Chris Watson, sound recordist
Sound recordist Chris Watson – a founding member of the band Cabaret Voltaire – has been on a mission to make us stop and listen to the world since his childhood. The more you do it, the deeper, more powerful the experience, he insists. ‘It’s so easy to do, too…’
What does the world sound like? It’s a question that is childlike in its simplicity: naive, unknowing, unanswerable. But do we ever really think about what we hear? We let sound work away in the background as our other senses work overtime, our minds clicking, thrumming, popping, whirring, never off, always on. Somewhere in the middle of all that, in the distance, the world keeps on singing to us.
Chris Watson listens. He has listened since adolescence, when his parents bought him his first reel-to-reel tape recorder. He listened as a founder member of Sheffield performance art experimentalists Cabaret Voltaire, using his recordings in the studio, and then spending his downtime in the hills, moors and valleys around his home city. He has listened throughout an extraordinary career in TV and radio sound, working nose-to-jowl with all manner of creatures in all manner of landscapes, alongside rare British wildlife – including one Sir David Attenborough. He has made five solo albums of field recordings, five albums in collaboration with other musicians, and created many experimental installations and site-specific projects. It seemed appropriate then that, when we spoke to him, it was down a phone line, while on location, during a rain enforced break between recordings…
What are you listening to today?
‘I’ve just been recording some ants and aquatic insects in a park in Newcastle for a radio programme. But it started to chuck it down, so we’ve just taken a bit of shelter.’
Your working hazards must be unlike other people’s…
‘Yeah, you have to work with the weather and try not to battle it, otherwise it gets really frustrating!’
When did you start to become interested in the sound of nature?
‘When my parents bought me my reel-to-reel tape recorder – I was about 11 or 12. That was absolutely the moment when I started not just to hear the world, but listen to it, in a much more engaged way. I can’t remember why they bought me it, and I didn’t ask for it either. I’ve still got it in my studio. It reminds me every day of where I started.’
You started, as it were, in Totley, on the borders of Sheffield and the Peak District side of Derbyshire…
‘Yes, but I was actually born in the middle of Sheffield. My father was in the fire service, so for the first couple of years of my life I lived in a fire station, which would have been amazing, but I don’t remember any of it. So Totley is where I grew up, which must have been a real breath of fresh air to my parents. I could see the countryside from my bedroom window, so I just naturally started to migrate, to explore those places with my friends, and eventually to do that with a tape recorder.’
Chris Watson’s definitive top ten sounds…
1. Whimbrel flight song, Iceland
2. Icebergs splitting at Jokulsarlon, Iceland
3. My grandson Freddie’s laughter
4. Dawn chorus in Kielder forest, Northumberland
5. Aquatic invertebrate songs in Exhibition Park lake, Newcastle upon Tyne, via my DPA hydrophones
6. Dry grasses singing in a warm breeze, The Temple of Demeter, Eluesis, Greece
7. Summer insect chorus in the forests of Estonia
8. Blackbird song in my back garden, Newcastle upon Tyne
9. Arucaria forest chorus, Patagonia, Argentina
10. Recording a Shakuhachi flute player at Urchin Studios, London
Can you describe that landscape for anyone who doesn’t know it…
‘Derbyshire has a lot of low hills, millstone grit and moorland, and deep valleys with woodland. From my house, I could see this fantastic patch of upland hills – not huge hills, but they were covered in heather, surrounded by rough grassland and marsh. It really did seem, as a teenager, a wild place to explore. Nearby there were also really steep-sided, dense, wooded valleys full of wildlife; birds in particular. Now, everyone knows that Sheffield is there because of the five rivers, but that downfall of water off the moorland and through the valleys is what powered the industry. I still find it fascinating that everything going on in the industrial East End of the city, which had this almost absolute disconnection from the wildness of the landscape, was actually being powered by this landscape.’
What did capturing sound mean to you back then?
‘When I was first starting out, I was fascinated that I could record up at Froggatt Edge [in the Peak District] and then bring those sounds back home with me, and play them. I still find that a remarkable, magical process. I also find it amazing how sounds, like your sense of smell, can trigger memory in a really powerful way. I’ve got so many recordings that aren’t properly documented, but as soon as I play them back, I can remember details of where I was. A few years ago [in 1998], I made a documentary called Outside the Circle of Fire – going back to places near where I’d grown up. The sounds of meadow pipits and curlew and redshank, golden plover and skylark immediately took me back to those times when I was exploring them for the first time. With sound, you can regress, almost.’
Where is your favourite place now?
‘Where I live, Northumberland. In lots of areas, it’s very wild and very unpopulated. I migrate back to locations that are like those of my childhood, really, and the industrial triangle of Sheffield, Stoke and Manchester is so busy now; the Peak District is completely overcrowded by people wanting to visit it. And why shouldn’t they? But because of the huge centres of population all the way around it, it’s under a lot of people-pressure. Northumberland’s not like that. It’s probably one of the least populated parts of England. And yet Geordies would mostly rather go shopping!’
What in particular do you like about the county?
‘It’s a remarkable mosaic of habitats. The Northumberland coast is stunningly beautiful, especially around the Farne Islands – the Galapagos of the North, they’re called. We have spectacular moorlands around Hexhamshire Common and Falstone Moss, with an incredible density of birds up there in spring. And then there are places like Kielder Forest, the largest man-made forest in Britain, with very, very few people in it; a really rich, diverse habitat that’s planted upon ancient moorland where the Border Reivers once ranged. I go back to the moorlands the most, though. I love the memory in landscape, I really do.’
You’ve always enjoyed bringing sound and image together. This summer, you exhibited at the National Gallery show, Soundscapes, with a 45-minute birdsong soundtrack to accompany Akseli Gallen-Kallela’s painting Lake Keitele (1905). Was the aim to get people to sit back, to stop and to look?
‘Very much so. I’ve always been really interested in the idea of sound conjuring up images anyway, and the National Gallery was interested in finding ways to engage people to stand for rather longer in front of their paintings. They’d done this survey and found that the average time anybody spent in front of some of the most remarkable paintings in the National Gallery – a Turner, a Constable or a Monet – was something like four seconds, which is extraordinary. Obviously, they want to change that! I tried to create a soundtrack that would have perhaps surrounded the painter, to simply put the listener as well as the viewer on the shores of the lake, to get them right into it.’
It seems you also try to do this in your TV and radio work, too. Did you have that approach to your work from the off?
‘I did – and I was lucky because I did my training at Tyne Tees Television in the 1980s. There, I did everything from recording specific sounds on location during the miners’ strike, which was a real eye-opener, through to going to Jamaica and working with Lee Perry at the remains of the Black Ark studios. Or I’d be on Farming Outlook three or four days a week for a month exploring the Northumberland countryside, then be back doing post-production work in the studios on a film about John Martyn for The Tube. It was really good, really useful training, and they let me be creative.’
Has sound in TV changed much?
‘Sadly not, really. Put the television on tonight and watch… well, any documentary to a large extent, but particularly a natural history documentary, and nine out of ten of them will have dreadful music smeared all over them, music that is just there to cover up any creative ideas. It’s almost like putting on a random CD, usually of ghastly orchestral music. Very little’s changed in the 25 years since I started. There are very few directors working in wildlife and natural history who think creatively about sound. But the BBC does have Miles Barton and Peter Bassett – both series producer/directors – and Nigel Paterson, who works in the science unit. I made a film with Nigel earlier this year about the dawn chorus, for BBC4, which was a real revelation – it did massively well, but the great thing about sound is that people get it. Give people the right environment, present it properly, and sound really engages, because it strikes directly into our hearts and imaginations.’
Would you say your work is a mission in many ways?
‘It’s definitely working against the idea that some people find it very difficult to engage with sound, because many people nowadays don’t ever get out into the world and listen. I say: if you listen to the world for 10 seconds, it can be interesting. Listen to it for 10 minutes or longer, then you get a very different, deeper and more powerful experience of the thing. It’s so easy to do, too. If you only allow yourself time to stop and listen to the world, you’ll find it’s a much more interesting and engaging place than you might think.’