[midlife 150] #109: chris watson “vatnajökull”

December 3, 2010

Album cover for Weather Report by Chris Watson

#109 Vatnajökull by Chris Watson, available on Weather Report, 2003 [buy from Amazon.co.uk] [buy from iTunes]

Field recording stretches the widely accepted definition of music as humanly-organised sound. Why should recordings of everyday life – familiar or otherwise – be considered alongside the songs and symphonies created from the imagination of artists?

To be honest I’m not sure they should, though clearly that won’t stop me from including an example in this list of favourite music.

Field recording’s contention (as an artistically rather than scientifically motivated activity) that emotional and intellectual value can be derived from active listening to the physical world around us is undoubtedly true. But it achieves this by combining both cinema’s sense of place and event and music’s more abstract imagination-stirring qualities. It is a part of – and therefore stands apart from – both traditions.

By this analysis, Chris Watson (whom I’ve written about before) is one of the world’s best cinematographer-composers, and a most persuasive argument for the power of his craft as a fully fledged art form.

His 2003 album Weather Report remains the best distillation of his practice to date, though most people will have come across his work (without necessarily being aware of it) as sound man for countless BBC Natural History Unit documentaries.

Each of the three pieces on Weather Report is substantial and stimulating, but for its otherworldly musicality the final piece, Vatnajökull, is the one I’ve picked out (the 14-hours-in-18-minutes Masai Mara drama of Ol-Olool-O is also recommended as a complete contrast).

Vatnajökull documents, as Watson summarises, “the 10,000 year climatic journey of ice formed deep within this Icelandic glacier and its lingering flow into the Norwegian Sea”.

This incredible odyssey begins deep beneath the glacier’s surface, with the hollow creaking that opens the piece evoking the almost tectonic shifting of massive sheets of ice. Coupled with the heartbeat-like thudding it suggests the awakening of a beast from hibernation. Gradually, your perspective as listener starts to climb towards the surface – accompanied by a ghostly chorus – until, at the end of the first ‘movement’, you break into the clear, cold Icelandic air.

On you continue, among the gulls and other birds, over volcanic earth towards the coastline. The white noise of the wind whips around you as you drive, across miles and centuries, towards the sea. There, you are submerged in eery quiet until, quite suddenly, you break the water’s surface. Finally you drift – with the wildlife and the elements – until you melt away into silence.

It is astonishing. Listen to it with your eyes closed and headphones on.

This review is part of close to 94‘s [midlife 150] series, which counts down favourite music 1970-2009.

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