Work took me to Durham yesterday and gave me the opportunity to see the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition. I was surprised that the curators made no use of Chris Watson's new collection of field recordings, In St Cuthbert's Time (I anticipated a small installation where you could listen whilst watching a sequence of Maggy Watson's atmospheric photographs). However, when I went into the cathedral I saw that you could listen to it in the Holy Cross Chapel, which I found through the cloisters in a quiet area away from tourists. Nobody was around except for an attendant standing on the grass outside. She warned me that only the front speakers were working, so I am not sure if I experienced the intended effect. Nevertheless, I sat for a while alone, listening to the birds and the surf breaking on the island shore...
Then, as I emerged with thoughts of Cuthbert and the contemplative life, the peace of the place was suddenly shattered by an exaggerated cockney voice shouting "Roll up! Roll up!" and dissolving into laughter. It was the celebrity cricketer Phil 'Tuffers' Tufnell doing a piece to camera on the fourth Ashes test that will be played shortly in Durham. Perhaps he was going to go on to make some kind of link between veneration of the 'ashes of English cricket' and the shrine of St Cuthbert, but I didn't stay to find out.
In St Cuthbert's Time is a simple idea beautifully executed. Each track corresponds to a season and is a self contained natural soundscape, ending with the gentle but insistent ringing of a monks handbell. Of course it is a work of imagination rather than a historical reconstruction: no attempt is made to include the sounds of the monks going about their religious observances or the craftsmen and labourers who worked on the island. Watson has said that he incorporated the cuckoo because it is mentioned in a 7th century source but could not include the great auk, whose bones have been excavated on Lindisfarne. No doubt some will view these recording as an idealisation of a lost time, but I would happily listen to more echoes of the past in sound art and field recordings. Perhaps there are not many historical figures as attached to the landscape as Cuthbert, who loved the island's birds and animals and gave special protection to the Eider duck. History is a sequence of noisy events but I can imagine listening, say, to a summer's morning in the New Forest, just before the arrival of William Rufus and his hunting party, or the sounds of Glencoe after the massacre, wind sighing off the mountains and snow dripping from the trees.
Listen to the clips I've embedded here but buy the CD too: its booklet, among other things, includes descriptions of the four tracks that read like short landscape poems. Here is 'Winter':
The tide withdraws from around the island to a distant horizon marked by a line of breaking
Anser anser - Branta bernicia - Cygnus cygnus
waves and the deep tones of surf rolling into far distant sands. Greylag geese fly over a
gathering of ducks and wading birds in the tidal margins of the freshly revealed causeway.
Anas penelope - Numenius arquata - Pluvialis squatarola
Brent geese and whooper swans pass between a flock of wigeon which are alarmed by a fox
stalking through the mud. Slowly, as a the tide turns to flow, ravens assemble by their roost site
Vulpes vulpes - Corvus corax
over on the mainland.