Thursday, January 31, 2013

Chris Watson: Outside the Circle of Fire

This blog simply posits that music is organized sound.  In the case of Chris Watson's remarkable Outside the Circle of Fire, the sound is produced by animals in nature, captured by Watson's highly-advanced recording equipment and brilliant techniques of placement of microphones, and then edited into an album format.  This is certainly not music in the popular sense, but one could argue that it is quite musical.

As a statement on the back tray of the CD case observes, "these are the sounds of secret languages, particular events that have been recorded as close up as possible to try and reveal something of their individual beauty, rhythm, eloquence and sheer power."  Watson's adroit use of technology, his keen understanding of natural environments and the incredible patience this must have required waiting for the right moment to capture a particularized moment of sounds that could not otherwise be heard by humans make this a profound experience, if it can be accepted that these recordings of animals in nature are of music.

Watson first came to attention in the human music world as a founding member of the experimental "industrial" trio, Cabaret Voltaire.  From 1974, he and band mates Stephen Mallinder and Richard H. Kirk huddled in Watson's loft in the gritty industrial city of Sheffield, England with rudimentary tape machines, synthesizers, drum machines, bass and electric guitars, wind instruments and other material and forged an unusual world of sound that had song-like structures, but leavened (if that is the right word) with a wild admixture of harsh, abrasive, highly-treated sounds.  Not musicians in the traditional sense, the trio nonetheless created a way of making music wholly their own and, by the time they began recording for the indie label Rough Trade in 1978, they were getting some recognition.

Cabaret Voltaire issued a few albums, some EPs and several singles until Watson departed to take up a career as a television sound recordist.  Continuing in that line of work, he also formed a new group, the Hafler Trio, which made highly experimental and idiosyncratic music over its long run.  But, Watson's later recognition came with his staggering sound work with natural environments as shown in television and documentaries.  When the very interesting and eclectic Touch label began releasing some of his independent work, Watson had a new portfolio of several awesome recordings of which this an important entry.

From Africa to South and Latin America to the British Isles, Outside the Circle of Fire consists of twenty-two pieces capturing animals of the land, sea and air making their music in a variety of settings.  The opening piece of a cheetah resting under a baobab tree in Zimbabwe sounds much like some of the electronic equipment Cabaret Voltaire employed in its early experimental days.  Other pieces are of hippopotami surfacing on a river in Kenya, birds chattering in the forests of Costa Rica, the roar of a stag in a Scottish forest, vultures feeding on a zebra corpse, also in Kenya, and many other fascinating environmental soundscapes, as well.

Most of these works were recorded in the middle 1990s, with one going back to 1983, consisting of a group of kittiwakes at nesting sites near a castle in northern England, and others coming in the late 80s and early 90s.  One was even the sound of beetles making sounds in the oaken beams of Watson's home, so he quickly set up his recording devices and captured the busy work of those creatures.

As noted above, many of these sounds are reminiscent of the electronic work Watson had done with Cabaret Voltaire--with rhythms, tone, dynamics and even melody that evoke some of that mid-70s to early 80s experimentation done by three humans in their natural habitat.  So, maybe the transition from that to these ambient nature recordings isn't that far removed.

But, is it music?

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