TO:27 - Chris Watson "Stepping into the Dark"

CD, 12 tracks

"In recent years I have noticed that some of the locations I visited as a sound recordist displayed remarkable and particular characteristics. These may be sparkling acoustics, a special timbre, sometimes rhythmic, percussive or transient animal sounds. Without a doubt, playing a recording made at one of these sites can recreate a detailed memory of the original event. Also, as others have described, there is an intangible sense of being in a special place — somewhere that has a spirit — a place that has an ‘atmosphere’. These recordings avoid background noise, human disturbance and editing. They are made using sensitive microphones camouflaged and fixed in position usually well in advance of any recording or animal behaviour. The mics. are then cabled back on very long leads to a hide or concealed recording point, the aim being to capture the actual sound within each particular location without external influence. Sites are discovered by researching local natural or social history, by interpreting features on a map or through anecdote and conversation with people about their feelings for or against particular places. The author and researcher Tom Lethbridge identified the sources of several spirits within the topography of the area. I suspect that this also includes flora and fauna, local time of day, the weather and the season. The following recordings are the atmospheres of special places." [Chris Watson]

Tracklist

1. Low Pressure

0810h 6th October 1994

Wind wherever the sound recordist operates is an obvious nuisance. Just as it is with turbulent seas and fast-running water, it is relatively simple to make a recording that captures the generalised bashing and cashing of the elements, but this results in white noise that describes nothing of the detailed ebb and flow as witnessed. The remarkable thing here, in Glen Cannich, was that i could walk through the foci of these wind sounds within a few paces, as if being part of some great instrument. The blast here was so strong that it took some time to fix the microphones securely - I felt surrounded by the full force of the elements being channelled through this site, and wanted the recording to reflect the bent-double posture and sheer physicality I was experiencing. I cabled back 50 or 60m to a sheltered position and managed to run the tape for almost ten minutes before the microphones were blown over.

2. Embleton Rookery

0600h 7th May 1983

The churchyard looks out to the sea and across to the castle at Dunstanburgh Head, the vertigo cliff face forming a curve to create what was once a remote deep water harbour, used by Tudor monarchs. Maybe shipwrecked sailors have returned, reincarnated as the rooks that have chosen upon the old stone church in Embleton, whose name itself gives off a particular hum. Is it that the rooks are only rooks, and they sound dark to us because the Black Birdhas so many associations with malevolence and ill-omen? Lethbridge might have said that the birds come here, largely due to this always pagan site having obvious associations with the strong atmosphere of its ley lime and ritual past. Today, cars file past on their way to a family picnic on the promontory.

Go there at dawn, or last thing at night, out of traffic hours, and another sound takes over. The acoustic of the place spins the parliament of the rooks through the cold air, its stillness, and into the timeless chaos, as always, driven on by the ringing of the bells.

3. The Crossroads

0620h 27th March 1994

This morning the conditions were just right. This crossroads at Smalesmouth in the Kielder Forest, I am told, connects two of the 'old straight tracks' upon which Scottish drovers would herd their livestock south across the open hill. Today, the forest clearing is home to a host of bird, both resident and migrant. Here, however, end of March, the birdsong comes from local voices at the peak of their activity. So at our usual site on the junction of the forest tracks, recording began just after the light came up. The cold, dry air was full of detail, this isolated spot quickly reanimated by the ringing song and calls of chaffinch, robin, wren, songthrush, siskin and crossbill...

4. River Mara At Dawn

0615h 16th September 1994

A looping curve up river is edged with lush riverene forest. The location is spectacular, but its splendour has to co-exist with an oft-repeated stress on being vigilant; one does not wander alone on foot about the Maasai Mara.

Having set the mics, I cabled back some distance to the Land Rover and started to record. Eventually, building with the heat, were the convergent sounds of swirling water, black kites, wind through the surrounding vegetation and a blanket covering if flies.

5. River Mara At Night

2130h 16th September 1994

The same evening, Francis asked one of the other Maasai guards to take me back up river. Nightfall brings more danger. The hippos, who spend the day in the river, come out and graze on the vegetation, and can be very threatening animals... more people are killed by hippos than they are by lions.

The 'atmosphere' had changed. Listening for the wooden chimes of tree frogs, we were met by heavy rhythm, a wall of nocturnal sound. Moths and night flying beetles are being hunted - you can hear the deep octaval roar as they come close to the microphone. The metallic sounds, I suspect, are the acoustic calls of bats.

6. A Passing View

2350h 3rd April 1992

Today, Fai - a local fisherman, took us into the huge mangrove forests at Los Olovitos by canoe. We had spoken about some of the special places in the mangroves and in the early afternoon we stopped at a resting place bordering the lake. It was hot, humid and very quiet. I cabled some mics out into the water's edge with the idea of returning before dawn the following day. Curiosity forced my return that night when I heard and recorded these mechanical sounds of fishing bats in the darkness. Afterwards, in torchlight, I could watch these beautiful, long-legged russet coloured animals trawling for small fish feeding on the surface of the water.

7. Bosque Seco

0540h 6th April 1995

I left the camp at 0500h this morning and followed the winding path east towards my marker. Within the forest it was still very dark and quiet, with rising warm dry air. Just as the light was breaking through the canopy, I found my site at a fork in the path. I rigged up the tape recorder. The temperature began to climb like a jet off a runway. The acoustics changed, the orchestra awoke and the forest found its rhythm.

8. Sunsets

2230h 16th May 1994

During the late afternoon I cabled the equipment out into the marsh from a track. At 2000h I went back to listen out for the evening chorus of snipe. On the ground, they are cryptic birds and will choose their spot, usually reedy and damp, close to their very well camouflaged nestling places in tussocks and long grass.

The evening was quiet until the point at which the light dramatically changes and colour vision vanishes. At this hour, the snipe will perform. In an amazing ritual and localised aerial display, they dive vertically like guided missiles towards the water, the sound of their tail feathers buzzing through the air.

9. The Blue Men Of The Minch

1400h 30th July 1994

I was fortunate enough to borrow a hydrophone from the research station at Cromarty. Five metres beneath the surface of the Moray Firth and directly over a particular deep water channel, common seals roar during their diving displays. Within a 1km radius of the hydrophone, bottle-nosed dolphins navigate and hunt using echo locating clicks. Occasionally they communicate with their unique signature whistles.

10. High Pressure

0550h 25th February 1994

On the hilltop, there was no shelter this morning from the intense biting cold - or a feeling of growing anticipation. The hard dry air gripped the trees and margins of the pool - now frozen, with only one small area of water by the mics.

Daybreak revealed a small constricted community of coot, mallard, widen and teal.

11. Gahlitzerstrom

1740h 5th October 1993

Observing from a hide over the previous two days, the cranes have followed a similar path towards their roost out on the waters of Udarser Wiek. In particular, they seem to favour a narrow channel to navigate east to west - flying in low over the end of a thin spit of brown reedy marshland where earlier this afternoon I concealed the mics.

In Greek mythology, Hermes is said to have envisioned the Greek alphabet by watching the beating wings of cranes as they passed by his line of sight. Their calls and signs remain across the centuries...

12. The Forest Path

0625h 7th October 1994

It was raining hard - there was cover under the edge of a large dark section of mature plantation. Gradually, out from the background, came the crook of distant stags. A rich, velvet acoustic rolling down through the trees and suspended in a low clinging mist.


Reviews

NoiseGate (UK):

"Watson's lead instrument is the tape recorder. After working with Cabaret Voltaire and The Hafler Trio, he became sound recordist for The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, he has since joined a film and video production company, working for BBC wildlife documentaries. The 13 recordings on Stepping into the Dark contrast a windswept forest in Glen Cannich with the gathering conversations of rooks roosting in a churchyard in Northumberland. Other atmospheres include the heat and wall of sound found on the river Mara in Kenya, fishing bats on a mangrove pool in Venezuela, the ritual dance of snipe at dusk in the North Hebrides, a hydrophone at 5m depth in the Moray Firth captures the signature whistles and clicks of bottlenose dolphins. Very good."

CMJ (USA):

"Chris Watson made these extraordinary recordings by concealing microphones (so they wouldn/t be noticed by local fauna) in various outdoor locations around the world, from Scotland to Venezuela to Germany, then rolling the tape and capturing the sound of the particular place and time. That's 'sound' not 'ambiance' - rather than being "soothing sounds of the surf"-type stuff, they're dense with noises (swarms of flies, croaking birds, bowl-you-over winds). You have to listen to them actively. As an aid to that, they average about four minutes apiece, or roughly the length of a pop song. In fact, listening to them a few times, you start to hear each track that way: as a collection of textures (incessantly croaking frogs) and "riffs" (an evening chorus of snipe), of unique events (the deep hum of insects buzzing by the microphone) and thematic development (the slow, symphonic crescendo of a Costa Rican forest as it awakens at daybreak). The highlight is a pair of recordings of the Maasai Mara river in Kenya: one slow and fluttery at 6:15 am, one hot and thick with noise at 9:30 pm, when Watson feared a hippo attack." [Douglas Wolk]

Wired (UK):

"Taking ambient to its logical conclusion is Chris Watson, whose Stepping into the Dark (Touch) is a collection of recordings of places. Hear birdsong, cicadas, sea and wind. Absolutely no fill-in synth washes or new-age cheesery whatsoever. Music with the music taken out - radical!"

The Wire [UK]:

"Chris Watson's Stepping into the Dark makes a collection of environmental recordings positively eventful by comparison (ed.: to Dark Continent). This is a kind of National Geographic supersession: the siskins and song thrushes of the Kielder Forest trade licks with the fishing boats of Venezuela, while the dolphins of the Moray Firth seem like they're auditioning for back-up roles on the next Björk album. It's easy to scoff like this, but the purple prosody of the liner notes does give rise to the feeling that Mother Nature is just another musical virtuoso, all ready to tune up and howl "Let's rock" for the likes of Watson and those who buy his records (and there must be buyers). But fair's fair: Watson's recordings of the River Mara in Kenya by night are of a sonic intensity that beggar's belief, and his tape of the change in environment with the sunrise in a Costa Rican rainforest is little short of poetic. Of its kind, then, this is a decent (if a tad overlong) disc, comparable with Alan Lamb's telegraph-wire recordings on Dorobo. But next time, Chris - give those rhesus monkeys some solo space in the mix." [Paul Stump]

On (UK):

"Armed with a tape recorder and a history that includes a stint as sound recordist for the Royal Society for Protection of Birds, Watson delivers eleven scapes from around the world - from Kielderside to Kenya - in a triumph of recording techniques that veers sharply away from any kind of new age relaxation agenda. The rooks roosting in the churchyard at Embleton, Northumberland are as in-yer-face as any hardstep and the heat and wall of sound in Kenya is startling in its own way too. If you're too busy to escape Islington or canna afford to quit Balham, book a sonic away-day with Chris Watson. Vibin!" [Wild Weazel]

Magic Feet (UK):

"As Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys once said, "Relax, everything is done for you." How seriously you take all this Virtual Reality Cyber Culture stuff is largely down to how much you've allowed yourself to be duped by it. Meshing neatly with the Western preference for stored over immediate experience, Chris Watson has delivered an album of field recordings from Europe, Africa and South America. So you get a cacophony of rooks from a remote Northumberland graveyard, dolphins communicating under the Moray Firth and the rising hum of a Costa Rican jungle at dawn. Sure enough, there are patterns and cyclical loops to be followed just like any music. It's all very tastefully done, from the packaging to the genuinely enthusiastic sleeve notes emphasising that this is a truly candid aural view of nature which manages to "avoid background noise, human disturbance and editing". But surely the whole point about nature is that it just is, and is there for the dwindling numbers of humans not tied to a VDU screen to just go out and drink in first hand. Maybe its a touch paranoid, but its not too difficult to imagine families of the future sat around sound machines in air-conditioned rooms using recordings such as this to learn about nature. Maybe Chris Watson could enjoy no greater punch line for his work than such a scenario. Or maybe we should all literally get out more." [Andy McCall-Smith]

ECLECTRICITY (UK):

"A BBC sound recordist and previously a collaborator with Andrew M. McKenzie in the Hafler Trio, Watson has assembled some favourite fragments of international environment recordings on this CD. Not only do they convey a sense of place, hinting at the physicality of different terrain, but contain emotional echoes of shared experiences. The electrical hum of insects, bird calls awakening the forest of Bosque Seco in Costa Rico, reminded me of dragonflies low over the water of a quiet lake one Scandinavian summer, an experience I'd long forgotten. Seasonal dates and times are included with beautiful photographs in a booklet, together with precise latitude and longitude measurements for those eager to take the adventure themselves." [DKH]

EST (UK):

"After leaving Cabaret Voltaire and the Hafler Trio, Chris Watson found work as a sound-recordist, working for example for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. I'm pleased to see that his belated return to the "music" industry isn't with a music album, but with a collection of location recordings, covering the wilds of Britain (Cumbria, Scotland, Northumberland) and overseas (Germany, Venezuela, Costa Rica, Kenya). Watson suggests that these recordings are not simply documentary, but concerned with capturing the intangible spirit of each location. Clear recording and a total absence of human sounds invite meditation, but it's also interesting to try and divine any musical qualities in the birdsong or dolphin clicks that occur. There's an integrity to Watson's straightforward approach that just about sets Stepping into the Dark apart from "Forest Moods" type location- sound recordings, and which ensures I'll be listening to it again." [BD]

Alternative Press (US):

"French conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp once predicted that the artist of the future would point at what already exists and it would become art. Many sound artists have taken a philosophically similar outlook, using found sound, plagiarism and media manipulation. Former Hafler Trio and Cabaret Voltaire collaborator Chris Watson takes a different approach to this aesthetic, preferring to let the world around us do its own talking.

Stepping is an engaging collection of field recordings made at exotic locales while Watson was doing location sound for various documentaries. He presents a rich variety of environments ranging from flies near the Mara River in Kenya, to nesting rooks in an old churchyard, to fishing bats in Venezuela.

Animals and the elements take center stage throughout the disc. It seems strange to have any human's name on the sleeve at all. Watson has wisely chosen to leave these sounds raw and realistic, making this about as close as most of us will get to a world tour. Use your ears and drift. [Joseph Cross]





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