Chris Watson - In St Cuthbert’s Time [Touch - 2013]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”.Martin P