Chris Watson & Marcus Davidson: Cross-Pollination

Want to visit the Kalahari desert, an immense, remote area filled with dunes, grasses, and thorn bushes and teeming with nocturnal creatures, but can't afford a trip to South Africa? Put on Chris Watson's “Midnight at the Oasis,” close your eyes, and for half an hour at least you can pretend you're there. It's the first of two long-from settings featured on Cross-Pollination (and, no, it's not a Watson re-interpretation of Maria Muldaur's 1974 hit), with the other a twenty-minute collaboration with Marcus Davidson provocatively titled “The Bee Symphony.” Of course, “Midnight at the Oasis” is as pure a field recordings soundscape as one would expect from Watson, who's built up a distinguished discography of field recordings-related releases over the years, even if it condenses the time betwixt sunset and sunrise into a twenty-eight-minute running time. “Midnight at the Oasis” also presents, fascinatingly, an experience one might never actually be able to have in person, as the creatures that surface throughout—many of them insects (flies, crickets, and the like), though birds of various kinds appear too—do so under cover of darkness and therefore would remain unseen by human eyes. Watson does an impeccable job of creating the illusion of a literal sound portrait, as at no time is one reminded that the piece is a distillation of an entire night's activity into a half-hour setting. As a result, the air teems with buzzing, whooping, and cawing life-forms and the level of activity stays at a fever pitch throughout, with an occasional rustle of wind punctuating the material along the way. It's a veritable symphony of entomological sound that allows one to arrive without travelling, so to speak, at the South African location.

Composed and arranged by Davidson using recordings made by Watson and Mike Harding, the twenty-minute live recording “The Bee Symphony” presents a unique choral collaboration combining the vocal harmonies of honey bees and humans, with the bee sounds recorded at an English country garden and Dylan de Buitlear, Lisa Coates, Steph Connor, Lewis Marlowe and Shendie McMath constituting the so-called “Bee Choir.” In the true spirit of cross-pollination, the human voices sing in real time with actual notes sung by the bees in the field recordings (specifically, Davidson notated the bee chords and note clusters, and then scored the results for the choir). What results is a fascinating commingling of insect and human utterance that exudes a somewhat primal character (in the choir singing specifically). In certain moments, their respective sounds move in and around one another, as if each is responding to the other, with the bees' buzzing sometimes swelling into a violent swarm and the voices assuming a dark choral character that might remind certain listeners of Ligeti's Lux Aeterna. As the piece enters its more intense second half, however, the elements, now conjoined into a blurry mass, begin to surge with wave-like force, a development that renders the piece all the more engrossing, until a gradual diminishment draws the piece into silence. Put simply, Cross-Pollination finds Watson continuing to stand out from the field recordings crowd, so to speak. The conceptual imagination he brings to the two pieces is matched by the excellence of their execution, and the result is field recordings-based pieces raised to the level of art.

September 2011