Caught by the River

David Attenborough & Chris Watson in Conversation

Diva Harris | 30th November 2017

CBTR HQ’s Diva Harris reports back from a very special evening at the British Library

I’m pretty sure I don’t know a single person who doesn’t love David Attenborough. At a time when my fellow millenials and I have rather a lot to lament — the expense of higher education and housing; the press bizarrely attributing our skintness to a supposed love of avocados and sandwiches — it’s pretty god damn glorious that all any of us seem to be talking about is Blue Planet II. On my most recent few nights down the pub, conversation has revolved around the intellect of octopuses; who the hell decided to call sea cucumbers sea cucumbers; the cuttlefish’s ability to change colour (“real-life Doctor Who shit”, according to one friend). Imagine my excitement, then, when I managed to wrangle myself a hot ticket to Monday night’s Longplayer Conversation between Attenborough and his long-term collaborator, field recordist extraordinaire and friend of the river Chris Watson, at the British Library.

Longplayer is a thousand-year-long musical composition which began playing at midnight on the 31st of December 1999, and will continue to play without repetition until the last moment of 2999, at which point it will start again. Conceived and composed by Jem Finer, it was originally produced as an Artangel commission, and is now in the care of the Longplayer Trust. According to the Longplayer website, despite being referred to as a piece of music, the preoccupations that led to its conception were not of a musical nature; they concerned time, as it is experienced and as it is understood from the perspectives of philosophy, physics and cosmology. The annual Longplayer Conversations are ‘a way of celebrating the vision behind Longplayer’s long-term aspirations’, by inviting speakers to ‘bring their personal experiences and expertise to bear on the theme of long time’.

This year’s Longplayer Conversation took place as part of the British Library’s ongoing Season of Sound — a celebration of its extensive sound archive, which simultaneously promotes its ‘Save our Sounds’ campaign: a drive to digitise the nation’s Sound Archives before they become too physically degraded or technologically antiquated to play. Attenborough, apparently, was one of the campaign’s earliest supporters.

Discussion between Attenborough and Watson centred on in their shared interests and experiences as sound recordists in the natural world. It is perhaps little-known that Attenborough made early and experimental forays into field recording in the 1950s, using some of the first portable sound recording equipment available anywhere in the world. The two chatted about and played recordings from some of their favourite joint projects from the last 20+ years, including a clip of termites producing a sound Watson likened to ‘a fight in the pub’, the haunting sound of bearded seals singing under dense layers of ice, and that of giant earthworms squelching as they retreated into the Southern Australian soil. Along the way were musings on the role of sound in foetal development, as well as on the importance of music — much of it regional or tribal — in the programmes the pair have made together over the years.

A personal highlight came at the talk’s end, when Attenborough recounted the previously unbroadcast story of a visit to Antarctica, where he was handed the keys to Captain Scott’s Terra Nova hut. Entering completely alone, he found it to have been perfectly preserved by the moistureless Antarctic air, ‘smelling of rope’, and still filled with packaging from the men’s provisions, as well as items of clothing and kit.

At the event’s finish, and just as I was wondering how the hell I could possibly condense an hour-and-a-half of joy into a 600-word writeup, I was delighted to learn that the whole evening had been filmed. Watch the video below.


The British Library’s free exhibition Listen: 140 Years of Recorded Sound, part of their Season of Sound, is on until May 2018. More information here.

Diva Harris on Caught by the River/on Twitter