What did the 7th Century sound like if you were a monk on Holy Island?
The answer can be found in Durham Cathedral where celebrated sound recordist Chris Watson has created an installation called In St Cuthbert’s Time – A 7th Century Soundscape of Lindisfarne.
In effect it’s an aural time machine.
Stand in the cathedral’s Chapel of the Holy Cross, close your eyes and you can listen yourself into the era of the saint and of Eadfrith, the scribe who wrote the Lindisfarne Gospels some 1,300 years ago.
Chris, who lives in Newcastle and has travelled the world recording wildlife, is currently a fellow at Durham University’s Institute of Advanced Study.
“Part of the brief of my fellowship is to look at the sounds of time,” he said yesterday.
“When I heard that the Lindisfarne Gospels were coming to the library on the other side of Palace Green, I thought there’s an interesting connection here.
“Over the last 20 years I’ve spent a lot of time recording wildlife on Lindisfarne for my own pleasure or for TV and radio. It’s a very sound-rich environment and the wildlife there is spectacular.”
Taking advantage of the research facilities available to him, Chris sought experts such as archaeologist Dr David Petts and Dr Fiona Gameson, a specialist in Anglo Saxon history, to find out about life in the 8th Century.
“We often think of ancient times as being silent,” he said. “They weren’t but we just can’t really imagine sounds that far back.”
Dr Gameson directed him to a text written by an Irish monk on Lindisfarne who recalled listening to the song of a cuckoo.
“I recorded a cuckoo on Lindisfarne last summer,” said Chris.
“In terms of evolution, 1,300 years is an infinitesimal time period.
“Obviously there are some differences between then and now but Lindisfarne is one of the few places that aren’t plagued by noise pollution, as we are in the city.
“What’s really interesting is what’s not there now.
“David Petts told me they’ve found lots of bones there from the animals people used to eat.
“They include the great auk. Obviously I don’t have a recording of that because it’s extinct. But they’ve also found the bones of red deer which have almost disappeared from Northumberland now.”
Chris has drawn on his archive of recordings to represent the changing seasons on Lindisfarne in a tranquil surround-sound performance which runs on a loop.
“It’s quiet sound, which might sound a bit perverse,” he said. “But I find the way to engage people is not to blast them with sound but to encourage them to listen.”
Chris learned that the Lindisfarne Gospels would not have been written in a stone building because there weren’t any. Eadfrith would have settled to his task each day in a wooden structure “something like a lean-to”.
Because candles were incredibly expensive, it’s likely he would have worked during daylight hours.
Chris sees no mystery in the proliferation of birds and animals on the book’s illustrated pages. The sight and sound of them would have been Eadfrith’s constant companions as he laboured with his quill.
To those of us who can’t remember the last time we heard a cuckoo, Chris’s installation will seem poignant. So too will his observation that the dramatic decline in our native wildlife has happened not in the last 1,300 years but in the last 130.
A man who professes to dislike noise and laments our lack of ‘earlids’ to screen out the cacophony of modern life nevertheless urges us “to open your ears and listen. Become aware of your environment.”
Chris’s wildlife sounds have found fans across the world, with artist Yoko Ono recently buying his recording of Tyneside kittiwakes.
You can travel with him to the 7th Century by visiting In St Cuthbert’s Time any day (10am to 4pm) until September 30.
Visit today and you will find an ambient contrast to Durham City’s noisy Streets of Brass attraction. Admission to the installation is free but you can order a CD of the recording from www.touchmusic.org.uk