Caught by the River

El Tren Fantasma: Live At The Bluecoat, Liverpool

9th February 2012

Review by Rebecca Harvey

Even when it’s quiet, there is sound. Wind still whispers, glaciers groan and your own heart beats. No one knows this better than Chris Watson – he of Cabaret Voltaire and Natural World; a strange CV, but one entirely assembled around sound. Here is someone who walks around with his ears open, listening not just to language and music, but to the elements behind them, the mechanics and organics, recreating a new language, a new music.

His work with the BBC’s Natural history unit is well-documented (from Springwatch to Frozen Planet), but over the years he has also released collections of his own field recordings – the most recent of which is El Tren Fantasma, The Ghost Train. There have been reviews aplenty of the album itself, but last week Watson was at The Bluecoat arts centre in Liverpool to present the UK live premier of this epic train journey across Mexico, alongside a new soundtrack to an avant garde video performance piece by Gina Czarnecki.

But how would a live performance of El Tren Fantasma work? By its very nature, listening to such a submersive aural piece is very personal – and an arts centre isn’t the first place you would think to head to enjoy a solo trip along the now defunct Mexican line from Los Mochis on the Pacific West coast, to Veracruz on the East. But, as he said when introducing the piece, the sound set up and acoustics you can achieve with the space and speakers of a prepared performance studio ups the scale of what you hear. “This is the first time,” he said, “that it’s being heard in the UK the way it was intended to be heard. So sit back and imagine you’ve poured yourself a tequila sunrise, and are taking a first class seat on the ghost train.”

The intensity of sound was astounding. It backed you into a bubble that became wholly occupied by the sights and smells conjured up by the complex interweaving sounds and textures. The train becomes a giant instrument, steaming across a crease in the landscape, the ricketty-racket of the train tracking the breadth of Mexico, beating a tattoo that Aphex Twin would be proud of. Of course that breakneck beat is just a train; that multi-tonal drone is muted metal on metal, the perfect harmonics and melodies are brakes and bells and the passenger chatter-natter is singing cicadas… But the clarity of individual sounds that such a scale of presentation gives, simultaneously enhances the overall journey – you see the woods as well as the trees, and over the course of the trip through forests and mountains and cities, the sounds become more than a sum of their parts.

The only problem with the performance was the images they were presented alongside – a huge floor to ceiling projection showed stills that bore little relation to what was being heard, and which instead rudely intruded on the cocoon woven by the story of the sound – an unnecessary attempt to reduce the ambiguity of location. Take away them, and the contrived train announcements that bookended the performance (and the album), and you have something startlingly good. Speaking to him afterwards, Watson worked out that he had over 100 hours of original material to sift and shape, and to render something so perfectly structured is a real feat – made all the more impressive with live mixing on the night for a seamless 40 minutes.

Ghosts are a recurring theme in Chris Watson’s work – apart from the Ghost Train, he also did a recent Radio 4 piece on starlings in the abandoned ballroom of the West Pier in Brighton titled The Ghost Roost. He records and recreates moments as a memorial, a memory of the temporary and the no more, bottling live events in their last moments, that once captured, are extinct. The preserved remains of a moment, a raindrop, a train journey fossilised in audio.

Copies of El Tren Fantasma are on sale in the Caught by the River shop, priced £11.