Interview with BAFTA award-winning sound recordist, Chris Watson

Chris Watson is one of the UK’s pre-eminent sound recordists. He has worked all over the globe and won a BAFTA in 2012 for his soundtrack on David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet series. This September, Watson’s exhibition Inside the Circle of Fire will transform Millenium Gallery, Sheffield, turning it into an immersive sound-map of the city, where the recordist grew up. Watson speaks to Aesthetica about his journey through Sheffield and his approach to sound.

A: Inside the Circle of Fire is a sound map of Sheffield – what does this mean and how did you approach such a project?
CW: Being born and brought up in Sheffield I’d become interested in the sound of the city and the sound of places. I knew the city and was interested in the geography of it, so when Museums Sheffield gave me the opportunity to make a sound piece it seemed interesting to me to do something that was very site-specific rather than a general or abstract piece. I have always wanted the opportunity to record more in Sheffield because I don’t live there any longer, I’ve not lived there for 30 years.

I was really interested in this idea of creating the sounds of a place and linking them together. A long time ago, I made an album called Outside the Circle of Fire, which was based on the work of a French anthropologist in South America studying effects and events of people and towns outside the circle of the campfire, in the darkness. I decided with this piece, Inside the Circle of Fire, I wanted to look in from the edge of the city inwards; so I started on the very edge of Sheffield and made my way, in sound, down to the city centre.

As a vehicle for this journey I used water and rivers. As a part of the process of this piece I discovered something I’d really never registered when I was growing up in Sheffield, which is that Sheffield is a city of rivers. So I really channeled myself down through some of those rivers, through the sound of water, because that’s what brings life into the city and has driven it industrially, and to a large extent, creatively. And so that’s where we end up, in the centre of the city, actually in the heart of the city, underneath its surface, in these amazing flood relief systems, the great Megatron.

A: Is the project personal at all, have you incorporated sounds that personally remind you of home?
CW: It’s a deeply significant and personal work for myself, it’s the realisation of a lot of work I thought about when I was down in Sheffield. The place that I chose to start, and was guided to actually, was Blackamoor on the very periphery of the city, with this fantastic view over the valleys of Sheffield. This is the place I grew up, in Totley, on the edge of the city and on the edge of Derbyshire. One of the first places I started exploring in sound were these high heather moorlands. Blackamoor has one of the most exotic and wild-sounding dawn choruses that you’ll hear anywhere in the world, not just in Britain, with all these exotic bird’s doing aerial displays; curlew, redshank, lapwing. So we started in the darkness in late April on Blackamoor, a place I remembered walking as a young teenager, so that was very significant form me.

The project has also been guided by the people I’ve met, people who live and work in the city, they informed my work with a fantastic series of contributions. Even things like the one o’clock siren – which, astonishingly considering how loud it is, I’d just been unaware of – was pointed out to me and I’ve had a few recordings from different perspectives.

It’s been, although it’s a cliché, a real voyage of discovery. And that’s been one of the great pleasures; discovering places and sounds that maybe I’ve never heard, or maybe I have heard but consigned to part of my memory and took re-listening to the sound for them to be triggered. That’s one of my ambitions for the piece, it’s to really stimulate people’s imaginations and let them rediscover, or even discover for the first time, how their city sounds. And that’s the other important thing; this piece isn’t nostalgic, it represents the sound and rhythm and music of Sheffield in 2013.

A: You are a BAFTA award-winning sound recordist/musician – what made you want to do this project? Do you view the sounds as the music of Sheffield?
CW: Totally, yes. I consider everything I do music, I don’t distinguish between sound and music really. I hear music everyday around me – I choose to listen to music that’s recorded, but I also choose to listen to the sound of people and places, and I do that by lending a musical ear to it, and that’s how I approach all my work. This isn’t a documentary, it has to be entertaining and engaging, so I regard it as a musical piece, a collage if you like.

One of the first things I discovered as a teenager in Sheffield, after I’d been using my portable tape recorder a few years, was the work of French composers like Pierre Schaeffer and Musique Concrète, who collage sounds into music, creating music from recorded sound. So I’ve never really separated the two out; when I work on film soundtracks or make radio programmes, I still have this linear narrative which equates to music. For this piece, I’m mapping out the city geographically and making a sort of a strange looking score on scraps of paper, a circular score, which looks like a giant LP and tracks inwards.

Also, the way that that works for me, putting the pieces together, it’s very much a composition. At the moment I’m listening to sounds that may or may not end up adjacent to each other in the piece, because it has to have a flow, apart from the analogy of using water, it has to carry an audience and take them on a journey through the city .

A: Personally, what are your favourite sounds?
CW: It tends to be what I’m working on. So at the moment, I’m totally absorbed in the sounds and rhythms of what I’ve been doing for this project; one of my favourite pieces to listen to is the Shepherd Wheel, but there’s loads. In general, I don’t really have favourites – I have one great recording I used to carry on my phone of my children laughing which I used to use as an alarm, but of course, that’s a personal thing. At the moment it’s really everything I’ve been working on for this piece: songs of blackbirds to the thunderous, pounding rhythm of railway engines passing overheard when we were underneath in the Megatron. They’re filling my thoughts at the moment and I’m enjoying working with them. But there are lots – and if it’s not a favourite sound it won’t get into the project!

A: What do you have planned for the future?
CW: I’m working with a film director at the moment called Esther May Campbell, who’s got a very interesting film sound project she’s invited me on to, an independent film called Light Years, which I’ll be working over the next 12 months. Also, some programmes for Radio 4 – I’m about to start work in September on a radio programme about the sounds of 24 hours in Newcastle Central Station.

Chris Watson: Inside the Circle of Fire, 12 September – 23 February, Millennium Gallery, Arundel Gate, Sheffield, S1 2PP.

1. Chris Watson, geyser recording © Chris Watson.
2. Chris Watson, recording crocodiles © Chris Watson.