Chris Watson‘s recordings from Lindisfarne Island form “an imagined historical document, an abstract and fictional manifestation of what a particular place might have sounded like at a particular time“.
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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 The album is an imagined historical document, an abstract and fictional manifestation of what a particular place might have sounded like at a particular time.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.