Chris Watson: The Power of Sound
From making experimental industrial music to recording sounds for David Attenborough's BBC wildlife television programmes, and the World of Warcraft game, one thing unifies the career of influential British sound artist and field recordist Chris Watson: the power of sound.
|Words: LUKE TURNER|
Newcastle's Town Moor is a visually incongruous place. A skylark rises towards clammy spring clouds as a police helicopter circles a thousand feet above it. To the south, cows graze in front of a 1960s tower block. Yet what overwhelms the eyes can be even more astonishing in the ears, which is why sound recordist Chris Watson has made these 400 hectares of common land just minutes from Newcastle city centre the subject of his latest installation, The Town Moor - A Portrait In Sound. His collage of recordings is played back via an array of Ambisonic surround sound speakers in the Tyneside Cinema, a 15-minute walk away from the quasi-rural landscape. "You only have to stand in the Town Moor for an hour and there'll be cyclists, children, birds, pumping music on the threshold of pain played through these lo-fi sound systems at the fairground," Watson enthuses in the cinema's noisy bar; "you get all these perspectives from this huge palette of sound".
Watson's sonic landscape paintings began at the age of twelve when his parents bought him a battery-powered reel-to-reel tape recorder. During the 1970s, as part of experimental music and art group Cabaret Voltaire, he constructed danceable musique concrète from the decaying industrial heritage of Sheffield. After quitting the group in 1981 Watson took a job recording sound for Tyne Tees Television, which led to work in film and television, including the David Attenborough series' for which he's best known. Alongside this have been albums for the Touch label, including El Tren Fantasma, made up of the clanking of a defunct Mexican mountain railway. "I'm a sound recordist, I just get the opportunity to apply it across several different mediums," Watson says, insisting that "there's no separation between the different things I do".
The vast archive of sounds Watson has amassed over the years is eminently adaptable to this cross-media approach. Late last year he brought Okeanos, a vivid collage of his recordings from the world's seas, to the 13,000 square metre concrete cavern of Imperial College's Ambika Hall laboratory for the London Contemporary Music Festival. "The ocean is not only the largest habitat we've got, it's also the most sound-rich," Watson says, "They're yet to discover a deaf sea animal. They all live in this world which is suffused with sound and vibration". He's even worked on computer game World Of Warcraft, under a brief to provide "exotic sounds". An initial collection of tropical oddities from the jungles of Borneo were rejected, so Watson sent over audio files of blackbirds and frogs from his back garden: "they said 'oh these are great' and went for all these suburban Newcastle sounds for this exotic, sci-fi world."
The impact of Watson's work comes from this knack of making what might superficially appear to be everyday sounds become extraordinary. It's helped by his quiet Yorkshire enthusiasm explaining his techniques - he always has a microphone on him, for fear of missing something, and admits that "I've made some of my best recordings naked, standing up in bed." The Watson family have a Christmas tradition of staking out the turkey carcass in the garden to test contact microphones, recording starling beaks grating across bone. Contact mics were again used to capture the "wonderful buzzing, rattling bottom end sound" of dung flies on the Town Moor's cow pats for an installation in the reception area of Newcastle's BBC radio station. Stepping on an artificial slab of brown dung triggers playback of Watson's recording of the flies: "The kids love it," he says with a chuckle.
He's similarly full of enthusiasm for the democratisation of his craft now that smartphones can be used for amateur field recording: "I love that people want to record now and not just take pictures," he says; "They really recognise the value of how interesting, engaging and invaluable sound is."
This zeal to turn others on to the power of sound is the unifying thread that runs through Watson's work across wildlife documentaries, gallery installations, albums and computer games. It speaks of a quiet determination to open up the many layers of the world around us that are otherwise hidden by noise pollution. "I have this notion that we hear everything but we rarely listen, because we can't," Watson says, gesturing around the bar, "We're listening to each other now but we're having to fight the background music and conversation just to communicate. There's a lot of CPU being used in our brains to get rid of all this, and it's tiring. The Town Moor is somewhere you can open your ears."
Watson's work acts as an accessible take on the academic discourse that has sprung up around influential composer Pauline Oliveros' concept of "deep listening" in recent years. He feels that a more thorough appreciation of the audible world around us can and ought be instinctual, pointing out that we're all descended from primitive ancestors whose ability to listen saved them from nocturnal predators: "The people who didn't hear them and wake up haven't evolved".
Later on, upstairs in the darkness of the Tyneside Cinema, ears strain as Newcastle's Town Moor appears in vivid sonic colour via the 16 channels and layered speakers of the surround sound system. The song of skylarks weaves in and around drunk Geordies discussing tattoos, the amplified sonar of bats, a bagpipe rehearsal, and the whine of flying drones. A crack of thunder rips and rolls around the room, a sudden and violent punctuation amidst the noise of Newcastle's daily life.
"One thing I hope people do, and this goes for all my work, is walk or cycle across the Town Moor and just stop and listen for a couple of minutes," Watson says. "Sound is so immediate that if it's presented properly it doesn't need any artistic justification, it strikes directly into our hearts and imaginations in a unique way. It's as visceral as our sense of smell. We've all got that power to learn to listen."