and snipe. The Eider duck (later renamed Cuddy’s duck), featured prominently in “Lencten”, possesses a particularly human-like mating cry: ”Aooo! Wooo!”, as far from a quack as one can imagine. A few subjects seem close enough to eat Watson’s microphone. The drumming of the snipe is also memorable, an arpeggio of airborne notes. We recommend this creature to Flaming Pines as a possible subject for a Birds of a Feather disc.

As “Sumor” approaches, the sounds of linnet and cuckoo are joined by those of insects and cattle, as the waves continue to lap all around. Angry terns defend their nest, and boy, do they sound mad. (If you’ve never experienced this, we have one piece of advice: wear a hat). Children who are listening will enjoy the cuckoos and cows, since they’re easy to identify. Additional points are awarded to any who can identify the yellowhammer at first cry. Finally comes “Haerfest”, with deer stags and grey seals, the latter a familiar subject for Watson. As the waves crash, the listener is reminded that the monks were isolated from the mainland by a fierce sea. The year is done, the cycle begins anew.

No planes are heard on the recording. These must have been hard to avoid, but the legitimacy of the soundscape would have been ruined had they been included. With many soundscapers bemoaning the lack of pure sonic environments, Watson’s disc is proof that one can still be captured: all it takes is the patience of a saint. The monks are honored by this respectful recreation. [Richard Allen]

VITAL (Netherlands):

Sometime in the 7th century, Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, was writing and illustrating the Lindisfarne Gospels on the island of that very name and maybe he heard what we hear now. No doubt his work was slow, all year round, and so the four pieces created here by Chris Watson, reflect the four seasons. The island is to be found two miles of the coast of Northumberland. If you already know Watson's work, and there is no reason why you shouldn't, then you know what to expect here. Lots of wind, birds, insects and water sounds. It's a fine work, totally Watson's standard, and it comes with a great informative booklet on the place and the historical information, but it's not the same kind of work as 'El Tren Fantasma', which I believe to be one of the best works by Watson in recent years. Maybe because that piece was different from the works of Watson as we knew them, away from the nature recordings and working with mechanical sounds, whereas this one is back to nature recordings. Of course, I know, there is no reason to complain as this is of course the kind of thing he is best known for, and 'In St. Cuthbert's Time' is a very refined work of such recordings, being put together into some great pieces of music. Let there be no mistake: this is great album. With doors open on this sunny afternoon, in my quiet neighborhood, this is a record that is truly an ambient record. Great. [FdW]

The National (USA):

Seventh-century sounds comprise intriguing new album

Chris Watson has made an intriguingly alien-sounding album with a series of purposefully earthbound sounds. The sources of the sounds couldn't be more plain: wind and water, bugs and birds, scatterings of animate and inanimate subjects and objects all around. They're so plain, in fact, that they permit the album's peculiar premise: to summon the state of the world as it would have sounded more than 1,300 years ago.

There's little archaeological evidence to suggest the existence of microphones in the north of England in the 7th century, but other than that, nothing at work sound-wise on Watson's new album In St Cuthbert's Time would have been out of place way back when. Great efforts were made to be faithful to the place under consideration, namely the English isle of Lindisfarne, owing to its significance as the home of a monastery where a manuscript was made by monks in tribute to St Cuthbert, a medieval Christian saint whose memory has been ferried through time.

The illuminated manuscript, known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, was especially grand and ornate, and whatever its religious worth, it remains a strikingly beautiful relic from a time when the act of making even a simple book meant months of toil and painstaking work by hand. Pages were made of vellum, a form of parchment produced from the skin of calves, and inks and materials for binding weren't exactly waiting around to be purchased at the corner shop.

The elements, too, wreaked havoc on work sometimes done in less than cosy shelter. In the liner notes to In St Cuthbert's Time, a quotation reads: "The conditions of the past winter have oppressed the island of our race very horribly with cold and ice and long and widespread storms of wind and rain, so that the hand of the scribe was hindered from producing a great number of books."

The natural world, then, was a principal player in pretty much everything that could have possibly transpired at the time, and the natural world is what makes up the bulk of the sound world brought into focus by the recordings captured by Watson with nothing more than some microphone equipment and a pair of curious ears. Watson first developed his ears in a notably different realm: as a founding member of the spectacularly strange 1970s post-punk band Cabaret Voltaire. (Early use of electronic rhythms and sounds figured into such Cabaret Voltaire classics as Do the Mussolini (Headkick) and Nag Nag Nag.) More recent years, however, have been devoted to the practice of field-recording, or making recordings out in the field, in places all over the globe. A past album of his, Weather Report, features the high-fidelity sounds of cracking and creaking from a gigantic glacier in Iceland; another, El Tren Fantasma, tells the sonic story of a cross-country journey on a Mexican train. For In St Cuthbert's Time, he recorded the isle of Lindisfarne as it would have sounded during the era of that idiosyncratic saint, who in his spiritually searching solitude was thought to have developed special bonds with the wildlife in his surroundings. ("Birds and beasts came at his call," the story goes.)

The album, then, is just that: recordings of ambient existence outside on the island, edited into four long tracks by the seasons and otherwise presented unadorned. It's a magnificent aesthetic achievement and also, by a different measure, not even remotely an aesthetic achievement at all.

A whoosh of wind ushers in the first track, Winter, before honking geese and birds of unidentifiable sorts start to chime in. Their sounds rise and fall, grow loud and soft and then change expressive course. In the second track, Lencten (translation: spring), different varieties of birds cycle through flurries of incredible sounds in an array of strange frequencies. It's difficult to listen to the grace and elegance and seemingly sensible complexity on display and not think, even if one would want to, that the sounds are part of anything less than an intricate conversation.

At one point in the track, a bell sounds - the kind of small, ringing handbell that would have been used by monks in St Cuthbert's time for signals of different sorts. It's not an animal sound or a part of nature, it seems - or is it? Why would human activity count as anything other than animalistic, or natural? How could it be anything less than part of the world?

Watson's work with sound brings such queries into question, in a general aesthetic sense and, in particular, in a specific artistic sense that proffers the art of listening as an art form of its own. Listening can be more than a passive action. It can be about more than merely taking stock of what you hear.

In his focus on nuances of the sort, Watson shares certain habits and proclivities with the realm of "sound art", a growing and diversifying field that takes certain cues from the world of music but extrapolates and expands on those cues too. There's no tidy definition of sound art as an entirely distinct enterprise. (What do we mean when we speak of "music", "sound", "noise"? Things get complicated quickly.) But any good working definition of sound art suggests its true worth as a signal of a subtle difference of inflection. It's a matter of prioritising the act of thinking about listening even while listening qualifies as an act in and of itself.

Sound art has been around for a few decades at least - in certain ways, it goes back to the beginning of time; in other ways, it often gets traced back to the 1960s or so - but it has been on the rise of late. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art just opened its first full exhibition devoted to the practice, with a momentous sense of significance attached to it. In the catalogue for the show, Soundings: A Contemporary Score, the writer Anne Hilde Neset muses on the lack of a concise definition for the form, writing: "This much is known: sound art embraces science, music, noise, political activism, ecology, anthropology, memory, literature, and more."

She considers its elusiveness a sign of fertility too, since a practice not yet confined can be open in more ways than can be counted. In the exhibition itself, a range of work takes different approaches to different objectives. At the beginning, the artist Sergei Tcherepnin animates an inanimate object with transducer devices attached to a vintage New York City subway bench; the "sound" that courses through it manifests most fully as a physical presence in the bodies of show-goers who interact with the piece while sitting down.

Another piece by Florian Hecker plays with psychoacoustic properties in an electronic composition that makes use of research into sorts of aural illusions (like an optical illusion but particular to the many peculiarities of the ear). The Norwegian artist Jana Winderen made an installation of intrepid recordings of bats and fish, among other things. The German Carsten Nicolai fabricated a large sculpture in which sound waves take the form of waves in water. The deaf artist Christine Sun Kim made drawings related to sign language and other systems for depicting sound.

The setting of the exhibition makes clear that sound is best addressed not as a single sort of entity - as a material merely for use in music, say - but rather as a subject for a constellation of different experiences. A listener can take in such work in a number of different directed or suggestive ways. The same goes for the work of Chris Watson, whose recordings for In St Cuthbert's Time, of course, were sourced from quite a different time - our own.

If sound can allow us to commune so expressly with a sense of the world as it existed so long ago, well, then, let's listen. [Andy Battaglia]

Brainwashed (USA):

A distinctly different release than his last, El Tren Fantasma, this album not only acts as part of an overall larger project (a collaboration with faculty at Durham University), but also focuses on nature, rather than that disc’s use of man made transportation. Not just nature, but an attempt to capture the essence of of Lindisfarne Island as it would have sounded to St. Cuthbert in 700 AD. The result is an album that is a bit less compositionally oriented than El Tren Fantasma, but one that does an impeccable job at capturing a feel and an environment via audio.

This disc is part of an exhibition of the Lindisfarne Gospels in England, and is intended to provide an audial context for the environment in which Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, was writing and illustrating the gospels that are being exhibited. Even disconnected from this context, the album is another example of Watson's unparalleled ability at capturing sound in a completely engrossing manner.

The album is broken up into four separate pieces, each titled for the season in which they were recorded. The vibrancy and activity of the recordings is closely tied to the time captured: the droning wind and infrequent bird calls of "Winter" are so much more cold and isolated than the aggressive avian flocks that permeate "Sumor."

Appropriately, both "Lencten" ("Spring") and "Haerfest" ("Autumn") sit somewhere between these two extremes in fauna and activity. The former captures the almost human like calls of land and water birds amidst a greater sense of life and vibrancy in comparison to the preceding piece. "Haerfest" channels the bleakness of oncoming winter in its more muffled, darker sound. Gaggles of birds can be heard, likely migrating away to warmer climates while the vocalizations of seals and deer bring a bleaker, foreboding sense of the cold to come.

Surely the changes of climate have changed the environment that is the island of Lindisfarne from its medieval days, but Watson's recordings sound completely timeless, largely devoid of any human presence to solidify the isolation the Bishop experienced while completing the gospels. In fact, the only hint of humanity is the simple ringing of a hand bell towards the end of each piece, representing a call to prayer that would have been heard over 1300 years ago.

Watson's work definitely would make for an ideal accompaniment to the exhibition of the Lindisfarne Gospels, but even removed from that context it is a captivating, and beautifully captured disc of field recordings. It seems to be less of a composed work than some of Watson's other output, but even just a raw capturing of the environment makes for an amazing work. Again, there does not seem to be an environment that Watson cannot distill to its most fascinating sonic elements. [Creaig Dunton]

Caught by the River (UK):

To celebrate the exhibition of the Lindisfarne Gospels on Palace Green, Durham from July to September 2013, award–winning wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson has researched the sonic environment of the Holy Island as it might have been experienced by St Cuthbert in 700 A.D.

Picture the scene. 7th Century Britain. A windswept and sea-battered island sitting two miles off the coast of Northumberland. Inhabited by a group of monks who had dedicated their lives to the word of God. Within the holy walls of the priory a bent figure patiently creates one of the greatest religious treasures in the history of British Christianity – the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Eadfrith, Bishop of Lindisfarne from 698-722 was the monk responsible for this remarkable illuminated manuscript. A note added to the end of the Gospels states that this was written for “God and St Cuthbert”, a former bishop of Lindisfarne. Both men seem to have been incredibly influenced by the natural sounds that surrounded them. While in self-imposed exile on the nearby Farne Islands, St Cuthbert introduced laws of protection for the local seabirds there, particularly the Eider Duck (affectionately known as Cuddy’s Ducks in Northumberland). Eadfrith too drew inspiration from natural history, incorporating stylised images of the birds he observed on Lindisfarne into the pages of the Gospels. I think it’s safe to say that both men would have drawn some additional spiritual sustenance from their wild landscapes – they were monks after all so spirituality wouldn’t have been in short supply. But many people, even to this day, have found great inspiration in the sights and sounds of the natural world; while labouring over the Gospels, Eadfrith would surely have experienced the same.

Equally inspired by the sounds of Lindisfarne and the story of this significant period of sacred creativity, wildlife sound recordist extraordinaire Chris Watson set about recreating the soundscapes that would have tickled the ears of those living and working on Lindisfarne during the 7th Century.

Modern day listeners are treated to four composed soundscapes that incorporate the songs and calls of animals that have existed on the island for millennia. Water and wind are also constant elements, reminding us of the wild topography of this ancient land. Each track is based on a season and so we move through the sounds of winter (winter), spring (lencten), summer (sumor) and autumn (haerfest). A plethora of species are encountered over the course of the year. Winter brings us the sounds of Wigeon, Oystercatchers, Brent Geese, Whooper Swans, the wingbeats of Greylag Geese passing overhead and a bubbling Curlew. With spring we hear Redshank, Black-headed Gulls, a drumming Snipe, the shimmering song of a Skylark in full flight and of course the gentle cooing of Cuddy’s Ducks (Listen closely – don’t you think they sound a little like Frankie Howard?). The sounds of summer are equally strident, with the cackling cries of Arctic Terns defending their nest sites, a Buzzard circling overhead and a group of calling Herring Gulls. Moving away from the shore we hear the songs of Swallows, Yellowhammers, House Martins and a Cuckoo being swept across the island by the unrelenting wind. The mooing of gentle cattle signifies both a source of nourishment for the monastic community and vellum for Eadfrith’s legacy. And finally to autumn where wading birds dominate the scene. The roars of Red Deer stags drift over the land and, as the tide turns, these are replaced with the haunting cries of Grey Seals. The sound of a monk’s bell draws to a close each soundscape; a thoughtful touch that subtly reinforces the connection between the island’s wildlife and religious inhabitants.

As you’d expect, the skill and attention to detail in putting these pieces together is of the highest calibre. If Eadfrith or St Cuthbert were able to hear ‘In St Cuthbert’s Time’ would they recognise the familiar soundscapes of the land that meant so much to them? You bet they would. Chris has created a work that is enjoyable to listen to, highly evocative and steeped in history. You’ll love what you hear and learn a thing or two as well. What more could you ask for? [Cheryl Tipp]

Headphone Commute (UK):

Why do I keep returning to field recordings by Chris Watson? I suppose the answer is similar to the reason behind watching visually stunning BBC documentaries like Planet Earth and Blue Planet. And just as I chase the higher definition quality of those shows, so do I rely on this award-winning wildlife sound recordist to deliver the highest production quality archive of a particular sonic environment. In the case of his latest release on Touch, entitled In St Cuthbert’s Time, there is an associated concept that plays a key role in this aural piece of captured time and place. Watson subtitles this four-track hour-long release as “The Sounds of Lindisfarne and the Gospels”. And before diving deeper, we shall allow Watson to explain: “Throughout human history artists have been influenced by their surroundings and the sounds of the landscape they inhabit. When Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, was writing and illustrating the Lindisfarne Gospels on that island during the late 7th C. and early 8th C. he would have been immersed in the sounds of Holy Island whilst he created this remarkable work. This production aims to reflect upon the daily and seasonal aspects of the evolving variety of ambient sounds that accompanied life and work during that period of exceptional thought and creativity.” On the surface of the record, there is nothing more than the sounds of wildlife, dominated by birds, insects, and occasional reptiles. The habitat’s weather adds a backdrop to each piece, making the sound cold, dark or humid. But dig further, and the meditative state of the album opens up, placing one into an exotic climate, exploring its depths and mysterious secrets. And when each phonic snapshot concludes, I realize that I’m back in my [head] space, warm, sterile and dry. And so I hit play again.

Thumped (UK):

Chris Watson's recordings from Lindisfarne Island form "an imagined historical document, an abstract and fictional manifestation of what a particular place might have sounded like at a particular time".
Awooo! Wooo! Awoooo! Woo!

Eider ducks are strange sounding creatures, almost human in their low, questioning cries. They were apparently loved and afforded special protection by Eadfrith, an early Christian bishop who lived on Lindisfarne island around the turn of the 8th century. Eadfrith, later known as St. Cuthbert, was there to pray, seek God and work on the beautiful manuscript that is the Lindisfarne Gospels. In St Cuthbert's Time sets out to recreate the soundscape of Lindisfarne island as it existed at that time. The recordings have a two-fold purpose, first as a surround-sound installation inside Durham Cathedral’s Holy Cross Chapel and second as an album released by Touch.

Watson presents his recordings as four separate seasons, beginning in Winter and cycling forward through the year. The Eider ducks make their appearance in 'Lechten' (Spring), their unmistakable calls rendered beautifully by Watson's recording, seemingly close enough to touch. Further in the distance, the rapidfire drill of snipe cut through the air. The sea is a constant presence. In 'Sumor', the lowing of cows appears half way though, a deep rumbling moan, and flies buzz in around the microphones, which makes for a strange moment or two when listening on headphones. Things get properly strange in 'Haefest' as flocks of birds crash with falling waves and haunting cries emerge with the ringing of the bell in the most dark and dramatic section of the album.

Technically these are stunning recordings, as clear, present and uncluttered as we've come to expect from Watson. All evidence of human habitation is erased, with the exception of a ringing bell that ends each season, a call to prayer. While the fantastical element of the recordings might annoy some who would prefer for field recordings to function as true ecological documents, to criticize them on those grounds feels as useful as criticizing a novel for not being set in the present day. The album is an imagined historical document, an abstract and fictional manifestation of what a particular place might have sounded like at a particular time. It's fair to say that the sounds would make more sense in the context of the installation than the CD, but that doesn't mean the CD falls flat. Instead we have an hour-long space for contemplation, first about everything we're hearing and then about everything we're not. [Ian Maleney]

freq (UK):

If you have ever scanned the technical credits of television programmes as they glide slowly past in the wake of the action, chances are you will have seen the names of either Ken Morse or Chris Watson, or both. Morse is sometimes reckoned to be the most credited cameraman in history, so often have his rostrum camera skills contributed to the jewels that fall from the small screen. Watson’s incredible close-mic sound work, similarly, has appeared across a staggering continuum of radio and television broadcasting, particularly in arena of natural sound, from Bill Oddie’s Springwatch to David Attenborough’s The Life of Birds. Truly Watson has an embarrassment of riches: generally regarded as one of the most gifted and creative sound recordists in the business, not only are his wildlife recordings techniques without peer, but Bill Oddie also says of him “I don’t know anyone who is so intense yet so splendidly frivolous.” The moral of the story is that whatever you need, be it the evening call of a Red Rumped Tinkerbird or the crashing fluke of an amorous Right Whale, Watson is your man.

Be it the evening call of a Red Rumped Tinkerbird or the crashing fluke of an amorous Right Whale, Watson is your manYet before this illustrious career began (back at Tyne Tees Television in the early 1980s), Watson was also a founder member of Cabaret Voltaire, Sheffield’s legendary sound collagist industrial pioneers. He was also a prime mover in the establishment of conceptual sound artists The Hafler Trio. Impressed yet? For one CV to encompass both the Cab’s awesome “Nag Nag Nag” single AND a BAFTA for Best Factual Sound, and to have supported both Ian Curtis AND a former Goodie, shows a breadth of experience and output to which no one person should have a right. Only the fact that Ken Morse was embedded with The Magic Band in Woodland Hills, filming their claustrophobic eight-month rehearsal odyssey for Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, keeps his credibility apace with Watson’s. Or I may have just made that last bit up.

However, as if that were not enough, Watson has also released a string of absorbing, intimate, oddball and completely idiosyncratic solo albums, beginning with 1996’s Stepping in the Dark, a compilation of sonorous atmos recordings ranging from the South American rainforest to Kenya’s Mara River to the Moray Firth in Scotland, and including 1998’s stunning Outside the Circle of Fire (featuring a stellar cast of cheetah, deer, capercaillie, kittiwake, spider monkey, nightjar) and 2011’s spooky El Tren Fantasma (a haunting soundscape documenting a train ride across Mexico, describing the passage from Los Mochis to Veracruz, coast to coast from Pacific to Atlantic).

Re-imagines the sonic environment of the Holy Island as it might have been experienced by Cuthbert, an Anglo-Saxon monk. Watson’s latest release, In St Cuthbert’s Time, originated as piece commissioned to celebrate the exhibition of the legendary Lindisfarne Gospels at Durham Cathedral in Summer 2013, and attempts to encapsulate the acoustic landscape that would have surrounded and influenced Eadfrith, the Bishop of Lindisfarne, during the time that he was writing and illustrating the Gospels. This utterly immersive soundscape re-imagines the sonic environment of the Holy Island as it might have been experienced by Cuthbert, an Anglo-Saxon monk who became prior of Lindisfarne, around 700AD.

Given Cuthbert’s particular association with the avifauna of the island (the eider duck was, apparently, one of his particular favourites, and who could quibble with that?), it is their fantastically rich and diverse sound environment that dominates the four Anglo-Saxon seasonally-themed recordings that comprise the album, underpinned by the movement of water, and play of the wind and the elements across the natural topography of the island. “Winter” (Winter) moves across a host of contributors including widgeon, oystercatchers, brent geese, whooper swans, greylag geese and a curlew that sounds as though Aphex Twin is running it through his mixer in a faintly angry mood. “Lencten” (Spring) brings us a changed cast including redshank, black-headed gulls, “a chorus of drumming snipe” (the avian equivalent of Charles Hayward), a Skylark and, of course, Cuthbert’s beloved eider ducks who turn out to sound spookily like a Carry On character reacting to a particularly fruity double entendre.

Starlings and cuckoo, counterpointed by the seasonal buzz of insects and the ruminant mooing of local bovines“Sumor” (Summer) buries us beneath a swell of arctic terns, linnet, whitethroats, yellowhammers, swallows, martins, starlings and cuckoo, counterpointed by the seasonal buzz of insects and the ruminant mooing of local bovines. (Said bovines would, of course, also have provided the vellum upon which the Lindisfarne Gospels would have been produced, so I guess they have something to moo about). “Harfest” (I’m giving up on this now) closes the suite, heavy with wading birds such as golden plovers, redshank, dunlin and knot, these gradually giving way in an imperceptible sonic pan first to the plaintiff throaty gargle of a red deer, and thence to the melancholy song of the grey seals resting nearby.

Each of the four pieces closes with the sound of a monk’s handbell, admirable rung by Martin Williams, and reminding us both of the presence of man within this fabulously intense natural environment, and of Eadfrith, toiling away on his illuminated manuscript within the stone walls of the priory.

The chance meeting of a goose and plover on a turn table... As with all of Watson’s work, although it comprises holistic acoustic landscapes, it is far from being ‘ambient’, some dull aural wallpaper designed to stick on unobtrusively in the background whilst attending to other matters. Indeed not. Instead, it is powerful blast of natural musique concrète intended to produce a spark from the chance meeting of a goose and plover on a turn table. One should best experience this bejewelled audio tapestry by lying back in the dark, donning a pair of fuck-off expensive Sennheiser headphones, and marvelling at Watson’s ability to both bring us right into the heart of the sounds of the natural world, and to reveal their strangeness and beauty to us. The truly awesome stereo movement of massed wingbeats in “Harfest” achieves the kind of show-stopping sonic intensity of which fêted (fœtid?) studio producers and abrasive avant-garde artists can only dream of. Not bad for a widgeon or two really.

Like St Cuthbert, I think I’ve developed rather a soft spot for the eider duck. [David Solomons]

Black (Germany):

Die Fieldrecordings von Chris Watson (Ex-CABARET VOLTAIRE/THE HAFLER TRIO) begleiten mich ja nun schon einige Jahre und stets haben mich seine Arbeiten persönlich mehr berührt, als alle anderen inflationären Mitbewerber in diesem Genre. Gerade seine letzte CD „El Tren Fantasma“ war eine ungemein aufregende wie mitreißende Eisenbahnfahrt quer durch Mexiko, die jetzt förmlich im völligen geographischen Gegensatz zu seiner aktuellen Auftragsarbeit für die Durham University steht. Im eher unwirtlichen Klima der Nordostküste von England hat er diesmal nämlich die Audio-Atmosphäre der Lindisfarne-Insel im Wandel der Gezeiten eingefangen bzw. dokumentiert. Die Insel wird ja auch „Holy Island“ genannt und ist seit vielen Jahren ein Vogelschutzgebiet, nachdem in grauer Vorzeit von dort aus die Christianisierung Englands betrieben wurde. Nach Wikinger-Überfällen wurde das Kloster aber von den Mönchen aufgegeben und dessen herrliche Ruinen sind bis heute ein Wahrzeichen der Insel. Unterteilt in die Abschnitte Winter, Frühling, Sommer und Herbst lässt Chris Watson nun den Wind, die Wellen und vor allem Vögel für sich sprechen, was in seiner puren Konsequenz einfach nur beeindruckend und faszinierend ist! Mit unter hat das dominante Schnattern und die rauschende Brandung etwas bedrohliches an sich, wie der Gezeitenwechsel in seiner hörbaren Veränderung richtig spannend ist. Ein dickes Booklet rundet zum Abschluss die Veröffentlichung im Digipack ab, welches nicht mit Informationen und anschaulich illustrierenden Fotos zum Thema geizt. [Marco Fiebag]

Playground (Spain):

De todos los que en el mundo se dedican a grabar paisajes sonoros para después construir discos bonitos, ninguno lo hace tan bien como Chris Watson, un productor británico con un pasado oscuro (formó parte de Cabaret Voltaire y The Hafler Trio, ahí es nada), pero que hace ya tiempo que prefiere enfrentarse al sonido de los pajaritos y los riachuelos antes que aporrear sintetizadores. “In St. Cuthbert’s Time”, su última aventura, está construida a partir de sonidos capturados en Lindisfarne, una pequeña isla situada frente a la costa noreste de Inglaterra. En la isla existe un monasterio desde la edad media, famoso por los libros iluminados que elaboraban sus monjes (también porque fue el primer lugar en el que desembarcaron los vikingos, aunque esa es otra historia), y de entre estos monjes el más popular fue el Obispo Eadfrith, que escribió e ilustró los “Lindisfarne Gospels” a mediados del siglo VII. El dato es importante porque la intención de Watson ha sido reproducir el mismo entorno sonoro que Eadfrith escuchaba mil quinientos años atrás, y que le acompañaba mientras realizaba sus iluminaciones. El murmullo de las olas del mar, el viento entre los árboles, el zumbido de los insectos, el canto de los pájaros, ese tipo de cosas que no han cambiado a pesar del tiempo transcurrido, y que aquí aparecen felizmente ordenadas y alejadas de cualquier posible contaminación mecánica, dibujando cuatro estampas que corresponden con las cuatro estaciones. Una fantástica experiencia sensorial, cuyo goce se amplifica gracias al jugoso libreto que acompaña al disco: dos decenas de páginas que fijan todos esos aspectos históricos que la música no puede contar, pero que han guiado a Watson a la hora de enfocar su trabajo.

The Sound Projector (UK):

Another work which uses the four seasons structure is Chris Watson’s In St Cuthbert’s Time (TOUCH TO:89). The idea of it is simple – field recordings made in Lindisfarne, of the weather conditions and wildlife and the seashore, limited to what St Cuthbert himself, or any other seventh century saint, would actually have heard on Lindisfarne at the time, hence the subtitle “A 7th Century Soundscape of Lindisfarne”. As it happens, I visited the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition last summer (2013) when it was at Durham, and an installation version of Watson’s work was conincident with the exhibit. I made my way to a small side chapel in the Cathedral and was half expecting an extremely “immersive” event with a large PA and surround-sound effects. Instead, the field recordings were playing back over a pair of modestly-sized white speakers, no bigger than what you may have for your PC. This was the artist’s intent; he expressly wanted to keep playback at a low volume, I think to create a suitably unobtrusive ambience, sounds you had to strain to hear, and to suggest a non-specific spiritual dimension through the act of concentration. The booklet is packed with mini-essays about the history of Lindisfarne, the structure of the Anglo-Saxon calender, the creation of the Lindisfarne gospels, and the life of St Cuthbert. The sound art itself is structured around the four seasons, and the field recordings document the avian wildlife one would tend to hear in that area around Winter, Lencten, Sumor and Haerfest. Birds, water, air – it’s all extremely pleasant to listen to, and the recordings are vivid and clear, but unlike with previous Watson compositions, I’m not hearing that much depth of meaning. Most conspicuously absent for me is the strong – almost mystical – sense of location that is usually one of his signature themes; his best field recordings have been undeniably rooted in the geographic location whence they came, a point firmly emphasised by the citation of grid references. However, in this instance, that would be to ignore all the components of the package which do strongly connect the work to Lindisfarne: sound, texts, images, photographs, and the selection and arrangement of the field recorings themselves. While not quite the time-travel experience one might hope for from the title, this is an accomplished piece of work. From July 2013.

Musique Machine (UK):

This cd from the esteemed Chris Watson is packaged with a wealth of text and images - and so it should be, since the project comes as part of research backed by the Institute of Advanced Study, Durham University. Sometimes, I think this kind of funded work can be problematic; depending on what exactly the funders wish to see for their money… But, in this case, Watson has been allowed to work his magic; though I feel he remains somewhat restricted by the task at hand.
The album comes as a result of study carried out on the small island of Lindisfarne, most famous for the Lindisfarne Gospels - an illuminated manuscript created in the late 7th and early 8th century. Essentially, Watson sets out here to attempt to recreate the sonic/aural landscape that Eadrith - the writer and illustrator of the Gospels - would have inhabited during his work. This is an interesting act of time travel, an imagined recreation of the past; as well as legitimate historical work in its own right.

So, given the information above, what elements do you think will dominate the recordings? “Birds, sea and wind?” Correct. This is where the inherent restrictions of such a project kick in - it runs the risk of being “accurate” at the expense of being sonically “interesting”. The field recordings are layered into constructions, but not (apparently) “processed”; though there are points where Watson has chosen his spot to make use of natural echoes and reverbs - transforming birdsong into near-synth sounds. Thus we are left with “straight” soundscapes made out of unaffected field recordings. Its “worthy”, but it can never escape its self-defined boundaries…

If the tracks on “In St Cuthbert’s Time” were presented differently, they would elicit very different responses. Presented to me on a blank disc, I would certainly hear birds and water; but I might also guess at gruff vocal improvisations on “Lencten” and “Sumor” (the four tracks are named after the seasons in anglo-saxon: Winter, Lencten, Sumor, Haerfest), strange synth work, close-mic’ed percussion and low, underlying bass drones. However, since the overall package serves to channel all interpretation towards a documental one, thats where we end up. If I’m starting to sound overly negative here, I should point out that I’ve really enjoyed listening to the album. The material is interesting and engaging, and often sonically compelling in itself; with the added comparison of the soundscapes of the different seasons - all of which is given more pertinence due to the presence of local fauna in Eadrith’s illustrations. There’s also the interesting recurring motif of the monks handbell, which is rung briefly in all four tracks. But, in a nutshell, I like the album, I enjoy listening to it; but “it is, what it is”: an enjoyable listen thats arguably of more interest to naturalists and historians than “musicians/etc”.



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Chris Watson - In St Cuthbert's Time


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Track 3:  Sumor (Extract)






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