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Chris Watson & Marcus Davidson - Cross-Pollination

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Artist: Chris Watson & Marcus Davidson

Album: Cross-Pollination

Label: Touch

Review date: Jul. 6, 2011

Marcus Davidson might be the guy who gets his name on the spine of this CD, but he wasn’t Chris Watson’s only collaborator in the making of Cross-Pollination -- he was just one of the only ones with two legs. Insects of many varieties make themselves heard on the album, both as performers and conceptual inspiration. The anonymous mass of African arthropods and English honeybees captured by Watson’s recordings are only part of the equation, of course: there’s editing, accompaniment and arrangement across the two tracks. The evidence of the human presence on the two tracks is palpably different, however, with the pieces exhibiting very different approaches to the intersection of nature and musician.

“Midnight at the Oasis” condenses a night in the Kalahari Desert into a half hour, the span between sunrise and sunset edited for dramatic effect. The animal comings and goings feel far more noticeable, the overnight movements fashioned into a smoother arc, rather like how time lapse photography can turn the seemingly chaotic jumble of rush hour pedestrian traffic into a beautiful exhibition of large-scale choreography. Birds are a heavy presence at both ends of the piece, but it’s the bevy of African bugs that keep things going throughout the night. The buzzing, whirring, and chirping of the insects reaches surprisingly intense proportions at times, a biological blueprint for the high-pitched extremities plied by some of today’s most aurally invasive human artists. Watson’s chosen spot is a busy one, especially as dawn approaches and the birds make themselves more plentiful; there’s even an appearance from what sounds like a late-night storm.

Save for the more exotic bits, like the calls of hyenas that whoop like solos behind the crickets’ chorus, there’s much that will sound familiar, even to those listeners who reside halfway around the world. Watson’s build a beautiful tapestry, and while we don’t all have the South African desert in our backyard, this is the sort of music that attunes one’s ears to their surroundings: the everyday hubbub beyond our speakers becomes its own brand of music, coming to life as Watson’s Kalahari convocation fades.

Watson and Marcus Davidson team up for a far more explicitly conceptual application of natural sound on “The Bee Symphony.” The piece pairs Watson and Mike Harding’s recordings of English garden beehives with a score, penned by Davidson, that attempts to recreate the apian output with the human voice. The thrum of the bees is a dynamic backdrop for Davidson’s Bee Choir; it’s an incredibly dense mass of activity that’s both accompaniment and inspiration for the quintet. The vocals were composed to mimic the actual sounds made by the bees, with Davidson transcribing the teeming buzz, arranging things so that the choir would be, in a sense, singing along with the bees in real time. The drone of the bees is sometimes represented by extended notes from the choir, while at other times, the vocals swoop and swirl more dramatically, like melodic fragments amidst the bees’ unwavering buzz.

What’s most frustrating about “The Bee Symphony” is how often one wishes the voices weren’t even in the mix: even at their strongest, the choir is seemingly at a loss to recreate the intricacy of the hives’ busy clamor, and while there are satisfying moments in which the drone of human and bee intersect in a beautifully woven stream, too much of the human input feels performative and staged, and thereby weaker against the backdrop of the bees, whose buzzing is a minimalism more compelling than much of that’s come from the hands of humans. It’s an interesting piece to be sure, but, for my money, it can’t match the simple magic of “Midnight at the Oasis.” In a comparison of its two tracks, Cross-Pollination illustrates an idea that resonates far beyond the world of music: the natural world is usually best experienced without too many human fingerprints.

By Adam Strohm

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