we say it's the wind

I say can you

hear the wind?

and she says
it's the wind

An experience we all share, in whatever domain our pillows lie, afloat on the blue bed of night, listening in to the passage of wind shushing in the trees. 

Summer's Autumn Winds

When Basho arrived at Shirakawa, 323 years ago, it was a Summer’s day.

At that famous mountain way-station he paused to reflect on of all those who had come before him, recalling the poems they had written upon reaching Shirakawa, including lines by Priest Noin, composed in 1025, which invited Basho to hear not the sounds of his summer but the winds of autumn. A sound older and still to come. 

though I left the capital
hung with spring mists

autumn winds are blowing
at the Shirakawa barrier

As with seeing, what we hear is a matter of taste, training and openness. Our ears are only part of it. The wind of autumn sounded in Basho’s mind’s-ear, resounding through his expectations.

Basho's oku
image source


Two hundred and fifty years later, picture John Cage – a devotee of Basho – sitting in his wooden cabin at Stony Point, listening to a record on a warm Summer afternoon. The window's wide open against the heat. This moment in our era is when sound becomes music, music becomes sound.

the cabin at Stony Point
image source

Cage recounts his hear the songs of birds in the trees outside, interpenetrating with the music from the record player inside. Perceived together, technological source – sound in a groove – and natural source – birds in branches
Cage realised the sounds belonged together because he was willing to open the window, to let sound in. 

John Cage picking mushrooms
image source

Chris Watson is a window opener. He is deeply thoughtful about the art of listening and the act of recording; he has a loving respect for sounds and their sources. His field-recordings represent an ethics of deep respect for the sounds that living beings and living things share. Sound is emblematic of their – our – interpenetration within ecosystem.

Weather systems are primary among those living things. Wind, above all, is the sound of weather. 

King sound is dead 

David Toop retells Brian Eno's story: on a trip to the Amazon jungle Eno found himself sitting by a river near a village; the soundscape which he could hear had no clear centre. As a genius of the recording studio we associate Eno with a micro-controlled technological environment, picturing a single microphone placed dead centre in an enclosed recording space. Here, in this strange wild landscape, Eno noticed sounds on the edge of his ears reach. Sound decentred. 

King sound is dead!

Long live the republic of sounds!

Think of those times you find yourself far from civilization, awake in the pitch dark of a strange bed; ears zinging as listening fluctuates wildly.

Remember how it feels to try and make sense of what we call silence.

Remember the insistence of quietness. 

Depth re-attunement 

Chris Watson’s work is often experienced as washes of sound: waves of rain in Glen Affric; a storm gathering itself, about to cross the North Sea; a vast complexity of shifting centres of attention, isobars that fold into one another. There is no centre, only fluxus, rolling waves of listening.

Chris Watson
Photograph, Rosie Watson
Even in his highly foccused recordings, such as my own favourite, ‘a wood pigeon wings past’, although the detail of the recorded work is magical, it does not seem to me we are hearing a closed sound, a walled-off sampleAccepting the world of sound, retuning our ears, Watson's compositions are certainly gifts of technology – our ability to hear closer to a thing, as when the microphone is placed in the belly of a dead zebra – but technical skills and contemporary equipment are of far less importance than his ability to listen respectfully, imaginatively. 

Watson's work doesn’t deal in absolutes: the ground zero of silence, the violence of extreme noise. It is a music of quietness. Nor does he use microtechnology to thrill us with exaggerations of size – the pat strategy of contemporary art.

Chris Watson & B. J. Nilson, Storm (Touch, 2006)

The 12 second sound-picture of the winging dove is closer to a haiku: it records a moment of sound in the equivalent of a single brushstroke, the records perceptions of moment. Again, this imaginative act proceeds from a deep and profound respect for sound as a life-form. 

If all music is a form of thought, a means of training of the senses, then Watson's music is concerned with attunement. He attunes us to sounds which are on the edge of our listening capacity. He brings us back to sounds which have always been deeply embedded in our nervous system. The sound of air pressure changing, the breathing of an animal, insects whirring and chirruping, even the growth of a plant.

Chris Watson at Kew
image source
Watson reminds us of sounds which, paradoxically, we can and cannot hear; he renews or heals our knack of listening. In some ways his creativity seems to be ancient, though never backward looking. 

Put your ear up to the trunk of a Eucalyptus on a sunny day: the sound you will hear metallically tumbling down the trunk is a ‘Chris Watson sound’. 

I recall the first time I heard his work, included by Bjork in a Radio 3 feature for which she chose music that inspired and influenced her. After a track of savage heaviosity by Public Enemy, she played a field-recording of a ptarmigan in the Cairngorms. It was the oddest sound, more akin to clicking than song. What struck me was Bjork’s sense of all these different sounds as music, of that expanded field, which, thanks to Chris Watson, we can enjoy listening into today.

In their different ways, Basho, John Cage and Chris Watson remind us what is means to listen. 


Alec Finlay and Chris Watson collaborated on siren (2005), available as a CD with poem commentary

This text is a revised version of a talk on Chris Watson's installation at Kew Gardens, whispering in the leaves, co-produced by Forma & Sound and Music.

Chris Watson is one of the world's leading recorders of wildlife and natural phenomenaa. Kew played host to Watson's Whispering in the Leaves project, a sound installation immersing visitors to Kew Gardens' Palm House in the dawn and dusk choruses of the Central and South American rainforests (2010).

the road north is Alec Finlay and Ken Cockburn's collaborative word-map of Scotland, composed 2010-2011. Their year-long journey through their homeland was inspired by the Japanese poet Matsuo Basho, whose Oku-no-hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Deep North) is one of the masterpieces of travel literature.

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