[live review] sir david attenborough, chris watson, richard ranft: “calls of the wild” @ the royal institution

August 13, 2010

Event date: August 10, 2010

Richard Ranft, Chris Watson, Sir David Attenborough in conversation

It was a genuine privilege to be in the lecture theatre at the Royal Institution of Great Britain on Tuesday evening. To hear Chris Watson (pictured, centre) recount his experiences, and reveal some of the techniques, of recording the sounds for his Whispering In The Leaves installation (at Kew Gardens until September 5; review here) was special in itself.

But to hear him swap stories with friend and colleague Sir David Attenborough (right) – broadcaster without peer, national treasure and the 63rd greatest Briton that ever lived – about capturing sounds in the field was almost hallucinatory, too much to bear. No wonder there were a reported 500 names on the waiting list for tickets.

But bear it we did, and it was fascinating. Watson and Attenborough were joined by Richard Ranft (left), head of the British Library’s Sound Archive and an experienced sound recordist himself.

Across the 90 minutes of the conversation the audience heard excerpts of recordings made by all three participants (it is little known that Attenborough was a pioneering nature sound recordist early in his career): frogs, birds, insects, primates, giant earthworms (which, as they slide through the soil, make a sound not unlike someone with bowel trouble, to inevitable amusement) and more. These recordings were brought to life by the explanation, erudition and poetic recollection of their creators.

Richard Ranft, Chris Watson, Sir David Attenborough in conversation, with parabolic reflector

There were many highlights, in particular Watson’s “show and tell” of various microphone rigs (such as the parabolic reflector above), the extraordinary sounds made by Black Howler monkeys, and his description of how he captured the sound of one million worker ants in the rainforest while making Life In The Undergrowth.

But, naturally, the fondest memories of the evening derived from witnessing a truly great communicator in action, talking about a subject he is passionate about. Attenborough (at 84) is more charismatic, articulate and personable than most of us can imagine, let alone become.

This was no better demonstrated than his description, at the end of the conversation, of one of his favourite rainforest recordings, made for The Life Of Birds (video here). The recording was of a lyrebird, the greatest of all mimics, imitating the sound of its own coming destruction: the chainsaws that are destroying its Australian habitat.

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