|The audience at Chris Watson’s Okeanos at Ambika P3
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2015. All Rights Reserved
Chris Watson’s Okeanos
(Ambika P3, 14 December 2015; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)
The world premiere of Chris Watson’s Okeanos, commissioned by London Contemporary Music Festival, is about the sound of the sea – but not quite as you’ve ever heard it before. Okeanos was something of a voyage, both for Watson, who crossed the globe from Antarctica via the Australian coast and the Carribbean to Lofoten in northern Norway and Iceland, recording the sounds of the ocean, and for the sell-out audience immersed for an hour in the massive sound chamber of Ambika-P3, this year’s festival venue, to experience the 8-channel distillation of Watson’s explorations.
Okeanos is a giant leap from the short recordings he made at depths of 3 and 10 metres for Oceanus Pacificus, his 7 inch vinyl with its locked grooves, for Touch. There was also a feeling that Watson might have taken a leaf out of the ‘Deep Listening’ book of Pauline Oliveros.
It was curiously serendipitous that that the launch of Okeanos, which focused intensely on the acoustic minutiae of ‘Planet Ocean’ coincided with the launch of the British astronaut, Tim Peake, in to space, to which the attention of millions was directed.
‘We live on Planet Ocean,’ said Watson, in his illuminating introduction, describing his use of hydrophones to capture the integrity of remote and deeply submerged locations, often in extreme climatic and environmental conditions – at 80 degrees South, he remarked, when there is 24 hour daylight the top temperature is 20 below zero.
Watson explained that sound travels five times faster through water than through air, hence he was able to record animal calls transmitted through the ocean from 20 kilometres distant. His recordings caught the grinding of immense ice masses, the crackling soundtrack of minute crustaceans, the shuffling of penguins on the Ross ice shelf and the songs of seven tonne orca whales and 900 pound seals in the Arctic.
‘I regard this as a piece of music,’ he stated, and indeed the final form of this commission far exceeded the sum of the myriad parts which constituted Watson’s raw material.
From lapping water, clicks, crackles and rushing currents a roaring, deep-heated blast of drag-racer intensity emerged. It might have been Santa Pod or Silverstone. An insistent momentum was maintained with a constant, deep pulsing sub-rhythm, the unceasing heartbeat of the oceans, countering expectations of a soundtrack of calm trickles and eddies.
The fast-moving pace would briefly ease off and then be overtaken by gusts and rumbles from the deep with overlays of lowing, bellows and squeals, flocks in flight, whistling and rib-shaking vibrations as gigantic slabs of ice sheared, cracked and grated. The circular process of continually melting and freezing liquids added to the tensions.
Much more than a montage, the combined density of sound layers of Okeanos created a magnificent portrait of the ocean’s enormity and power and of the life forces within it.