Chris Watson & Simon Fisher Turner at The National Gallery

There was lots of great music to be heard last weekend. Thankfully, although the three very different shows I attended were announced between ten months and three weeks ahead of time, there were no clashes or overlaps and there was time to rest and digest between each.The first event of the weekend took place in the unlikely location of the National Gallery in central London. This had popped up in the recommendations makes based on my music listening history. In this case it was due to the fact that I’ve been listening to Simon Fisher Turner’s excellent soundtrack to the Derek Jarman film “The Last Of England” (I haven’t yet seen the film) which also contains music by the wonderful and rather frightening Diamanda Galás, and also to Chris Watson’s amazing and evocative field recordings on “Outside The Circle Of Fire”. This free event comprised of two separate performances in different parts of the gallery, offering each artist the opportunity to showcase a commissioned composition inspired by a specific painting of their choice.

Simon Fisher Turner was up first, and I arrived just in time to catch the start, in a room which was already fairly busy. As a result, I was unable to get a good view of the artwork which is the source of inspiration for the music, two 15th century panels from a triptych by Hans Memling…specifically the reverse panel showing nine cranes, not visible in that link. James Heard of the National Gallery’s Education team spoke at length about the painting, offering some excellent historical context regarding the spheres of influence in Italian (or what would later become Italian) society at the time the painting was made, the way in which it was commissioned and executed, and the significance it had for its owner as well as the art world at the time. Some time into the talk the first distant tones of SFT’s music could be heard. The talk continued with the music in the background, James Heard dramatically pausing for a minute every so often to allow the atmospherics to fill the room, and eventually ending the talk and leaving SFT to take over for a few minutes.

I can’t say I was overwhelmed by the music. It was a very airy ambient type piece, which was entirely fitting for the occasion. Nothing ornate or in-your-face, just a light synth pad changing tone now and then. I think that having been standing up in that busy room for 40+ minutes I was becoming a bit uncomfortable, which may have affected how receptive I was. The music played would certainly be an appreciated accompaniment to a wander around the gallery.

Next up was Chris Watson in a much larger hall elsewhere in the gallery. Watson’s choice of inspiration was John Constable’s “The Cornfield”, a painting I had been looking at in the same building a few months ago, which led me to notice that it had been moved to a different position in the meantime.

Watson was briefly introduced by a lady whose name I’ve forgotten but who I believe held overall responsibility for the project we were now witnessing the results of. He then took over and introduced himself and his work as one of the world’s foremost field/sound recordists (that description is mine, not his! I suspect he’s far too modest to describe himself as such).

What followed was an enthralling and fascinating breakdown of how Watson sees and hears the world and attempts to condense it into his recordings for others to hear. Referring to the Constable painting, he described how visual perspective has an audio equivalent, and played us different recordings of sounds spread across varying distances, including insects across a wide space in the Mojave desert, and a huge thunderclap that had many of the audience, me included, jumping in fright.

Perspective in space was then followed by “perspective” in time. Watson explained the challenges of, for example, producing a soundtrack for a 90 second segment of film which focuses on a dawn chorus, the sounds of which change drastically over a 2-3 hour period, while still providing a realistic representation of the whole. He does this by segueing small sections of a long recording together. After the dawn chorus example he played us one of the strangest sounds I’ve ever heard, as he demonstrated the same technique with recordings made over 4 months (!!!!) of the sea ice slowly forming in an Icelandic bay. Incredibly creepy and magical, and not at all like one’s normal idea of sounds of the sea. I wonder if that recording is available on any of his releases, I’d love to hear it again.

After explaining these concepts to us and playing examples to illustrate them, Watson proceeded to give a scientific breakdown of the composition he had made for “The Cornfield”. He made numerous observations, of the colour of the leaves of a particular tree and the human activity in the field which appears in the middle distance, and from this he determined the time of year. Using knowledge of wildlife in the area the painting depicted, he determined which birds might be in the scene at that moment, and used appropriate recordings of those birds. Flowing water accompanied the stream, and Watson even interpreted the distracted look of the sheepdog to suggest an unseen woodpecker. The wind in the trees and the corn, and the pealing bells of the distant church were all added, and we heard each individual element in isolation along with the explanation for its presence. Finally, once every aspect had been detailed, we heard the completed composition.

It was good, I really enjoyed it, but I have to say that the highlight of the experience was hearing Chris Watson describe with such enthusiasm and knowledge the process by which the final result was achieved. It provided an amazing understanding of how much research, study and work goes into what he does. It’s a lot more than just standing somewhere with a microphone. A wonderful experience, I’m very glad I attended this event. Well done to all concerned.

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2 Comments on “Chris Watson & Simon Fisher Turner at The National Gallery

  1. I saw Watson too recently here in Australia, he was fantastic. The audience were encouraged to lie down on the floor in a dark room whilst he played a continuous mix of (mostly unprocessed) field recordings from around the world with a quadrophonic setup. The water and wind sounds were so crisp.
    His record ‘Weather Report’ has some amazing recordings he did of glaciers melting in Iceland. Not sure if that’s what you heard. You can download some of his audio diaries from the touch website:

  2. This sounds really fascinating. I must check out Chris Watson’s music. I hadn’t heard of him until now. Great post, I’d love to hear about the rest of the weekends music.

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