We usually recommend the physical copy due to its specific beauty, but in this case, we do so because of the liner notes. Students of history, tradition, and religion will cherish the efforts made by the authors to place this release in context. The 24-page booklet is both educational and entertaining, making In St. Cuthbert’s Time a complete multi-media work.
Here’s the short version: on this album, sound artist Chris Watson attempts to reflect the environment experienced by the monks of the Holy Island (two miles of the coast of Northumberland) in 700 A.D. The sea, the birds and the iron prayer bells worked their way into the margins of the Lindisfarne Gospels, while influencing the spiritual life of the island’s faithful. Their closeness with nature can barely be imagined today, as modern humans tend to retreat from nature save for occasional forays to the mountains or beach. The livelihood of the monks was tied to their immediate surroundings: grain and fruit, farm animals and fish. A good year meant a good harvest, but drought could decimate a community. In the eyes of the monks, God would provide or He would not; and they trusted in His care.
While Watson could not, for obvious reasons, duplicate the island’s medieval soundscape, In St. Cuthbert’s Time bears the sounds of avian descendants. Many of the same species still occupy the island: still migrate, still return. By dividing his recording into four parts, one for each season, Watson is able to position each sound in its proper place. “Winter” is marked by geese, ducks, and swans, “Lencten” (Spring) by skylarks, plovers and snipe. The Eider duck (later renamed Cuddy’s duck), featured prominently in “Lencten”, possesses a particularly human-like mating cry: “Aooo! Wooo!”, as far from a quack as one can imagine. A few subjects seem close enough to eat Watson’s microphone. The drumming of the snipe is also memorable, an arpeggio of airborne notes. We recommend this creature to Flaming Pines as a possible subject for a Birds of a Feather disc.
As “Sumor” approaches, the sounds of linnet and cuckoo are joined by those of insects and cattle, as the waves continue to lap all around. Angry terns defend their nest, and boy, do they sound mad. (If you’ve never experienced this, we have one piece of advice: wear a hat). Children who are listening will enjoy the cuckoos and cows, since they’re easy to identify. Additional points are awarded to any who can identify the yellowhammer at first cry. Finally comes “Haerfest”, with deer stags and grey seals, the latter a familiar subject for Watson. As the waves crash, the listener is reminded that the monks were isolated from the mainland by a fierce sea. The year is done, the cycle begins anew.
No planes are heard on the recording. These must have been hard to avoid, but the legitimacy of the soundscape would have been ruined had they been included. With many soundscapers bemoaning the lack of pure sonic environments, Watson’s disc is proof that one can still be captured: all it takes is the patience of a saint. The monks are honored by this respectful recreation. (Richard Allen)