It may seem odd to say that field recordists have a distinctive style, but it’s undeniable that they do. A lot of this has to do with the implicit intentionality of each composer and recordist’s work and how they approach editing their unaffected natural sounds into a streamlined listening experience. This is an issue that Will Montgomery addresses in his essay “Beyond The Soundscape,” in which he sets out to note the different approaches that various phonographers use and how these techniques ultimately create a particular aesthetic. For instance, there’s Toshiya Tsunoda, whose work tends to focus on the sonic properties and literal vibrations of objects in nature, whose work sounds markedly different from the psychoacoustic field recording explorations of Jakob Kirkegaard.
And then there’s Chris Watson, whom Montgomery argues is concerned with creating narrative through unfiltered recordings. The concept of narrative is indeed important when looking at Watson’s work as a whole, and his latest album In St. Cuthbert’s Time is no exception. Much has been made about the conceptual narrative behind In St. Cuthbert’s Time, which is Watson’s attempt to recreate the soundworld of St. Cuthbert in 700 A.D. However, what hasn’t been discussed nearly enough in most reviews of Watson’s work (including In St. Cuthbert’s Time) are the sounds of the work itself. While the narrative underpinnings of the phonographer’s work are indeed fascinating, the outstanding qualities of Watson’s recordings and his ability to make listeners experience even the most obvious sound source in new ways is a feat worth discussing.
In St. Cuthbert’s Time consists primarily of various birdsongs intermingled with gentle oceanic tracks, and while these two sound sources may seem like the most rote of field recordings, Watson manages to make them seem consistently interesting and new throughout the course of the record. On the track “Winter,” various bird songs create a slightly cacophonous counterpoint that could almost pass for granulated or processed sound, while “Lechten” captures an amazing song-like call and response between creatures. Of course, Watson’s perfectionist recording methods are a large contributing factor to the three-dimensional sounds presented here, but the sheer length of the tracks on the record also serves to defamiliarize them from the listener’s normal associations and experience them from a sheer sonic level. In St. Cuthbert’s Time, like all of Watson’s work, is immersive and hypnotic, and it’s through this aural detail that the world of St. Cuthbert is created. Even when removed from its concept, Watson’s recordings create a tangible environment and are worth hearing for their ability to re-contextualize sound alone.
In St. Cuthbert’s Time is now available via Touch. You can listen to an excerpt of the record courtesy of Experimedia below: