Chris Watson – El Tren Fantasma

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The title of the sound recordist Chris Watson’s new CD, borrowed from a Mexican film from the 1920s, translates as “The Ghost Train”. The name makes reference to the fact that the recordings were made while he was working on the BBC show Great Railway Journeys, where he took a ride on one of the very last passenger trains which ran from Mexico’s Pacific coast to the Gulf on the other side, a journey that since 1999 can no longer be made. However, as you listen to it while studying a map of the route, from Los Mochis in the west, through Chihuahua and Mexico City to Veracruz on the east, you begin to trace a number of branch lines which lead off from the main line. You find yourself making connections, hitching your wagon to a number of different trains, in order to chase down some fascinating – and very resonant – ghosts from Mexico’s history.

The record starts with the gathering roar of a train, approaching at speed from distance. In this instant, Watson has captured the excitement of the early days of steam trains, and I already find myself listening with an almost child-like glee. Construction of Mexico’s train network begin fitfully in the 1830s, but gathered pace in the 1870s as the result of foreign speculation – English, French, Belgian companies all seeking to profit from Mexico’s expansion. Its last great act of construction was the spectacular feat of engineering which is the train line through the country’s Copper Canyon: 390 miles long, with 39 bridges and 86 tunnels, allowing the train to climb from sea level to around 2,500 metres. Watson captures the speedy procession across the plateau in a most musical way, the whine of the train swelling almost orchestrally over its metallic percussion. He then lingers awhile in the canyon’s Sierra Tarahumara to record the sound of heat rising from its floor, hummingbirds being tossed around in its thermals. In these glorious moments of hazy near-silence, Watson is diverting himself from this onward linear rush to find something completely timeless, a Mexico recognisable to early natives like the Aztecs and the Tarahumara indians – a people who still practice their traditional ways in these parts of the country, and who are named, appropriately enough in the circumstances of this album, for their long distance running abilities.

As the train progresses further along those tracks, Watson records it passing into one of those many tunnels, and everything becomes noticeably darker and more intense. The decline of the Mexican railway system began, it seems, after the Mexican revolution, the railways being taken into state ownership in the 1930s. The costs of maintaining the railway system became increasingly out of proportion to the revenues they were generating, what with competition from road and sea, and they slowly started to decay. When Watson reached the journey’s midpoint, the city of Chihuahua, he chose not to record the noise of the train itself, but instead to take his microphones inside a huge, echoing train shed, cleaving the record in two with some suitably serrated metallic scrape and grind, the sound of industrial distortion and collapse on a monstrous scale. The tone of the record is far more subdued thereafter: even as it passes through Mexico City, one of the most frantically bustling cities in the world, it feels strangely lifeless, and I feel quite alone as I listen to the steady, muffled rumble of wheels on track.

The endpoint of this journey came after the Mexican economic crisis of 1994, and the sudden devaluation of the peso, when the state abdicated ownership of the railway system, handing the loss-making enterprise back to the private sector. The private sector, as you might expect, instantly closed huge swathes of the network down, leaving a handful of unconnected stubs of freight and tourist lines (that incredible section through the Copper Canyon still exists, thankfully). Watson’s train finally limps towards its destination on the shore, wheezing and rattling and spluttering and clanking, sounding in every way like a train on its very last journey. El Tren Fantasma may be no more, but by reappropriating its tracks Watson has engineered his own route, one which traces a fascinating track into Mexico’s industrial history – and beyond.

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Chris Watson and Marcus Davidson – Cross-Pollination

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Cross-pollination is the germination of one species using seed from another. More specifically, the name of this album comes from an event that was held on the South Bank a couple of years back, which sought to combine human voices with the sounds of insects to produce new musical hybrids. As part of this, the sound recordist Chris Watson and the composer Marcus Davidson created ‘The Bee Symphony’, which took recordings Watson and Touch’s Mike Harding had made at bee hives, and set them in a choral context. The production of this piece came at a time of increased focus on the relationship between bees and humans, thanks to the worldwide spread of Colony Collapse Disorder, the causes of which are still unclear, but which are more than likely man-made. A quote is famously (if perhaps erroneously) attributed to Albert Einstein in which he was purported to have claimed that if bees were to entirely disappear from the planet, then humans would be extinct within four years. Without their role in the pollination process, the plants which we rely on for food (or to feed the animals we rely on for food) could die out, with terrible consequences. It is an extreme example of how one species can not just make convenient use of another to prolong the life of its genetic material, but actually be entirely dependent on another for its continuation.

A version of ‘The Bee Symphony’ recorded at a later performance in York is is one of two pieces on this new CD released by Touch. The above context aside, there is a clear musical logic behind the work, with Davidson finding that the insects on Watson and Harding’s recordings “sang” in clusters around the note of A during the day, dropped down a semitone as the day progressed, and rose back to a stronger unison A when their hive was threatened. And so ‘The Bee Symphony’ begins with the bees buzzing tunefully and rhythmically amongst birds in the morning, human voices gradually mixing in – the singers are not imitating the bees, more finding their own harmonies, making notes and sounds that fit, from long fluctuating sequences to short clipped yelps. The symphony becomes noticeably darker and more sluggish later, the voices sliding down that semitone, the sound of the bees (the “drone drone”, if you will) now processed, becoming increasingly muffled and indistinct. Finally, both bees and humans are silenced. ‘The Bee Symphony’ isn’t just a third of an hour in the life of a bee, it is an entire life cycle in twenty minutes, and a stark warning about the fragility of ecosystems.

You can read similar themes into the other piece on Cross-Pollination, which is entitled ‘Midnight At The Oasis’. It isn’t a cover version of Maria Muldaur’s hit from 1974, you may or may not be pleased to hear, but rather a set of recordings from the Kalahari desert. Watson is famous for recording sounds that you just wouldn’t be able to hear with your own ears, but on ‘Midnight At The Oasis’ he is going further, to create an entire sonic event you couldn’t ever actually experience, by layering and concatanating an entire night’s worth of recordings into a continuous thirty minute piece (he did something similar with his rainforest installation ‘Whispering In The Leaves’ at Kew Gardens last year). Despite temperatures which can reach into the high forties celsius, the Kalahari is surprisingly full of nature, though its presence is felt more obviously in the welcome cool of the night. Flies dance wearily between the last rays of that raging-hot sun at the start, to be joined by birdsong and the onset of what is to become a very intense burst of insect stridulation. The desert floor seems to be teeming with an incredible variety of species, each with their own distinct sound, and the recordings are rich: full of different frequencies, and different pulsations. Some Japanese monks believe that the voice of Buddha speaks through crickets: listening to the immersive ‘Midnight In The Oasis’, I can certainly hear why they would choose to meditate to these sounds.

However, one thing you don’t hear on ‘Midnight At The Oasis’ is any human activity. You might think that was a given, because of the harshness of the location, but in fact the Kalahari desert is home to the San bushmen, one of the oldest genetically distinct races of human on the planet, with their own sonically fascinating language of click consonants. These people have long been completely dependent on the desert, on its climatic cycles, and on its vegetation and wildlife. However, this balance is under threat, with the Botswana government forcibly and illegally relocating them from their ancestral homeland so that they can make more money through exploiting its tourist potential. A tribe can live for millennia in the most unforgiving of conditions, and amongst some of the most dangerous animals on the planet: ultimately, their enemy is not nature, but other men. As ‘The Bee Symphony’ reminded us, perhaps the delicate harmony that exists between humankind and the environment is one that we should be leaving undisturbed.