Chris Watson in The Times | 3rd March 2007

Songs of the Earth

From marching insects to the fury of a North Sea storm, Chris Watson conjures up worlds in your ear, says Mike Barnes

“When I was in the Kalahari Desert a few weeks ago, I said that I was looking forward to being cold again, as it was 45 degrees out there,” says Chris Watson, peering through the chilly darkness, his face dimly lit by the level-meters of his sound recording equipment. “But now that seems quite an attractive proposition.” We are standing on a wooded slope in the Simonside Hills in Northumbria, a half-hour drive from his Newcastle home; the time is 5am and it’s raining. It’s also the first time Watson — best known for his Bafta-nominated documentary sound recordings for David Attenborough’s The Life of Birds — has used his new surround-sound recording system in the UK, and he’s come here to record the songs of resident birds before migrants arrive in the spring.

“This site is sheltered and has an ambience which is different, or better than other places along the track,” he explains. “It’s difficult to characterise, but it’s got something special about it.” Monitoring through his head-phones, he notes that the incredibly sensitive microphones — separated from us by 30 yards of cable — are picking up the sound of a group of tawny owls. A minute into the recording there’s a loud bang from a farmer’s bird scarer. But Watson is philosophical. “You come out and there’s always an element of the unexpected,” he says. “That’s what I like about it, so there’s no point moaning.” As the rain slowly clears, he finally gets his recording: a chorus of robin, songthrush, mistle thrush, chaffinch and dunnock.

Watson’s work for TV, film and radio has taken him all over the world and some of his recordings have been released on CD — some have even been remixed by other artists. He has lowered a microphone deep into a crevasse on the Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland to capture the crackings and groanings of the moving ice; he has miked up the ribs of a zebra carcass in Kenya, then waited for vultures to fly down and tear it to pieces. He also works on a micro scale, and one of the most extraordinary moments of Attenborough’s Life in the Undergrowth TV series was hearing the sound of tiny insect feet walking across a leaf. “I’ve got this strange military device that you can fix on to the underside of the leaf. It’s like a needle and it picks up sound vibration through the substrate.”

This fascination with “putting microphones where you wouldn’t normally put your ears” dates back to his parents buying him a portable tape recorder when he was 11.
“I could see the birds on the bird table through my parents’ kitchen window,” Watson recalls. “It was like a silent film: you could see all the action but you couldn’t hear it. So I put the microphone on the table, ran inside and waited for the birds. When I played it back, I’d never heard anything like it. It was a different sonic world. It was completely absorbing.”
Back in the late 1970s, Watson was a member of the Sheffield group Cabaret Voltaire, leading lights of the postpunk experimental scene. Inspired by Brian Eno, he experimented with electronics and tapes, including recordings from TV and radio.
Watson left in 1981 and formed the more avant-garde Hafler Trio, in which he further explored tape manipulation. He also worked for Tyne Tees Television, then as a sound recordist for the RSPB.

These days he is fascinated by the possibilities in editing, sequencing and layering recordings he makes in the field. “In film you compress any time-scale down into 90 minutes or so, and I began to think about sound in that cinematic way. I felt that I could create something that was successful in conveying that sense of place, while condensing it into something that was interesting to listen to and had a narrative.”

Wind and rain, he says, are two of the most difficult things to record well. Both feature on his recent CD, Storm — a collaboration with the Swedish soundscaper BJNilsen — along with the calls of wading birds, crashing waves and the eerie songs of seals. The piece, immensely powerful at times, follows the passage of weather systems from the North East coast over to the coast of Sweden.

Storm lasts 56 minutes but covers something like 36 hours in the movement of these low-pressure fronts”, Watson explains. “The main thing I like is that it’s effectively a story or a journey, rather than something that’s completely abstract. I like its international flavour: sounds that start here and end up in another country.”

Watson and Nilsen have also devised a way of performing Storm as a live event in surround-sound. “I want to include a bit more randomness, so I’ve got a lot of elements of different sound sources, which I’ll mix in at different times,” he says. “It will follow the same pattern, like a band getting up and playing the same numbers, but even though the events are prerecorded, it will sound different every time. I like that idea — for me it’s a really good way forward.”