Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Chris Watson & BJ Nilsen - Storm

On August 20th 1907 German expressionist poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote 'Die Insel' ('The Island'), a triptych of sombre poems on Pellworm, one of the Frisian Islands.

In these poems, the elemental force of the North Sea - floods and storm - is associated with blindness, darkness, death, nothingness. The lonely life of the inhabitants of the tiny Frisian island Rilke writes about, is touched by this force: "its inhabitants who were born / into a sleep in which many worlds / are silently confused, for they rarely speak, / and every phrase is like an epitaph / for something washed up on shore, unknown, / that inexplicably comes to them and remains." In the last lines of the third and final poem, in lines which remind of Nietzsche's aphorism 'The Madman', the island itself is presented as adrift in cosmic darkness, "not in the plans of planets, suns and systems".

Storm is a cd of field recordings of North Sea storms by Chris Watson and BJ Nilsen. It consists of carefully edited and layered recordings of North Sea storms, made over a period of five years. The first track ('No Man's Land) was created by Watson; the second track ('SIGWX') is a collaborative effort; and the third and final track ('Austrvegr') was created by Nilsen.

The album paints a sound picture of the North Sea that is as ominous as Rilke's poems. The icy wind is harsher than the coldest Black Metal noise; the geese murmur and grunt, the seagulls shriek and the seals jabber as if they are all moonsick; the waves crash and the sea churns and rages and roils relentlessly. That no human sound is to be heard on 'Storm' only adds to the sense of desolation. The sound of 'Storm' is the sound one might hear on a rough night on that ‘long stretch of shore--shingle edged by sand, and intersected at short intervals with black groynes running down to the water’, the ‘bleak stage’ on which ‘no actor was visible’, and defined by ‘the absence of any landmark’, of M.R. James' ghost story ‘Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad’.

The liner notes to the cd, released on Touch Records, reflect the foreboding atmosphere:

"Late October on the strands of Budle Bay where dense layers of transient alien voices are swamped by a full moon tide creeping across the island’s silver causeway. Now lapping out of the gathering gloom an immersive sea wash is filling then draining away carrying slow currents from here to another place. There are no reference points in this darkness."


"A black ruthless sea. Heavy winds making it impossible to stand up straight, icy rain hitting your face like needles."

That Watson and Nilsen produce such a grim orchestration of field recorded sounds is not so surprising if one considers their antecedents. Chris Watson was a member of Cabaret Voltaire - cyberpunks avant la lettre, whose electronic dadaist cut-ups presented a bleak, oppressive vision of Thatcherite England. BJ Nilsen started out as Morthound. His first album was Black Romantic ambient and bore the title 'This Crying Age' . It was released on the Swedish label Cold Meat Industry ('Your Haunting Nightmare since 1987'), a label responsible for such releases as MZ412's 'Burning the Temple of God'.

Of course, the appreciation of storms as dramatic, as a sublime phenomenon is bound up with man's technological progress: with the industrial revolution came the introduction of steam-powered engines on board ships and the construction of iron and then steel hulls, and these gave humankind the illusion of rational control over nature. This made it possible to reduce nature to an object of aesthetic contemplation. No longer were the seas perilous to cross; they now became aesthetic spectacles. In a sense, 'Storm' is to storms and the sea what Swiss Black Metal band Paysage D'Hiver is to winter landscapes and mountains.

But the fact that it's aesthetic experience is historically determined in no way lessens my enjoyment of 'Storm'. Only for an withered, anaemic mentality would the fact that this aesthetic is bound up with an historical, cultural and social context be a reason for reluctance to love and enjoy this beautiful album. Such reluctance would be as senseless as complaining that the cathedrals were built in the middle ages.

The aesthetic concept of the sublime is not merely an abstract intellectual construction, far from the confusing and muddying effects of human experience. The sublime is also a historically, culturally and socially grounded method for intoxication, a set of practical waymarks and contextual clues leading to an experience which makes the air one breathes invigorating. It leads towards an experience at the extreme limit of the possible: "Strangely, from your little island in space, you were gone forth into the dark, great realms of time, where all the souls that never die veer and swoop on their vast, strange errands. The little earthly island has dwindled, like a jumping-off place, into nothingness, for you have jumped off, you know not how, into the dark wide mystery of time, where the past is vastly alive, and the future is not separated off." (D.H. Lawrence, 'The Man Who Loved Islands').


See also this (more conventionally beautiful than sublime) precursor to 'Storm', at the ever-interesting audio blog 'A Closet of Curiosities'.

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