Cabaret Voltaire founder Chris Watson introduces Whispering in the Leaves installation at Kew Gardens

By Ben Miller | 28 May 2010
A photo of a man in a suit standing in a garden on a sunny day

Installation: Whispering in the Leaves, The Palm House, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, until August 2010

"It's four o'clock in the morning when you first start to hear the ticking sound of some unknown insect," Chris Watson tells us, as we crane to hear the sound trickling through the trees.

"Then, before dawn, the birdsong starts. The birds seem to anticipate the sunrise. Very quickly other things wake up and start responding. You can hear the first primals to wake up, the Black Howler Monkeys, calling to each other to cross the canopy.

"Then the first insects, a wave of cicadas, start. The whole idea is that you sense it all as one source of sound, as in the real world, and you hear things off in the distance, behind you or to one side."

Walking through a recreation of the dense Amazonian rainforest in Kew's Palm House, you'd never suspect Watson's tour was powered by 80 perfectly placed speakers, cunningly hidden in the undergrowth.

A photo of green leaves under shadows in a greenhouse

Image: Sean Thamer

Better known for founding avant-garde legends Cabaret Voltaire more than 30 years ago, Watson is also arguably the greatest natural history sound recordist alive, winning multiple awards along the way (his place in the Guardian's 1,000 Albums to Hear Before you Die, for 2003's Weather Report, quoted his desire to "put a microphone where you can't put your mouth.")

Two years ago he was commissioned to travel through Central and South America to create an installation for Sunderland's Winter Garden, spending weeks watching darkness shift to daylight from Panama to Venezuela.

"There's the mournful hoot of doves, and these birds called Montezuma Oropendols, which build these hanging nests," he says, drawing us to another corner of the sweltering greenhouse.

"I was talking to a scientist in Porto Rico who said you can't walk 500 feet without seeing something you've never seen before."

A photo of a large wide glass house on a lawn on a sunny day

The Palm House at Kew

Hearing Watson evoke his sonic collaboration with the wild feels equally otherworldly. Echoing around the building at hourly intervals – dawn between 10am and 1pm, evening between 2pm and 5pm – the soundscapes condense a day in the tropics into 18-minute movements.

"It's equally important to not have sound for the remaining 42 minutes of each hour," he adds. "Otherwise it just becomes wallpaper."

In the first half, we encounter White Faced Monkeys and the eventual cessation of roars and cackles as the beasts disappear to feed under the oppressive daylight, but the second piece takes on a more sinister complexion as darkness falls, becoming a place, Watson warns, where we "quite rightly fear to tread".

"All of a sudden it's dangerous," he says, describing reptiles, snakes, amphibians and poisonous insects under a muted, airless sky.

Thunder surrounds us courtesy of subwoofers at one point, and Watson captured torrents of rain by hiding under the "perfect umbrellas" of banana trees.

A photo of a man in a suit standing in a greenhouse full of tropical trees

Chris Watson inside The Palm House, where his installation will be interpreted with guides for visitors

"The less direct sound you hear, the more realistic it is," he says. "The sounds should fill the space rather than be played at you." Ever the experimental perfectionist, Watson's sleight of hand seems to give him particular satisfaction.

"What the sound does is complement the building. It's funny, the other day there was a school group in and I heard one of the children run back to their tutor and say 'where have all the animals gone?' You don't actually know you're listening to it."

In Sunderland, organisers wanted to buy the piece outright. When it went to a pyramidal glasshouse in Western Australia last year, requests to reproduce it on a CD were turned down by Watson.

"The whole point is the spatial aspect of it," he explains. "The thing I like about the installations I get to do is that you cannot realise them in any other way.

"I really like the exclusivity of it – if you want to hear it, you've got to come here and experience it."

The project is presented by Sound and Music and Forma. Visit Whispering in the Leaves online to listen to clips of the installation and find out more.

Peruse the online programme for a full list of accompanying events and more about Kew Gardens.

Watch Chris talk about Whispering in the Leaves in our exclusive videos:

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