Listening to bird song, and discovering how to hear : Chris Watson at Port Eliot Festival


This talk by Chris Watson was my highlight of Port Eliot Festival this year.

Imagine yourself in a remarkably large, very dark, circular room, say 25ft diameter - there are around 30 people on chairs and the floor, a laptop, a surround sound set of 8 speakers, and a really rather garish mural (though it was very dark).

The artist, Chris Watson, then takes ten minutes to lovingly and mellifluously recount how he came to record the 18 hours of bird song you are about to hear from around the estate over 5 days, carefully edited and layered it into a 42 minute audio journey and explains the technology behind the soundscape. He guides you through the journey like a buddhist preparing you for mediation: a visit to the pheasants in their pens on the estate, down to the mud flats and the popping mud, "and then, amazingly, it rained!" and the lightest raindrops echo in counterpoint to the popping mudflats. Under the aggressive tidal waters of the bay and out into low-tide at midnight with only the owls and the foxes and the achingly beautiful groans of the oaks in the dead of night, and then, inexorably we emerge into the incredible cacophony and social jamboree of the dawn chorus, with it's many characters and voices.

then you sit in the dark and listen to that happen and it was the most exquisite 42 minutes. It was extraordinary.

Then a rather odd thing happened. the next day I woke in a tent, in a field in Cornwall and I heard the birds. It was like I was hearing something for the very first time. (it was our third day). And it was just as beautiful - even though I don't really care for birds.

So that's nice. But it's not quite everything - the (very quick and rather clumsy) takeaway for me is that it wasn't just that birdsong is beautiful. It was that what Chris does, like all artists, is to take something we look at everyday and turn it sideways so that we look at it fresh. And it is by forcing us to turn off the filters that we use that we see things anew. And I think we should try and do that with everything we do. Just turn it sideways and make it magical. Make us adjust our media filters... and then, maybe, just maybe, in this world of noise and drama, the next time people might actually hear you.
Just for a moment.


More about Chris from the Port Eliot website:

Hailed as “the David Attenborourgh of radio” and creator of Port Eliot’s much-loved Nature Disco, award-winning sound artist Chris Watson is working on a special event for this year’s festival. Fresh off the plane from the North Pole, where he was working on the BBC’s Frozen Planet (to be broadcast in 2011), Chris came to Port Eliot in May to record for a unique new sound installation – ‘Dusk Until Dawn – A Soundscape around Port Eliot’ – which he’ll be presenting in the Round Room. Watch this short video to find out more:

Chris Watson recording at Port Eliot from Port Eliot Festival on Vimeo.
Written by
Tea Uglow
There is, it turns out, always a Tea in team. And Beth. Of course. x
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