TO:37 – Chris Watson “Outside the Circle of Fire”

CD – 22 Tracks

The purr of a cheetah close up against a baobab tree, waiting. Whales surfacing, breathing in cold air. Coll starling imitate the noise of farm machinery from the hollow ring of a ruined bothy. The rattle of wood over a black stream… Chris Watson’s second CD is a dramatic contrast to the spacious atmospheres of “Stepping into the Dark” (Touch TO:27, 1996). Featuring 22 close-up recordings of animals, birds and insect life, “Outside the Circle of Fire” enlarges our awareness of the sound universe, intimate with voices from the past. There is an intensity here that television pictures cannot conjure.


“An exhilarating journey into nature’s most private sonic ceremonies. Dreamily voyeuristic. Mysterious, perplexing, shocking and beautiful all at once. The Jaguar will destroy you.”

Track list:

Close up against a baobab tree, a cheetah, waiting… resting by Beobab tree. Pamuzinda, Zimbabwe, June 1994. Sennheiser mkh 416 to Nagra 4s
Breathing in cold air, Southern Right Whale
Capull coille, ‘horse of the Caledonian woods’
Red rumped tinkerbird song
The Maasai say hippos spend the day on the river bed telling jokes. At dusk they surface, laughing. Hippopotami emerging from the River Mara at dusk Itong Plains, Kenya. Sept. 1994. Sennheiser mkh 0/30* via SQN4s to TCD-D3.
Winter Flags on a spring tide. 20 000 knot find a roost
In the hollow ring of a ruined bothy, a starling mimics the noise of farm machinery
Dry topical contact calls follow spider monkeys through the canopy
Lemon rumped tinkerbird song
An evening chorus of corncrakes across the iris beds
A lioness threatens
Vultures taste the dry, crackling viscera inside the rib cage of a zebra carcass. Nine birds feeding on a zebra carcass. Itong Plains, Kenya. Sept. 1994. Sony ECM 77’s x 2**, 250m cable via SNQ4s to Sony TCD-D3.
The deep roar of a red deer stag
Unknown forest duet, singing hidden in tree canopy. Dry tropical rain forest, Nancite, Costa Rica. Feb. 1995. Telinga mic and reflector to Nagra SNN.
Out of our sight, motionless anticipation, along the dry sandy banks of the Zambesi a mozambique nightjar is sucking in all the remaining light, singing amongst sandy scrub on the banks of the river Zambezi, Zimbabwe.Oct. 1996. Sennheiser mkh 30/60* via SQN4s to PDR1000.
Leaf litter insect detail. Rain forest, Cameroon. June 1997. Telinga ‘Science’ capsule at 50cm to PDR1000.
The souls of dead children are said to pass into kittiwakes
Wood pigeon wings across a forest ride
Elephants, sleeping in warm air, family group asleep in rough grassland. Maasai Mara, Kenya. Feb. 1996. Sennheiser mkh 30/60* via SQN4s to PDR1000.
Deathwatch beetles, the rattle of wood over a black stream
Tawny owls sing in moonlit fog
Hyena contacts, contact whoops, Billashaka Luger, Maasai Mara, Kenya. Feb. 1996. Sennheiser mkh 30/60* via SQN4s to PDR1000.


Time Out, New York, Jan 14-21 1999
Sasha Frere-Jones writes:

Here’s a riddle: How was one of the best electro-acoustic albums of the year not made? Chris Watson’s Outside the Circle of Fire is credited to one author, but the sounds within were made by animals and natural phenomena (wind, water, etc.). As the liner notes state, these sounds exist whether we hear them or not. This idea is a powerful tonic in a time of instant access, when lots of people spend their lives making and selling products that exist only because someone might buy them. And, certainly, Watson’s CD was made (and made to be bought), but the incredible sounds on it are doubled in significance when we, the Mighty Consumers, remember that an entire world lives noisily on, whether or not we hear, see or buy it.

What does it all sound like? Remarkably, like the most up-to-date electronic music. The lead-off ‘track’, a recording of an adult cheetah resting by a baobab tree, sounds like a fudgy old analog synth rumbling away, something you might pay to hear Add N to X approximate with apprehended modern drumbeats. (Note to up-and-coming gear fetishists: Look into cheetahs to improve lacklustre stage show.) Track six, a recording of a ‘massed knot roost’, is an explosion of bird wings and cries that equals Merzbow for sheer assault value. Mellifluous minimalist techno? Please check the unidentified pair of birds and their two-note song on track 14: You’ll swear it was – hold on – music. Much of this is is as captivating, deliberate and textured as any music. Just something else to think about while the death-watch beetles do their thing inside an ‘advertising display within oak beam’.

Watson, long ago a member of Cabaret Voltaire, has gone to incredible lengths to record these sounds with an array of complicated microphones and tape machines, but his message is simple: Listen to your world. It may be more interesting than all the things you buy to escape from it.

Feature in The Wire, October 1998:

Chris Watson
Recording angel
To those with an interest in the recondite backwaters of contemporary experimental music, Chris Watson is a crucial, yet shadowy figure. His work with the earliest incarnation of Cabaret Voltaire provides ample justification for his inclusion among a small number of luminaries who have worked to expand the horizons of what is possible in music. Watson’s post-Cabs work might be less celebrated, but its importance and radical nature should not be underestimated. With The Hafler Trio, especially on recordings such as Bang: An Open Letter, Watson revealed himself as an inspired documentarist of the sounds of the natural world, in addition to maintaining his earlier obsession with analysing the electronic media landscape.

After a lengthy hiatus from the recording industry, during which he worked for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and as a sound recordist on nature documentaries (including Sir David Attenborough’s forthcoming BBC opus, Life Of Birds), Watson returned with a magnificent CD: Stepping Into The Dark (Touch, 1996). His stated aim was to record the “remarkable and particular characteristics” of specific locations. Watson drew inspiration from the imaginative and unorthodox Cambridge archaeologist, TC Lethbridge, whose concern with the occult in relation to topography is echoed in Watson’s work. The same sense of attempting to capture the genius loci is evident. Watson warms to the subject: “I wanted to capture the atmosphere of some ‘special places’ in sound, and then try to recreate that sense of place when listening back. I have experienced the individual character of places as I believe many people have, whether that is of a house, trail, mountain or forest. Some of these places appear to have a spirit, and the sound of that place is a way to connect. Over recent years, when travelling, I realised that many people have made that association and it can have a powerful effect.”

His most recent release, Outside The Circle Of Fire, while still evincing this interest in topographical sound mapping, focuses primarily on animals in their natural habitat. Watson is an assiduous and intrepid documenter of wildlife: a cheetah resting, a whale surfacing, the song of a starling are all presented here among a plethora of other fascinating sounds. His work, however, is completely free of New Age flakiness. These recordings are by turns powerful, disturbing, illuminating; but never twee. Watson attempts to record in “noise-free” situations; locations free from the turmoil that constantly assaults our senses. “I am fascinated by the sounds within different environments,” he says. “Many of the ‘noise-free’ locations I work in have a musicality which is enhanced by the selective process of producing them on a CD. My definition of noise does not vary between locations; it is basically unwanted sound.”

Recalling an early Cabaret Voltaire interview in which Watson mentioned his predilection for Gilbert White’s zoological treatise The Natural History Of Selborne, I wondered if he saw specific parallels between his work and that of White. “I always enjoy reading Gilbert White’s letters,” he replies, “and I am inspired by his enthusiasm and curiosity. However, my close-up recordings of animal sounds are a brief exploration of that animal without trying to explain animal language. It is only in the detail that we can hear and enjoy some of these sounds. Elements are revealed that display a beauty and eloquence in communicating that are well described in White’s work.”

Given that Watson’s recordings are not interfered with or processed in any musical sense, his creativity must reside in his selection of sound sources. The notion of discovering and delineating the numinous in the commonplace, of encouraging people to listen to the music within their environment in a Cagean sense, seems to be Watson’s primary goal. Artists such as Max Eastley and Michael Prime seem apposite reference points in terms of shared ambition, although their working methods are very different. All three seek to use natural sounds to expand definitions of what is musically acceptable, while also demonstrating a salutary concern with environmental issues.

Chris Watson seems to be fundamentally concerned with enriching our auditory sense, by making us aware of the sounds which we ignore to our own detriment. His dislike of noise pollution makes this clear: “Noise pollution concerns me. All my work on the two CDs avoids man-made sounds. However, there are very few places in Britain where it is possible to make sound recordings without traffic or aircraft noise. There are very few places where we can really listen.”

This is the true value of Watson’s work: it encourages us to really listen. His fascination with the sounds he records is infectious in the best possible way. His enthusiasm is transmitted to the listener in such a manner that quotidian sounds take on a new and special quality.

JOHN EVERALL Outside The Circle Of Fire is out now on Touch

The Wire, November 1998:

Play a few seconds of nearly any track on Outside the Circle of Fire and it sounds like the freakiest techno disc ever. Take the third one: against a backdrop of near silence, it alternates a semi-regular bouncing ball click, a little scraping alien chirrup and an occasional flurry of rapidfire low end rushes. It’s got the kind of rhythmic invention Squarepusher or Aphex Twin would be proud to lay claim to.

But when you look at the title – “Male Capercaillie Display” – you realise that this is, in fact, as unplugged a disc as they come. Watson has recorded 22 breeds of animals and insects in the wild. Brought into attack range by Watson’s close mic technique, hearing them is a startling experience.

Watson’s last disc, Stepping into the Dark, was all about sound environments and dense textures, this one zeros in on specific creatures for their astounding timbre and rhythm. What’s surprising is that track after track is a killer by musical standards. Check out the incredible tone of hippos wading out of the river. Those two birds in the Costa Rican rain forest are natural born duet partners. What amp does the cheetah resting by the baobab tree use? Are those male corncrakes signed to Warp or Säkho? Watson’s gone to some serious lengths to capture this stuff on tape, and he’s come up with sounds that most humans never get to hear. Endlessly fascinating and often alarming, Circle of Fire reveals new directions for man-made music. (Douglas Wolk)

VITAL, Netherlands:

Well, prepare yourself for a series of very intimate aural encounters which can only have been recorded by someone with the patience of a Zennist. A couple of representative tracks appeared on the last Touch sampler, and compared to these recordings were just scant clues as to what was to follow. I was completely absorbed by the quality and closeness of the sounds documented here – I suspect that it is impossible for humans to hear many of these sounds without first having shapeshifted. When I was a younger child, I had the opportunity of getting very close to a group of semi-domesticated cheetahs on the estate of the Hulett family, sugar-magnates who lived amongst their cane in Natal, South Africa. I’ll never forget the sign on the gate which must have kept any potential burglars well and truly at bay: ‘Warning ! Cheetahs!’ Simple. but highly effective. Even the baboons, not known for their literary skills, dared to trespass here. Something else that made an indelible impression beside this sign and the smell of these magnificent creatures, was the sounds they made. The first track on this CD throbs out of the loudspeakers – it’s a satisfied cheetah purring in the noon sun – and it sounds as if it is laying on top of you, secure in the knowledge that dinner can be served anytime it chooses. One of the longer tracks on this CD is of a male capercallie display in a Caledonian pine forest. The liner notes draw attention to the infrasonic content of the bird’s wing flutters. In yer face. There are chortling hippopotami, swarming knot conferring before winging off on migration, chattering spider monkeys and the rhythmic scrapes of male corncrakes advertising their availability – complex arrangements are produced by their desire to outshout each other. Then there’s the ‘macro’ recording made from within the carcass of a zebra (no, hand-held mics were not used !) which is a document of the thoughts of errant flies, the faint and fleeting memories of rotting meat and the antagonistic, possessive skirl of descending vultures. Watson takes natural surveillance to obsessive extremes, using microphone triangulation to localise a nightjar in the darkness and record it. Kittiwakes scold and chastise each other from their nests on a cliff face. The wings of a wood-pigeon chop the air into fat waves. Sleeping elephants, their heavy breathing reassuring in the squeaking moonlight. Deathwatch beetles run up and down the rafters in an English cottage bedroom. An owl calls outside, this lonely sound hovers in an otherwise almost silent night. Similarly the isolated sound of a hyena calling out co-ordinates to it’s hunting companions invokes similar feeling of loneliness, and perhaps, genetic memories within us all. (MP)

Top Magazine (Tower Records UK):

In a previous life, field recordist Chris Watson was an important part of Sheffield combo Cabaret Voltaire, where his electronic and tape manipulations played a vital role in their seminal urban back beat. Seventeen years later Watson is out in the African bush, shoving his microphone into the rib cage of a zebra carcass to record the sound of vultures pulling it apart. ‘Dry Viscera’ is only one of the many aural delights to be enjoyed on Outside the Circle of Fire (Touch) *****. Hyenas howl, hippos laugh, a cheetah purrs and kittiwakes transform into the souls of dead children on Watson’s remarkable safari of sounds.

Calmant, Lithuania:

The purr of a leopard close up against a baobab tree, waiting. Whales surfacing, breathing in cold air. Coll starling imitate the noise of farm machinery from the hollow ring of a ruined bothy. The rattle of wood over a black stream.

CHRIS WATSON is trying to penetrate into human-free and primeval world where animals, birds and insects are the only substance able to identify itself with own sound. This compact disc is a collection of 22 sonic documents where the most part of them was recorded using various equipment and technologies in rain forests of Secretum finis Africae. The world of intimate fauna beautiful to listen to and stare at, all but Terra Incognita for western destructive civilization. Handle with care this brilliant documentary from Touch. (sic) 10/10

Peter, Asphodel (USA):

“It is very rare that I get off my duff and post a review.
Chris Watson: Outside the circle of Fire ( Touch TO:37 )
I am completely enthralled by this new Touch release, though given the absolutely top top notch quality of their catalog, I am certainly not suprised.

Watson ( Hafler Trio collaborator and for those of you with a memory that predates 1990, Cabaret Voltaire collaborator ) brings us more than an earful of field recordings. These are not your typical field recordings, though, but more of a field recording meets electroacoustic adventure. The CD contains some 22 recordings done all over the world but mainly in Africa and the UK. What makes this CD stand universes above your typical field recording work is the precise, almost clinical recording devices and methods employed to make this work. Recording credits and a gear list accompany the CD. Sounds you may know from the animal kingdom are represented back to us, as if in another sonic dimension. You should understand this when you hear it.


“These are the sounds of secret languages, particular events that have been recorded as close up as possible to try and reveal something of their individual beauty, rythmn, eleoquence and sheer power. Several of the sounds would be inaudible or radically degraded more than a few metres from the animal. Yet others collectively use the acoustics of their habitat to modulate the message. They exist, however, whether we hear them or not-close up details of signals that are beyond our reach outside the circle of fire.”

Revue et Corrigé (France):

“Enregistrer un son, c’est en faire le détournement. C’est donner à entendre un objet qui est tel qu’il semble faire référence à autre que lui.” (Lionel Marchetti, “La musique concrète de Michel Chion”) Ancien partenaire de Cabaret Voltaire et d’Hafler Trio, Chris WATSON nous offre avec “Outside the circle of fire” un disque de sons magnifique. Ses sources, listées en détail, sont clairement présentées et aucune dissimulées. Toutes proviennent du monde animal : du guépard au Zimbabwe aux oiseaux d’Ecosse en passant par les singes du Costa Rica ou les vautours du Kenya. Mais bien loin d’une anthologie du monde sonore animal façon chasseurs de sons ou 30 millions d’amis, Chris WATSON nous donne à entendre un monde inconnu, une autre réalité permise par la machine à enregistrer (micro + bande, dat ou minidisc). Le micro est au plus proche de l’animal, dans sa plus stricte intimité, violant presque son espace privé et livre à nos oreilles un agrandissement d’une réalité sonore présupposée. Ainsi avons-nous au final 22 séquences de durées et d’origines variables, d’une plastique et d’une poétique fortes aux images-poids (Michel Chion, “Le son”) marquées, et dont l’équivalent visuel serait un gros-plan fixe. Comme le label Touch l’a déjà fait dans la compilation “Touch Sampler 3”, il est bon de juxtaposer ses séquences à des musiques électroniques actuelles. Les confrontations sont surprenantes. “On peut se demander qui de l’homme ou de la nature est musicien ?” (Pierre Schaeffer, conférence, 1960). Jérôme NOETINGER

Last Sigh (.net):

” Chris Watson was a founding member of Cabaret Voltaire and The Hafler Trio — two projects whose influence on the experimental/electronic music scene can hardly be overestimated. Both projects were — at least early on — intensely concerned with the nature and possibilities of sound, and strove to create music that utilized, and focussed on these possibilities rather than on melody, rhythm or any other traditional compositional conventions. At first listen, Watson’s new CD of wildlife recordings would thus seem to be quite a dramatical departure from his past sound/music projects. Yet, as in the past, the obsession here is with sound — attaining the perfect recording of the various animals.

Each of the 22 tracks/recordings on Outside The Circle Of Fire are accompanied by notes and anecdotes outlining the equipment utilized, and the approach taken, in each separate recording situation. These notes complete each of the tracks, and at the same time paint a nice portrait of Watson at his work. There is something very moving about this English gentleman moving his infant twin sons out of his bedroom in the middle of the night, and setting up his equipment to record the ruminations of Deathwatch beetles inside a roof beam; or, rigging a series of microphones inside the rib cage of a dead Zebra, and waiting for the vultures to descend upon it; or, floating in an small open boat for hours on end, with his microphone attached at the end of a pole, patiently waiting for a Southern Right Whale to surface for air. In listening to the CD while reading these notes, the recordings cease to be merely masterful sound observations of animals, and Chris Watson the artist emerges.

The results of Watson’s meticulous efforts are nothing short of amazing. Each recording has a genuineness and immediacy that on several occasions made our two yorkshire terriers start from their sleep and let loose at full throat. In fact, to appreciate these recordings, all one need to really do is turn to the Discovery channel on TV, and compare them to the rather artificial and post-synchronized soundtracks of most nature documentaries.

This CD is certainly not the answer to the cravings of those wishing to hear some new and exciting unconventional music a la Cabaret Voltaire or The Hafler Trio. However, for those who hold that a musician is no less an artist than an author or a painter, this CD by Watson is a highly interesting glance at the artist’s sketchbook, an essay on sound, or perhaps, something like an autobiography. ” (Michael Lund)

Resonance (UK):

…unusual things done with microphones…Watson’s record is a kind of anti-new-age field recording which, instead of using natural sounds to create an audio Radox bath (full of natural essences), hurls you into the centre of nature at its most enigmatic and terrifying. Kicking off with the sound of a cheetah purring (a lovely deep rumble) he presents us with monkeys, birds, whales (don’t groan) and at one point the horrifying sound of nine vultures feeding off a zebra carcass (recorded from within the carcass). Recorded with astounding precision (recording is his day job after all) and packaged with the kind of care and attention to detail we’ve come to expect from Touch, this is an indispensable document from a leading experimental label. (Richard Sanderson)

Art Zero (France):

N’avez-vous jamais voulu être à l’intérieur de la carcasse d’un zèbre alors qu’une douzaine de vautours la dévorent ? Approcher un guépard endormi et mettre votre oreille à quelques centimètres de son ronflement? Vous allonger par terre dans une forêt tropicale pour écouter les insectes mystérieux sous les feuilles ? Avec “Outside the Circle of Fire” de Chris Watson vos vÏux seront exaucés. Album extraordinaire d’enregistrements faits partout dans le monde, il faut souligner ˜ contrairement à ce que disait The Wire que ceci n’est nullement à écouter comme de la techno expérimentale (même si Watson faisait partie du groupe Cabaret Voltaire à une époque) mais un voyage sonore merveilleux, fortement conseillé.

Your Flesh (USA):

Chris Watson has presented 22 tracks of meticulously recorded animal sounds. From the low, rumbling purr of a resting adult cheetah, to the rhythmic pulsing song of the corncrake (a bird nesting on the western isles of Scotland) to the belches of hippos, Watson has assembled a series of sounds that offer not only a new listening experience, but also a bit of insight into a world which most people aren’t exposed to. His liner notes mention a “secret language” which may or may not be scientifically accurate. This CD provides the listener with an aural glimpse of an entire sound world that is not only beyond our experience but even our cognizance. It’s not some kind of feel good, commune with the animals vibe either, just a gateway into the world of sound few of us would experience otherwise. As a collection of pure sounds or biological insight, thisis worth listening to. (Bruce Adams)

Side-Line (Belgium):

Chris Watson was previously member of Cabaret Voltaire and this release is his second cd on the UK label Touch that follows Stepping into the Dark. With this release it seems obvious that he hasn’t stopped with research and innovation. Using high quality equipment he recorded life sounds of animals, insects or birds. This results in a very surprising series of sequences that will set you right at the centre of what is happening. You are given the possibility to listen to the sounds produced by cheetahs, whales, hippos, lions, vultures, elephants, all these are very evocative and some imagination is also needed to really ‘live’ this release. A very interesting release that I recommend to specialists of that kind or works (sic). DS:7/10)

City Newspaper (USA):

A collection of field recordings from around the world focussing explicity on assorted animals and insects. Between the clinical, rasping phrases of territorial male corncrakes or ‘laughing’ hippopotami at dusk, Outside the Circle could almost be the freakiest all-natural techno disc ever. The sounds of secret languages masterfully recorded with full documentation in the liner notes.

gg (USA):

Tape-splicing avant-gardist-turned-sound collector Chris Watson has spent his post-Cabaret Voltaire/post-Hafler Trio years circling the globe˜high-output microphones at the ready˜on a very private quest for the secret languages of the natural kingdom. Using the audio equivalent of a telephoto zoom lens, Watson gets so close to his subjects that you can feel the stiff white hairs on the cheetah’s chest rising and falling with each reposeful breath and taste the salty spume of surfacing whales. The confusion of flocking masses of birds and the nervous urgency of hungry spider monkeys is so in-focus that it becomes your own. As vultures crowd at the carcass of a zebra, cawing gluttonously between beakfuls of flyblown flesh, the sweet-sick stench of decay seems to flood the room, out of place and time, intensifying in queasy waves as bluebottles buzz faintly in the distance. A red deer stag steps to the forest’s edge in Scotland, and his virile bellow is suffused with the animal tang of musk. While some may experience a sense of kinship with the ‘circle of life’ and the brotherhood of the living and breathing, I’m struck instead by the utter non-humanness of these sounds. Our distant Darwinian brothers and sisters these animals may be, but the hippopotamus’ comical grunts, the songs of starlings, tinkerbirds, corncrakes, and other rara avis, and the defiant growl of a domineering lioness are formed by throats so unlike ours that they may as well be alien. If the titular Circle of Fire represents the cramped world of tool-using, opposable-thumbed, Prometheus-favored Homo sapiens sapiens, then the array of natural sounds here (presented, as ever, as “unsweetened” and unadulterated documentary events) serves to remind us of the vast wildness that contains it. Which only makes the colicky-infant cries of cliff-dwelling kittiwakes, the contented snores of a sleeping elephant family, and the chitinous, finger-tapping fumbles of deathwatch beetles˜sounds so far removed from our world, yet uncannily suggestive of its familiar trappings˜all the more provocative. Outside The Circle Of Fire is as much about the natural environments in which Watson first encountered these creatures as it is about their fascinating noises. Elemental echoes pervade every track, and Watson’s microphones are just as sensitive to the windy gusts, parched earth, leaf-littered forest floors, and peninsular waters that define the mis-en-scène and provide the subconscious cues for these captured voices.