Whispering in the Leaves

Martin CullingfordFri 28th May 2010
Victorian architecture meets the sounds of the rainforest (photo: Sean Thamer)Victorian architecture meets the sounds of the rainforest at Kew (photo: Sean Thamer)

Chris Watson brings the sounds of the rainforest to Kew

London gets a second major sound-art installation this year courtesy of Sound and Music, the body that emerged from the union two years ago of several contemporary music and sound organisations.

The first, Bill Fontana’s River Sounding, a sonic and film exploration of the River Thames, closes this weekend at Somerset House, just as Whispering in the Leaves opens at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew.

In some ways Chris Watson’s piece is a more “straight” work than River Sounding. Where Fontana created a sonic montage from both external and internal sounds of the Thames, Watson has tried to recreate his experience of standing in the rainforests of South and Central America.

He’s produced two sequences, Dawn, and Dusk – each lasting about 18 minutes and played on the hour as appropriate – which capture the intensely concentrated period of transition between darkness and daylight (and vice versa) in a rainforest. Ninety speakers are (largely) hidden throughout the Palm House, an iconic Victorian glass and iron structure, the sound being diffused throughout the space, the acoustic coloured by the humidity, curved surfaces and foliage. As in a rainforest itself, as Watson puts it, “you can hear everything and see virtually nothing”.

There are some quite extraordinary noises – the guttural croak of black howler monkeys, the short synthesiser-sounding bursts of the frogs, and the shimmering wall of insect noise which Watson says he hears almost like a chord, providing him with a rich harmonic context to build upon and around.

Subwoofers recreate a breaking tropical storm. Climbing up to the mezzanine level during the “rain” you hear the sounds of water striking the forest canopy and percolating down through the leaves (a particular challenge for Watson was capturing the actual noise of falling rain, as opposed to that of water hitting the microphone). When Dusk draws to a close, the relative quiet as the rain subsides affectingly recreates the sense of cleansing peace familiar to all caught in heavy rain in exposed locations – whether that be a rainforest or perhaps, from my more limited travels, the Peak District.

This enjoyable installation works well either as offering visitors an unexpected (or even perhaps for many an unconsciously absorbed) ambient context to the surrounding plants, or as an immersive cycle of sound to be listened to and explored.

Whispering in the Leaves is at Kew Gardens until September 5

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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