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Chris Watson - El Tren Fantasma

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Artist: Chris Watson

Album: El Tren Fantasma

Label: Touch

Review date: Jan. 13, 2012

Eric Dolphy famously said, “When you hear music, after it’s over, it’s gone, in the air. You can never capture it again.” It’s a poetic statement, but in some ways, he was quite wrong. Dolphy left us way too soon, and while we don’t have him playing in the same room with us, I’m sure glad he left some recordings behind. El Tren Fantasma likewise brings back the sounds of something that has passed and makes them meaningful now.

Chris Watson (ex-Cabaret Voltaire and Hafler Trio) is the dean of environmental recording; his previous Touch releases include compelling audio experiences constructed from the captured and rearranged sounds of bees, storms, vultures and icebergs. The events that yielded those sounds are long gone, and so it is with the source recordings of El Tren Fantasma. Watson obtained them over the course of a five-week residency he spent in the late 1990s aboard a train slowly traversing Mexico from Las Mochis to Veracruz. The line was about to close down, and in honor of its impending demise, the railroad pulled some old engines out of mothballs and permitted an episode of the BBC documentary Great Railway Journeys to be made about it. Watson supplied the audio for that episode (although not the available YouTube clips, which arbitrarily combine some other audio with the documentary’s footage), and now, over a decade later, he’s made his own music from the dead voice of the Ferrocarriles Nacionales de México.

You might think it a stretch to call recordings of moving trains, station announcers, trackside wildlife, and the passage of breezes through trees "music," but Watson is no mere documentarian. He captures (or enhances) sounds in three dimensions, and the way he arranges them invites both immersion and reflection. You can marinate in the rich variety of non-human sounds -- wind and insects and birds -- that you might be able to listen to all day besides these now-disused tracks. You can ponder the relative smallness of human presence as a whistle sounds in the distance, or crank up the hi-fi and get bowled over by the clatter of wheels on tracks. You can dig the clickety-clack groove, or find poetry in the sounds’ suggestions. Only once, on “El Divisidero,” does Watson process the sounds to hint at instrumental play. But throughout you can perceive the composer’s hand, and consider our fortune that he snatched these sounds out of the air and brought them to us.

By Bill Meyer

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