It’s sunset in the Namib and the shimmering sounds of the desert are all around us, subdued beneath the hubbub of a private view audience – nomads of a peculiarly modern sort, passing from one white-walled space to the next. Speaking on the opening night of
his recent exhibition at Paul Stolper Gallery, Chris Watson appreciated the irony of people coming to a gallery for a work they could neither see nor – due to their own chitchat – hear. A few days later, on a slightly overcast morning, I returned to find the same twilight soundworld behind the gallery doors. ‘It’s as if we were in a sand dune in the Namib desert – now,’ Watson had said at the opening, and this sense of physical presence, of finding oneself transported on waves of sound to an alien environment, was palpable even as the mundane business of operating a commercial gallery went on around me. But, as with French composer Luc Ferrari’s Presque rien ou le lever du jour au bord de la mer (Almost Nothing or Day Break by the Sea, 1970), a seemingly untouched acoustic ‘snapshot’ of a small seaside town in what is now Croatia, this apparently unreconstructed soundscape masks the composer’s deft touch. ‘What’s important is to listen’, Watson told us, and it’s with close attention that we find ourselves taken on a journey by means of a structure as carefully mapped as that of any symphony.
Watson is a founding member of post-punk tape manipulators Cabaret Voltaire and well-known in the world of experimental music. Though he has had recent commissions installed at the National Gallery, London (Sounds of the Gallery, 2009, an audio response to a work by John Constable) and the Louvre, Paris (part of a series of events curated by the author J.M.G. le Clézio in 2011), ‘Namib’ marks his first work for a commercial gallery. Named after its subject, the show is part of an ongoing series at Paul Stolper called ‘The Silence Between’ in which the gaps between exhibitions become the occasion for explorations of sound through installation, sculpture or performance. Watson’s piece seems particularly apt for this context since, having specifically chosen a certain kind of electrostatic loudspeakers – flat, white and roughly square – the impression upon entering the space is of nothing so much as a show of Robert Rauschenberg’s white canvases in the process of being hung.
The placement of the speakers – some on the walls, others sat the floor – within the peculiarly angular confines of the gallery conspired to produce a complex aural architecture. Not just bands of frequencies but specific creatures seemed to inhabit particular zones of the room – in sometimes
quite surprising fashion. Due to the highly directional nature of the speakers and the reflective surfaces of the walls, cicadas might suddenly sing to you from some obscure corner, producing a sensation like an aural hallucination.
The whole piece lasts about 20 minutes, but that brief span compresses millions of years of evolutionary time. The Namib is thought to be the oldest desert in the world, and Watson takes us deep into its subterranean strata with special geophones and hydrophones that detect the movements of the earth and the faint gurgle of water seeping through cracks. From there, we emerge into the hollow of a tree, from which a contact mic brings us the first stirrings of life, the scuttling of fog beetles and other arthropods, before a gust of desert wind introduces what Watson described as a ‘wall of Phil Spector insect sound’. It’s easy to hear why: the stridulations of crickets sing like massed strings against the beating of tiny wings, something like a dopplered dentist’s drill, and other sounds too strange to identify. It’s as close as most of us will ever get to an extraterrestrial landscape, and much of what we hear sounds almost electronic. In the movements of the earth and the squawking of birds, we seem to hear the tweeting of oscillators, the flutter of electricity.
Watson’s soundscape never overwhelms like Spector’s, though; he keeps the volume low, of a level with his memory of the place itself. As earthy and primitive as the piece sounds, there’s a sophistication to it that is distinctly modern. When Ferrari presented Presque rien ... , he tended to talk about the disappearance of music as a concept, referring to himself not as a composer but as a réalisateur. It was François-Bernard Mâche, his contemporary from the Groupe de Recherches Musicales, who insisted that Ferrari remained ‘figurative rather than realist.’ Likewise, we can hear Watson’s distinctive sonic brushstroke in touches like the eerie phasing of gusts of wind, the result of particular microphone placement. Reality warps in such moments and these ‘blank canvases’ are revealed to teem with life as much as the Namib itself.
First published in Issue 164