Chris Watson & Marcus Davidson - Cross-Pollination

Cross-Pollination collects two long-ish pieces of Chris Watson, a UK-based "environmental sound archivist" who must also be admired as a founding member of Cabaret Voltaire ("Voice of America," anyone?).  His albums for the Touch label collect his recordings of wildlife and nature sounds into thematic narratives, sometimes featuring guest collaborators like the inimitable Z'EV.  For this effort, the first piece, Midnight At the Oasis, features Watson recordings alone, and the second, The Bee Symphony, combines Watson's recordings of honeybees with a 5-piece choir arrangement composed by Marcus Davidson.

I lean more toward the collaborations that blend compositions and field recordings, but a few words regarding "Midnight At the Oasis."The liner notes refer to it as a "time compression" made from a dusk-to-dawn recording done in the Kalahari Desert, capturing the sounds of the mostly nocturnal creatures of the area.  It feels more like a document than an interpretive piece.  At the beginning, it is dusk, and birds dominate the soundscape.  Nightfall must be arriving by the 6:00 mark, where the buzzing of insects takes over, with occasional punctuation from monkeys.  The insect sounds occupy the center of the recording for a long time, going through several phases of complex multifrequency drones that mostly held my interest--the large quantity of insects and the depth of overtones in their collective sawing make for interesting phase shifts and addition tones when you listen to a consistent field of their sounds for five minutes at a time.  The sun begins to reemerge with roughly 8 minutes remaining, and with it birds again take control of the auditory scene.  I'm guessing that the final 2 minutes might take a compositional liberty, though, as insects are allowed to take a final unaccompanied bow.

The birds arrive again to introduce "The Bee Symphony," though they duck out after the first two minutes or so.  As the birds fade out, the choir is crossfaded in over the course of another few minutes, and the duration is comprised of bees and human voices from the 4 minute mark onward.

I find Marcus Davidson's choral scoring in and around the bees to be the most exhilarating aspect of this disc.  With only five members of his choir, he has produced an incredibly dense sound, though much of the effect is due to a liberal application of reverb.  And he takes several musical approaches with the choir that cut, blend, and morph between one another to great effect.  Closest to matching the sounds of the bees are are long sections of drones and tone clusters evoking Ligeti.  These contrast nicely with some gentler passages drawing from Renaissance counterpoint, harmonically more quartal/quintal than tertian.  But I'm especially reminded of Stockhausen's choral writing in the way that many of the tone clusters feature eerie shifts in vowel sounds.  The different kinds of vocal approaches tend to give one another room to shift gently, but there are some more abrupt stylistic turns that are very exciting, like around the 14 minute mark when the music comes out of a warm passage outlining a major-key tonality directly into tone clusters that lead to almost horn-like glissando lamentations.

I do have some reservations about the sheer volume of reverb in "The Bee Symphony," though.  While it must be conceded that there are moments where reverb becomes a compositional tool at the level of pitch selection (like around 16:15, where reverbs emphasize different frequency ranges within the vast wall of sounds, pulling out sympathetic drones), I mostly find that the reverb creates an unnecessarily spooky atmosphere.  After all, the bee recordings are taken from "the hives of an English country garden" according to the liner notes--that description doesn't give me expectations of copious amounts of ominous reverb.  And I think there are some really interesting sonic possibilities for a bone-dry choral arrangement made to work with bees.  Consider "The Man in Black," a Jonathan Bepler composition from the Cremaster 2 soundtrack made of samples of 200,000 honey bees pitted against the drums of Dave Lombardo (Slayer, Fantomas) and the vocals of Steve Tucker (Morbid Angel).  Obviously Bepler's piece is working in a completely different direction, recontextualizing the sounds of bees as guitars in a death metal composition, but the overall mix is very dry and exposes a different range of potential interactions between musical sounds and honeybee sounds.  I'd love to hear a mix of "The Bee Symphony"with the intimacy of no reverb.

Finally, a mixtape recommendation: I happened to have the Hum of Gnats s/t release cued to play after "The Bee Symphony," which turns out to be a fantastic transition on many levels: the buzz of bees to the Hum of Gnats, pastoral English gardens to a few minutes of more urban field recordings, and it opens into a pleasantly dry mix that offers some reverb relief.

--first published at Killed in Cars

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