Chris Watson, ‘In St. Cuthbert’s Time: The Sounds of Lindisfarne and the Gospels’

Posted by on July 30, 2013


Touch, 7/1/2013

A small island measuring just over a mile across and two miles in length, Lindisfarne sits just two miles off the coast of Northumberland and something like 200 people call it home. Known colloquially as Holy Island, Lindisfarne is thought to have been populated as long ago as the 7th Century, when King Oswald invited monks down from Scotland to establish a monastery there. Cuthbert – monk, hermit and later saint – became the priory’s abbot and much revered until his death in 687, by which time he had retired to a smaller island and lived completely alone. In case you are interested, Cuthbert’s miracles include remaining “as flexible as a living man” for centuries after his death and continuing in such a state as to allegedly frighten Henry VIII’s church-wreckers into leaving Durham Cathedral during the Reformation.

Worshippers used Lindisfarne priory for almost 700 years, withstanding successive Viking raids and – if the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is to be believed –- “whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons.” The monks eventually left the island in 875, taking the body of St. Cuthbert with them (no records exist that state he ran alongside) and reburying him in Durham, but not before they could produce one of England’s greatest treasures in the Lindisfarne Gospels and, in particular, the St. Cuthbert Gospel, both of which now reside in the British Library.

Holy Island these days is accessible sporadically by road, but only when the tide recedes far enough to allow cars across. It is one of the most exciting trips a child from the UK can take, and I remember it vividly myself. In the back of my dad’s Volvo, faces squashed against the windows and the salty smell of sea in our nostrils, my sister and I looked out for seals and puffins, all the while slightly nervous the sea would have an abrupt change of heart and come washing back in to trap us. The dogs were sick in the boot, causing my dad to threaten them with exile halfway there and my sister to throw up in response. It was a great day out – not because of the history (boring!) or the shops full of mead (looking back this was a major oversight on my part), but simply because we were driving across the sea in a car. The priory’s ruins still remain, and many Anglo-Saxon relics are dotted right across the island. There is a castle there too, sat relatively solidly atop the cliffs due to an extensive renovation in 1902. The atmosphere can be strange, at once remote and bustling, and the town has taken full advantage of the tourists, offering everything from shells with your name painted on to miniature stained glass windows showing St. Cuthbert and his beloved ducks. Further away from the centre it is easier to imagine what the island must have been like in the 7th Century. Grey seals, a million birds and the sounds and smells of the crashing North Sea come together to create a feeling of true isolation; closing your eyes here and sitting in the grass can provide a genuinely spiritual experience.

If there is anyone working today who is qualified to capture this sensation it is Chris Watson, a founding member of Sheffield’s industrial music pioneers Cabaret Voltaire and currently a wildlife sound recordist for the BBC. His new album for Touch, In St. Cuthbert’s Time, was recorded entirely on Lindisfarne in honour of “that period of exceptional thought and creativity” in which Cuthbert and Eadfrith (the creator of the gospels) were establishing religion on the island and the return of the original manuscripts to Durham Cathedral for exhibition this year. Made up of four roughly quarter-hour pieces, In St. Cuthbert’s Time eschews human interaction almost completely and focuses on the ebb and flow of the four seasons, named here in Anglo-Saxon. “Winter” is accordingly gusty, based mainly on the island’s rugged coastline; “Lencten” (or Spring) moves slightly inland and is relatively calm; “Sumor” (Summer) is busy with insects, and so on. The recordings are presented “straight” – that is to say they have not been manipulated in any way or subjected to any kind of sonic wizardry except for the editing. They are, therefore, remarkably immediate, dreamily captivating and wholly transporting.

“Winter,” the most dramatic of the four pieces, is battered constantly by the wind and rain as huge numbers of different sea birds fly overhead and gather on rocks. You hear their wings flapping, and their calls, screams and hoots both distant and right alongside the recording equipment. Any ornithologist worth his or her salt would no doubt pinpoint every single one of them (more than 300 species have been counted there over the years), but part of the experience for me was not having a clue what creature I was hearing. Some of the cries are unnerving: from somewhere deep inside the cold waves of “Winter” emerges a quite terrifying screaming sound – the Vikings, perhaps, landing to wreak havoc – but continued exposure reveals it to be avian after all. “Lencten” opens with the eider duck’s bizarre call; sounding repeatedly surprised, the ‘oohs’ they give out are more like those from a girl whose lover insists on unexpectedly grabbing her backside in public than a bird.

In St. Cuthbert’s Time is as “authentic” an experience as you want to make it, and you’ve got to think it will probably work better if you’ve actually had the pleasure of visiting the island or somewhere like it. You can imagine the CDs lined up for sale in the cathedral shop for punters who’ve ogled the Gospels but you can’t necessarily imagine the same people spinning the album at home. Watson recently talked to a Durham newspaper about his time on Lindisfarne and the installation at the cathedral. “What’s really interesting [about the island] is what’s not there now,” he said. “They’ve found a lot of bones there [including those of] the Great Auk. Obviously I don’t have a recording of that because it’s extinct.” This brings about all kinds of questions about the value of these field recordings beyond their use in art. “Sumor,” for example, features the distinctive call of the cuckoo, an increasingly rare sound in the UK and one that Watson was encouraged to seek out due to it being mentioned in text from around the time of Lindisfarne’s colonization. The Gospels, in fact, are packed with illustrations of wildlife, which Watson puts down to the close proximity in which Eadfrith must have lived alongside the birds, and legend has it that Cuthbert got so friendly with the eider ducks that they nested in his bed. So while we can wonder eternally about whether In St. Cuthbert’s Time provides a true reflection of how the island might have sounded in the 7th Century, we can say for certain it performs well as a sonic record of its wildlife for future generations.

For me the album is at its most convincing during the relative quiet of “Sumor” and “Haefest” but then these are the pieces I most naturally identify with having been brought up on a farm. They are gentler journeys, with a lapping sea and the hungry chatter of growing chicks born during “Lencten.” There is a steady shift inland which sees the breeze unveil the hum of flies, the twitter of field birds in the grass, and the burly low of cattle in the distance. I can recognise the scene almost straight away, and it is an idyllic one. You can practically feel the sun on your back and see the dazzle of buttercups along the ground; the frantic winter world of the cliff edges and rock pools seems a million miles away.

Whereas previous Chris Watson recordings for Touch have traded in subtle psychological horror (El Tren Fantasma), brooding intensity (Storm, with BJ Nilsen) and Gothicism (Stepping Into The Dark), In St. Cuthbert’s Time is somehow harder to pin down. It is certainly his most pedestrian set of recordings yet, which is not to say it is dull, but its success almost certainly depends on how much time and imagination you are willing to invest. For those without access to Holy Island, an extensive knowledge of 7th Century Britain or the exhibition in Durham Cathedral, that might be harder than you expect.