January 25, 2013 7:14 pm

A walk with the FT: In Britten’s footsteps

Sound recordist Chris Watson tunes into the Suffolk soundscape that inspired the composer
The old railway path, just north of Aldeburgh©Rob Ball

The old railway path, just north of Aldeburgh

One moment we are listening to widgeon ducks whistling from the wetlands to our right. The next we are stopped in our tracks by a wren sounding the alarm at our approach. The sound recordist Chris Watson and I are a couple of miles north of the Suffolk seaside town of Aldeburgh, and already the quietness of our rural surroundings has revealed all sorts of sounds. “Silence is oppressive but quietness isn’t,” says Watson. “Silence doesn’t exist in the natural world.” Next Friday, Watson’s In Britten’s Footsteps premieres as part of Aldeburgh Music’s year-long Britten Centenary celebrations. The piece is a season-by-season introduction to the habitats familiar to Benjamin Britten, reprising the sounds that surrounded him on his “composing walks”, and serving as an aural route-map today.

We have been following an old railway path, the very footprint of civilisation, but the natural world is all around us, making up what Watson describes as “a mosaic of habitats”. Classic Suffolk heathland, marshland, reed beds, open patches with trees and bushes – each contributes to a subtle winter soundscape, filtered through the soughing wind and a rumble of waves on the distant shore. As might be expected of territory that includes a nature reserve as well as intensive farmland, exotic migratory birds rub shoulders with jackdaws and other permanent residents.

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The sights and sounds we are witnessing, says Watson, are almost exactly the same as Britten (1913-76) would have seen and heard on his after-lunch walks 50 years ago. Britten’s walks were integral to his composition technique: “The actual writing on paper is not the moment of inspiration,” he once said. “I do 99 per cent of my work thinking about it – walking and so forth.”

The walk on which Watson and I have embarked takes in many of the paths Britten would have followed – starting from The Red House, the composer’s modest red-brick villa (now home to the Britten archive), which stands in a cul-de-sac on the edge of Aldeburgh, away from prying eyes. “Britten was an intensely private man, but he would tell his inner circle about his walks,” says Watson, whose list of credits includes David Attenborough’s BBC television series The Life of Birds and Frozen Planet.

Watson, who was born in Sheffield, spent childhood holidays in Suffolk. His interest in sound recording began at the age of 11, when his parents bought him a portable tape-recorder: he would place the microphone on the bird-table outside his home, run inside and eavesdrop on the birds. Using tape and other electronic techniques, Watson initially made his name in the 1970s as a musician in the experimental band Cabaret Voltaire.

Chris Watson©Rob Ball

Chris Watson

“But I became more interested in sounds outside [the studio] than the ones we were creating inside,” he explains. Thanks to a professional training in sound design and recording, he was able to turn his wildlife pursuits into a career when he quit the band. After stints in independent television and the film unit of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, he started working in the late 1980s with the BBC Natural History Unit, which led to his ongoing collaboration with Attenborough.

Our approach to the railway path, pointing us north, takes us on a right-of-way over Aldeburgh’s golf course, across the road to Leiston and along a track towards open heathland. That leads us to the “hollow way” – once home to the single-line railway from Aldeburgh to the village of Thorpeness. Continuing past an almost flooded plain, where hundreds of yapping pink-footed geese are grazing on shortgrass, we stumble across a derelict slab of platform belonging to the old Thorpeness station.

“Britten would start work at 8am and then, after a proper lunch, he’d go for a walk for an hour or 90 minutes, during which he would mull over the music he had written that morning. He would then come back and revise it,” says Watson, who gleaned his information from a variety of sources, including Rita Thomson, the composer’s nurse in his final years. “He was a keen amateur ornithologist and an intense listener, even while thinking about something else. It wasn’t a brisk walk – it was more considered. Distance was less important than the quality of time spent outside.”

After following a concrete farm track that takes us past coniferous woodland and through the bracken and birch scrub of Aldringham Heath, we turn east towards the coast. The dome of Sizewell nuclear power station looms to the north. “You don’t need a map now,” says Watson. “The shingle shore gives a signature sound.”

The shingle shore near Aldeburgh and Thorpeness©Rob Ball

The shingle shore near Aldeburgh and Thorpeness "gives a signature sound", says Chris Watson

Suddenly we are on top of it – exchanging woodland for a grandstand seascape in the blink of an eye. Watson points to some breaking waves half a mile out: “You can see the action of the longshore drift, dragging the shingle, sand and sediment south to Orford Ness.”

Now at our halfway point, we head back along the collapsing cliff front – frequented by Britten when he needed to escape the pressure-cooker of the festival he founded, sometimes picnicking with friends on the heath. Having been drenched by a brief shower, we are consoled by a glimpse of blue sky and a spectacular rainbow. Then, passing a loose agglomeration of seaside houses, we espy The Meare, the artificial lake that was a favourite stopping point for Britten in his later years, when he and his partner Peter Pears took afternoon excursions by car.

“We are now exiting Britten’s hidden Suffolk world and heading into the world everybody knows,” observes Watson, as we follow the wide coastal path parallel to the Aldeburgh road. But to return to our starting point, we need one final fling with solitary nature. Admiring Aldeburgh’s church spire silhouetted against a Turner-esque sky, we cross the road at the Old Sluice House and head inland on a raised path bisecting North Warren nature reserve. The railway path hoves again into view and, four hours after setting off, we quickly, contentedly retrace our steps to The Red House.

Andrew Clark is the FT’s chief music critic.

Chris Watson’s sound work “In Britten’s Footsteps” is premiered on Friday February 1 as part of Aldeburgh Music’s PLACE weekend, which runs 1 – 3 February. www.aldeburgh.co.uk/britten

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