Tone Glow 057: Chris Watson
An interview with Chris Watson
After co-founding the influential Sheffield industrial band Cabaret Voltaire in the 1970s, Chris Watson turned to field recording. He has had an illustrious career as a sound recordist with both solo work and commissions for organizations like National Geographic and the BBC Natural History Unit. His solo albums for Touch include Weather Report (2003) and El Tren Fantasma (2011), both classics in their genre.
For the BBC, Watson has recorded sound for many nature documentaries hosted by David Attenborough, including The Life of Birds (1998) and Frozen Planet (2012). He has also created sound installations for galleries across the world. He recently contributed the piece “Unlocked” to Unsound Festival’s Intermission compilation. On March 4th, 2021, Matthew Blackwell met with Chris Watson over Skype to discuss haunted landscapes, dangerous animal encounters, and whether the Atlantic and Pacific oceans sound different from one another.
Matthew Blackwell: Where are you located now? In Northumberland?
Chris Watson: Yeah, in the northeast of England. Just north, in the suburbs really, of Newcastle. But I’ve been away, actually, on a shoot these past few days.
What is Northumberland like, for someone who hasn’t been there? I’ve been to England, but only London.
It’s far better than anywhere in London. It’s the northeast of England, so it’s a coastal county, a very ancient county. It’s got a really remarkable coastline which is quite industrial at the southern end, near the River Tyne, near the city, but as you go further north it gets wilder, rather more remote. Yeah, it’s great. Ends up at Lindisfarne and then inland, there’s a large forest area, one of the largest planted forests in Europe, Kielder Forest, where I do a lot of recording. And then there’s a lot of open hill land, the Cheviot Hills, which have a really old history as well.
In the 17th century, this area was really occupied by clansmen, by families that didn’t think of themselves as either Scottish or English because Northumberland borders Scotland. And that really didn’t mean much to them because they were associated in family groups. Collectively, they were known as the Border Reivers. It was really quite a violent place because these people would go around robbing other farms and properties and stealing cattle. And they made their own laws—they didn’t bother with laws that were made in London or Scotland. They sort of lived by the sword and that’s evident still in some of the place names where I go recording. There’s places like Hangman’s Rock and Murder Cleugh and Bloody Bush. If you were visited by the Border Reivers, you were “bereaved,” which is where the term comes from, to give you some idea of what they would do.
So it’s great, I love it! (laughter). It’s relatively unpopulated as well, so you can get away from people and places quite easily.
You recorded there for a piece a few years ago called Haunted Spaces, is that correct?
Yes, the Soniccouture piece. Well, that included recordings from all around the world, actually, but I did some special recordings in Northumberland. And I’m doing so again, actually, for another edition to that series.
Oh really? Excellent.
It may be out later this year or early next year, I’m not sure. But yes, I’ve been working with James [Thompson] on that. I really like doing those, actually. It’s a really interesting way of applying some of my recordings. And I use that Haunted Spaces [sound library] myself, I really like it.
Could you explain a bit about the concept of a “haunted space” that the project is based on?
The title really comes from haunted spaces, from a long time ago—and this covers some of what I’ve just described, actually. In the early 1980s, when I first moved up here to Northumberland, I was reading some of the books of Thomas Lethbridge. Thomas Lethbridge was the director of the Museum of Antiquities in Cambridge in the 1930s. He was an academic, but was also a historian, archeologist, and explorer, and he spent a lot of his time on location investigating places, and as far as I was aware he was the first person to use the technique of dowsing over maps to find places. Something which just blew my mind when I was reading this in the 1980s, that you could dowse with a map of a place and then go and find what you were looking for in reality. He wrote very eloquently and interestingly about places that he thought were inhabited by a sense and spirit of place and he tried to investigate as to why that was and what that embodied.
To put it very simply to start with, in our lives we can all go into houses or buildings and quite often, if people are house-hunting or looking for a new apartment, you can walk into somewhere and you get a feeling of good or bad. People quite often say, “that house, that room, that space has an atmosphere.” Thomas Lethbridge was interested in investigating that. And when I moved up here, I started looking at the maps of Northumberland to find places to record. And I found these places on the map in remote parts of Northumberland which were called Hangman’s Rock, Murder Cleugh, Bloody Bush. I went up there, and now there’s a planted forest in many of those areas because just after the First World War there was a national timber shortage. The forestry commission planted forest on what was moorland and upland and the remote valleys of the Cheviot Hills. But the place names on the old maps and on the ordnance survey maps still held the history of what had happened there and why these places had been named so. So I went up there to see if I could retrieve something, draw something out of that landscape even though it had been transformed, which drew upon that history, which again was something that Lethbridge believed, that he discovered.
I really started to soak up that sense and spirit of place, and so the idea of haunted spaces really grew out of that because then I started to travel with broadcast organizations like the BBC Natural History Unit and I found that there is a commonality across all sorts of cultures in that people believe in, or have the sense of, places and environments that have special atmospheres. So that actually became the subject of the first record I made for Touch in the 1990s, called Stepping Into the Dark, which was an adaptation of one of Thomas Lethbridge’s books. So it’s long since held an attraction and an appeal for me, and I’ve been investigating this in all sorts of places from the forests of South America to the mountains of Japan. I’ve found that through all these cultures, people still have that sometimes intangible sense of places that hold a special atmosphere. It’s really about that—all the places in Haunted Spaces had a significance for me, and I was interested if that could be transferred through the recording or through the sounds. And I believe to some extent it can. And again, I then became interested in spatial sound as a way of representing that better.
When you use the word “haunting,” how literal are you being? Do you mean a sort of ghostly presence or the historical way that the violence has marred the landscape or changed our physical experience of the landscape?
I don’t know, because it’s very hard to describe. I really don’t know. There are places in Kielder where I’ve been—and bear in mind this was once open moorland, where people lived, and now it’s quite dense because the forest is getting on a hundred years old, and it’s changed, it’s been transformed. But I would drive down the forest track maybe 20 miles to quite a remote place, in the dark, very early morning—two or three o’clock in the morning—and get out of my car, get my equipment, and go to a place where I intended to make recordings on a hill or a rise or a marsh or somewhere of significance. And I very quickly—and this still happens to a certain extent—feel very uncomfortable. I don’t usually feel uncomfortable about being in remote places on my own, but it was almost as if I was being overlooked, and I felt really— I was looking over my shoulder, even though it was dark and I was walking in the middle of a forest. Really quite uncomfortable, is the best word.
So I just went back, got in the car, and drove just some time, just two or three miles further down the track, got out, and I would feel—and the place would feel—completely different. And I’d feel absolutely fine about getting out and walking for a mile into the forest. Yet in the other place, it was hard putting one foot in front of the other. I just didn’t feel I was in the right place. It had this— not really malevolent, but it had a— just that sense of being overlooked, that’s the best way I can describe it. Being watched. Whereas in the other places, it’s fine.
What was interesting is that the animals also appeared to respond in kind to that sense of place. When I’ve made myself stay in some of those places, both here and in the Scottish Highlands, another place where this happened, the animal behavior also seems different. Now of course it’s impossible for me to disconnect myself from that, and my interpretation of it. But nevertheless, it’s something I have felt very strongly about and it seems that that feeling or that atmosphere, that attitude is common across lots of different cultures.
I find that many field recordists present nature in a way that presumes it’s sort of utopian or peaceful, but I’ve always been more interested in the more violent or more dangerous aspects of nature like you’re describing. So I was wondering if, either in your solo work or your work with the BBC, you’ve ever been in dangerous situations or situations where you’re exposed to the more dangerous aspects of nature?
Yeah, a few times. I mean, I’m careful. If you’re in that position and you put yourself under risk, then it’s usually your own fault, so you need to be careful. And particularly if I’m working on my own. The day before yesterday I was on the Bass Rock in the Firth of Forth, just in Scotland over the border from where I live, this uninhabited lump of granite which sticks out of the Firth of Forth. There’s no dangerous animals on there, but I was there on my own in certain parts of it, and if you slip or fall in those environments, things can very rapidly cascade into something very serious. So I’m careful on location.
With regards to animals, in this country and in most of Europe, there’s no real threat, maybe apart from snakes or bears sometimes. But certainly in Africa, I rarely work on my own because of the very particular dangers from some of the large carnivorous animals. I’ve had one occasion with hyenas, a long time ago, on one of my first trips to Africa where I was working on a feature film. Quite often under those circumstances I worked to a shot list so I don’t work with the camera crews, because it’s like being part of the circus if you do that. I prefer to work on my own and work, as I say, to a shot list or a script.
So I’d gone out in the mid-afternoon with a Maasai, Francis, who became a very good friend. This is a long time ago—more than 20 years ago. It was one of my first trips to the Maasai Mara. The brief was to record hyenas emerging from their dens at sunset and going off to hunt. Well, spotted hyenas are serious carnivorous predators and they hunt in packs, a bit like wolves, but much more aggressive in their behavior and the way that they chase down all sorts of animals. They live in these family groups called clans, and they live underground in burrows. They’re sort of large-dog sized, but very robust animals with really powerful jaws. I’ve seen them bite the leg off a giraffe. They have these huge jaws a bit like pliers, but at the bottom end the jaws are very wide so they have really powerful crushing power.
Anyway, I’d rigged some microphones with Francis in some bushes, a thicket of bushes really close to the burrows, and then run the cables back through the bushes to our vehicle where we sat until sunset. So I was about 50 or 60 yards away so I could record these animals from a distance, but with the microphones in quite close proximity, just a few yards away. I got some really nice recordings of them emerging at sunset and playing with the cubs and then the adults moving off to hunt and the cubs going back underground. So I left the microphones—I knew these were dangerous animals but I didn’t know much about their behavior.
And so Francis and I stayed there until it had gone really quiet, so this is by now about eleven at night. The recordings were made between about six and seven in the evening. So by eleven o’clock, I couldn’t hear anything. The hyenas had gone, as far as I was concerned. It was a clear, starlit night. I could hear lots of insects and some amphibians and nightjars and not much else. So I thought, by eleven o’clock, “This is fine, the animals have gone. I’ll just go and get my microphones back.” So I got out of the car, started coiling the cables up—and fortunately, my movement getting out of the car woke Francis. Francis had fallen asleep in the driving seat and my movement must have shaken him and he woke up and realized I’d gone. He put the headlights on from behind me and illuminated the way in front of me as I was coiling the cable up. And I looked at where my microphones were and I could see in the headlights about four or five pairs of amber eyes just looking straight at me. I was just walking straight down the barrel of these hyenas, who’d been there all the time, silently, just coiling my cable up. So then I realized, I put the cable down, and got back in the Land Rover.
When an African waves their finger at you, it’s really serious. They make this gesture, where they wave their finger right in your face. And I’ll never forget it. Francis said to me: “Never,” waving his finger at me, “never, never, never do that again.” And I haven’t (laughter).
Wow! That’s an amazing story. Eventually I guess you figure out the warning signs for these different types of animals. I saw a picture of you online, you’re standing in front of a group of alligators or crocodiles, and you’re maybe three, four feet from them and sort of dangling a microphone over them.
Oh yeah, yeah.
I was looking at that photograph and thinking, “How do you know how close you can get, and how do you know when you have to start running?” (laughter) Because... they are very close to you in that photograph.
Yeah, I wanted to get close. They were alligators, and they communicate with these growls which I was trying to record with a pair of small microphones. There was also, I have to say, somebody out of shot with a rifle. So I felt quite... I don’t know, I felt I could push it. I mean, I was careful. I do have quite a bit of experience so I was careful with it. And you can sort of sense animal behavior, or I like to think I can judge situations now fairly carefully. With something like that, they’re more likely to take the microphone, which is fine, rather than me.
What I wouldn’t do is go down to the bank of a river in Africa, with crocodiles, where you can’t see anything. It’s when you can’t see them that they’re dangerous, because they lurk under the surface, and they can rise up very quickly and take a wildebeest or an antelope or a zebra that weighs four or five times my body weight. I’ve seen that happen. They just drag it into the water and submerge with it. So when you can see them, they’re certainly more obvious to you, but they’re, I think, [also] less of a threat. That’s the judgement I made, anyway. Plus, as I say, there was somebody there with a rifle. But I don’t know how quick they were (laughter).
It was more likely the microphone and the pole that would have got taken. Which has happened to me, with lions. When I was working from the roof of a Land Cruiser—I was working again in the Maasai Mara—which is the very best place to be, because it’s like being outside but you’re on the roof of a vehicle so you’re out of the reach of most things. But I had a very long carbon fiber Panamic pole about 12, 15 feet with a microphone on, and it just got a bit too low into this lioness’s personal space, and she just looked up and then swiped it and took the end off the windshield. It looked like it had been slashed with a Stanley knife. It was remarkable. You know, you really got the impression of how sharp their claws are. I got a great recording, but she took out the front of the microphone.
So you recovered the microphone itself, but it had a big slash through it?
Yeah, yeah. Exactly that. It looked like it had been slashed with a razor or a big carpet knife. Really clean cut, you know, for an animal’s claw. Plus it had a lot of power behind it.
When you were growing up, or when you were first getting into field recording, did you anticipate that you’d be facing off against these crocodiles and lions and hyenas? (laughter). Or did you gradually, step by step, kind of find yourself in these types of situations?
No, never, of course. I couldn’t even have dreamed that. I was always interested in animals and wildlife, and then when I started recording outside I began to discover the sounds of the natural world and that was particularly engaging and interesting, the variety. As you say, not just the sort of soporific sounds but the communication, the behavior, and the variety and detail. And the strangeness of it, that was the other thing I was interested in. So that sort of developed, really. And it was having the opportunity of working with people like the BBC Natural History Unit or National Geographic, you know, being taken to strange places I never thought I’d get to—the sides of mountains and out to the Galapagos Islands and to the Antarctic and to the North Pole. And being able to record in those places, I gradually developed techniques in doing that. And through that experience, then, as you were saying, you get some idea of animal behavior. However, I’m always—as I learned from Francis—with somebody like that. And I do what I’m told in those situations, and they can’t guarantee your safety, but if you listen to local people and guides like Francis then you’re in a much better place.
I assume that there are always zoologists or biologists on staff for the BBC work. By now surely you’ve earned an honorary PhD in zoology, right? (laughter). From working with these people for so long.
Well, what’s interesting about that is that you end up being, in the bar, a thirty-second expert on something. I might spend two or three weeks in the company of some scientists or bioacousticians recording whales, for example, humpback whales, which happened. And you glean from them, you soak up a lifetime’s worth of research and study. And then, like many people, I’m able to condense that information and sound like an expert to somebody else in the bar about humpback whales. But basically I’ve leached a lot of that information from people who’ve spent decades studying those animals. So you know, I’ve got great respect for those people. But that’s what I have to do, dip in and out of those things and places. But you acquire knowledge, yeah. I do have four honorary doctorates [laughs] but I’ve never studied for them. But they’re all things like Doctor of Arts and Doctor of Music and Doctor of Technology.
Well I think they should add zoology or biology to the list!
No, none of those actually... my favorite one is Doctor of Music from my home city, University of Sheffield. And the other is Doctor of Arts... two Doctor of Arts, one from London, one from Leeds, and Doctor of Technology from Bristol University.
Your work goes the other way too, I imagine, meaning that you’ve probably taught the scientists a thing or two. For example, I read that you’ve discovered a sound that a certain species of ants in South Africa make. As a sort of battle cry or as they go to confront some enemy, they make this sound. In making the inaudible audible for these scientists, surely you’ve helped their research.
Yeah, that’s happened a few times. That’s one of the things I really enjoy actually, that sort of cross-pollination of ideas. You’re talking about Matabele ants in South Africa. I was there for a series called Life in the Undergrowth, with David Attenborough actually, so he had to listen to it. In fact, he wrote about it in one of his books. There’s a Matabele tribe of people in South Africa and nobody knows if the name of the tribe has come from the ants, or if the ants were named after the people. When they were a warrior-like people, they had this pincer movement when they were attacking other tribes. They’d go from both sides. Well, Matabele ants do exactly the same thing when they’re attacking ground nesting termites, so it’s quite likely that the people observed these ants’ behavior and mimicked it while raiding other places.
Matabele ants are also known in the local language as “whistling ants” because they produce this very high-frequency hissing sound. It’s not whistling, it’s a mechanical sound; it’s stridulation, where they rub the thorax on the underside of their bodies to produce this high-frequency sound. But interestingly, when they’re going out to raid termites, they’re silent. They have scout ants which come out first and they scout out a ground nesting termite site, go back, and then the colony communicates and decides, or doesn’t, to go out and raid these termites. And so they go out and then, approaching the termite nest, they split up into two or three or four groups and attack the colony from different angles. Then when they’re going back to the ants’ nest, with the remains of their prey and the sort of prizes of the battle, if you like, they then produce this hissing, whistling sound which you could anthropomorphize as a sort of celebration of the victory. I’m sure it’s not, but they produce this sound a lot on their return journey, as they’re carrying the body parts of these dismembered termites. So it’s a remarkable, fascinating bit of behavior. You could hear it if you stood near them and the wind wasn’t blowing. You would be able to hear them if they were at your feet.
So I used two very tiny personal mics, the ones I was actually using on David for his pieces to camera, and put them on the end of a little pole so I could get the microphones within an inch or so of these ants as they were moving. I used two because I was interested in the spatial aspect of it as well. It was a really interesting exercise.
My next question was actually about how would you record such a thing, but your next BBC documentary is Green Planet, which includes the sounds of plants. I suppose plants are even more difficult to record than ants. How do you go about recording the sound of a plant?
Well, plants and all sorts of flora and trees as well. I’ve been using lots of contact microphones, and I’ve been using these small personal microphones as well to get really close. It’s one of the things that I’ve always been interested in experimenting with. When you get microphones in close, into places where you wouldn’t want to or be able to put your ears, then the world is revealed in a very different way. And so I’ve been doing a lot of that, and also recording with very high sample rates recently. I’ve been working with a friend, Julian Simmons, who then writes some granular processing software for those sounds and stretches them out and reveals really different things about the sounds in that way.
Recently I was recording Himalayan balsam seeds, which, when they propagate... well, they explode basically. Certain weather conditions and temperature conditions cause the seed to erupt and explode, and so scatter the seeds over a relatively wide range. That’s how they propagate. So I was interested in exploring this sound, because of course with film, that action is filmed at very high speed—2,000 frames a second and then slowed down, so that, visually, people can see what’s happening. I was interested in the audio equivalent of that and Julian is very good at writing software for this [using] granular processing.
I sent him this recording, which was one hundredth of a second, of the click of this seed pod. Then he wrote some software for it that could slow that sound down 200 times, 500 times, and then 2,000 times to match the frame rate of the film. And of course the results were just unbelievable. It sounded like a Saturn V rocket taking off. And it lasted for several minutes. The long version is unusable for film because the sound is way too long to use in the program, even though it’s a really interesting sound. So we’re using a two-, three-, four- or five-hundred times slower version. There’s nothing added, it is the sound, it’s just slowed down. But the pitch is kept the same. And it really takes you to another place.
Let’s talk for a moment about your recent solo work. Speaking of recording around Northumberland, recently you recorded a nine-hour piece. I believe it was broadcast live, and it was nine hours recorded in the Northumberland National Park?
Could you speak about this? It was part of a project to record nature sounds during the pandemic. Could you talk about setting up that recording, and how you went about it?
Well, what happened was at the end of the first lockdown here in the U.K., we were able to get back out into Northumberland towards the end of May. My wife Maggie and I were really desperate to get out somewhere wild. We decided to go to one of our favorite oak woodlands in Northumberland. People hardly ever go there anyway—even in normal times and conditions, we would go there for the day and not see anybody. Bizarrely, it’s quite close to a military range, which is probably why people don’t go there so often. But the military range very helpfully has a website and they tell you when they’re going to be firing weapons or dropping ordnance (laughs), which wasn’t the case at the end of May last year. That scenario is sort of roped off, but the woodland is very close to that. It’s very quiet with nobody there, and it was really a warm period during May, so we wanted to go there and just spend the night in the forest, just hang out in the woodland overnight—just for our sense of well-being, just getting out somewhere that was wild and just spending the night out in the forest. It was warm and dry so it felt like a good time to do it.
I thought at the same time, “I’ve gotten more and more interested in durational recordings.” Several times I’ve been asked at festivals, like the Atonal Festival in Berlin a couple years ago, [they] asked me to make a three-hour piece. And so I was interested in long form, and I thought, “This is a perfect opportunity, because there’s no traffic noise up there, there’s no aircraft noise, there’s no people. I can go and sit with my microphones in the forest and just spend the night there.” As well as spending the night there, I thought I’d record through the night and across the dawn chorus. So that’s exactly what we did. I ended up with this eight-hour continuous recording through the sunset in the forest, because the days are quite long in May so the sun doesn’t set until about 11:30 at night and the sun rises just after 3:00, so it’s quite a short night. So I made this recording in a spatial surround technique, and just had it.
Then coincidentally, a friend of mine—there’s an Icelandic band called Sigur Rós, who I’ve worked with a few times, and their manager got in touch with me and said that they were starting a website where they wanted to put long-form pieces. Concerts, really, it was initially aimed at. And they said, “Do you have any long-form pieces that you’d like to put up on this site?” And I just literally, the day before, had made this recording so I said “Yes, I’ve got this.” I quickly edited it down because it was in a surround format, and made a binaural decode of the surround signal, and sent it over. I called it “The Sylvan Space,” with reference to the forest. But I asked them to play it at the same time in Europe as when I recorded it. So it started at 9:30 one evening and played right through continuously until 6:30 the following morning. Then they asked if they could keep it on the site. Initially I just wanted it to go once and be, not necessarily live, but played back on their site at the same time the original recording was made. I thought it would be a cool thing to do, so if people wanted to they could, as we had, listen through the night. But obviously for different places, like over there for you [in the U.S.], it would be 8 hours out of sync. So that’s what happened. I think it’s probably still up there. It’s lost that context but initially that was the idea. But I loved doing it, and I’d love to do some more.
Yeah, it is up and I ran across it on YouTube. We’ll link it too, here in the article. Is eight hours a long record session for you, or is it par for the course when you’re waiting for a pack of lions to wander through? Is it beginning to stretch your patience at that point?
Well, I don’t really call it patience. I just enjoy time in those places. I went specifically for that, to make a long-form recording of whatever happened. I wanted to record the sound of that woodland, that oak woodland, the forest, and not any specific animals. I don’t normally do that because it was a very particular, special durational piece. I’ve done similar things on the coast, for six hours or eight hours, for different purposes. But if I’m recording selectively, which is what I normally do, I’m very careful about pressing record. You know, I’ve recorded so much rubbish in my time, I’m very careful now. But for the piece in the forest, I went out and scouted out a really good microphone position. It’s like framing an image, you put the microphone there and then I was back about sixty yards on the end of a cable, a bit like the hyenas. I could listen intimately around the microphones but record from a distance so I don’t really disturb anything.
When I’m out recording specific things like lions or fish or whales or insects, or whatever, then I’m very careful about pressing record and I don’t just press record and let it run and hope I get something—I try and target what I’m doing more specifically. The older I get, the more I enjoy these sort of long-form pieces (laughs) because I can just sort of soak them up. I like listening to them as well, actually, it’s really good bringing the outside in, back to my studio. I intend to do some long-form pieces next week. I’m interested in this seasonal shift that we’re getting at these latitudes, 55° north, that shift from late winter into early spring and how that’s represented sonically.
This idea of “bringing the outside in” is interesting because your other recent works—one is “Unlocked” for the Unsound Festival, and the other is “Two Audio Walks” for Alec Finlay—these are each walks that you’ve taken and then edited together, and in the “Two Audio Walks” description you say that it provides “imaginative access” to people who are quarantining during the pandemic. I was interested in this idea of “imaginative access.” What benefits do you think accrue from listening to nature, even if we’re stuck inside? Is there some psychological or biological reason that we have to listen to nature or that nature sounds make us feel better?
Yeah, I’d be interested to hear from somebody who didn’t think it made them feel better. We migrate to those sounds, I think. I certainly do, and most people I know do, from wherever it is. Again, this was borne out years ago when I was traveling. In places like Venezuela, the Guajiro Indians do that, the Maasai certainly do it, the Japanese do it in some of the sacred forests. So it’s common across cultures and people because that’s where we’re from, and we’re all good listeners. We evolved mostly outside, and so I think we get refreshed or replenished or recharged. It’s not just a relaxation process, it’s actually a very positive form of listening. It certainly is with me; it helps with problem solving or is a stimulus rather than a soporific device.
I think with the walks in particular—that was Alec Finlay, a Scottish poet, who asked me to do those. Alec is not very mobile and it was for a Scottish charity called Paths for All specifically aimed at people, not just with regards to the pandemic, but who are less able physically to get out. Alec’s idea was to take people to these places in sound. So again I did binaural mixes because really, that’s designed for headphone listening. You can just put the headphones on, close your eyes, and go to that place. There’s a narrative element to it. It’s a journey, so that’s a whole series of long-form recordings edited down very simply, just segued and overlapped and linked and mixed and merged into a walk of say, 40 minutes or 20 minutes, however you want to make it. It was made to a listenable length in order for people to say, “Right, I’ll give you 40 minutes of my time and I want to go to this place.” So it was composed with that in mind, very particularly. The Unsound project was very different, that was more of a sort of description of the process.
Has recording in these areas changed during the pandemic? There are fewer people in the city, or out and about on the streets during the pandemic, but are there more people in these natural spaces that you record?
(laughs). That’s a good question. Thankfully not. Not in Northumberland. But it was remarkable, you’re right, how when the lockdown happened here, overnight, aircraft noise stopped. Traffic noise was vastly reduced. I think I talked about that in the introduction to “Unlocked.” And I was restricted, we were all restricted here in the U.K., so I then turned to my suburban back garden and made the most of that. It’s a place that I had forgotten about because I travel so much. It was great to discover, or rediscover, what was literally on my own doorstep. I began to draw in all those sounds. I could put microphones out there and run the cables to different places in the house. I could lie in bed and listen to the dawn chorus—which was like another world—and make recordings lying in bed! It really doesn’t get any better than that, rather than fly for eleven hours and then trek through a jungle. It was great, it was liberating. I made the most of it and had microphones all over the garden just to reveal what was in this relatively small place and how the wildlife responded to the lockdown as well.
A lot of people here said to me straightaway, or within a few weeks, anyway, “Oh Chris, aren’t the birds singing really loudly this year?” And I don’t know if they were singing any more loudly, but people were taking notice of them more. And going back to your last question, it’s something we migrate to. People get a lot of pleasure and satisfaction even in urban environments, just listening to birds singing on their street. And I made a couple of things, a podcast for a newspaper about it and BBC Radio, about how people were rediscovering just listening to their own spaces, their own places, parks, gardens. Or putting their head out of the bedroom window at four o’clock in the morning and realizing that you don’t have to go very far to hear the most remarkable sounds. I was really keen [for] the first part of “Unlocked” to liberate that aspect, and the birdsong in particular, and the black bird in particular. I believe that what happened was we could hear birds singing more clearly because of the lack of traffic noise.
I’m also convinced that the birds could hear each other more clearly. So the blackbird that was singing in our garden all of a sudden could hear all the other blackbirds in surrounding territories. To anthropomorphize, it must have thought something like “Shit, I can hear all these other rival males, which I had never really picked up on before.” They had to sort of up their game, and they certainly sang more vigorously. I’m not sure they sang anymore loudly because, of course, they’re singing for a purpose. Not only to defend their territory—to say to other male blackbirds, “Look, back off man. This is my territory”—but they’re also singing to retain the attentions of a female that would have a nest somewhere in our garden. If the male could hear rival male blackbirds singing, the female certainly could, and they’re quite likely to think, “Oh actually, I’m hearing No. 19 at Chris’s house but I quite like the song of the one over the garden fence at No. 23. I’m going to nip over there, mate with that male, and expand the gene pool,” which is a very good thing to do in evolutionary terms. So I’m convinced that’s why blackbirds had such a good year. At the moment we’ve got seven blackbirds in our garden, which is more than twice what we normally have. I think it’s because they had a really successful year, and the females really got around. So one nest with a clutch of five or six eggs might well have been fathered by three or four different males, which is really good for the birds.
This relates to something that happened to me the other day. One use I get from field recordings like yours is to orient myself and listen again, or listen with new ears, to what’s around me. The other day I was listening to “Unlocked,” and I turned it off for some reason, but I kept hearing bird sounds. So I said “Oh I must not have turned off the track,” and turned it off again... (Chris laughs) but it started playing again! So that means that it actually was off before. Eventually I looked out the window and saw a group of crows across the street that were all calling to each other like you’re describing. So I realized that I could simply sit here and listen to what’s outside my window. I might not have realized that had I not been listening first to your song.
That’s great, yeah, that’s perfect. Then oppositely, when we could get out, within a few days of doing the woodland I went up to the coast and did the other part of “Unlocked” in quite a remote place on the cliffs at Dunstanburgh for the sea bird colony, which was doing really well again because they weren’t bothered by humans. I thought that was a great leveler, because all those birds were thriving on the fact that we weren’t there. Normally we influence their behavior in those places and damage it or change it in some way. So it was really good to go and dip into that quite alien-sounding environment.
I’ve just got a couple more questions. We’ve been going almost an hour here, but I wanted to make sure to ask you this. I read that you can tell the difference between a recording of the Atlantic Ocean and a recording of the Pacific Ocean (laughter). Is that true? What are the differences in how they sound if that’s true?
Well, this started off, actually, as a conversation. I was traveling with David Attenborough and I think we were on the Galapagos Islands. He’s such a good conversationalist, and there was just the two of us. We were in a bar somewhere and he was asking me things. David originally was a sound recordist. He started off recording sound for his own films, so he’s been a great ally of mine over the years and he’s really good with sound. He was asking me about the sounds of places because we had been filming marine iguanas on a beach in Galapagos. And I said, “Oh, the sound of Pacific surf is something I really enjoy. It’s really rich harmonically, and it has a musicality to it and it’s not particularly loud, but it really has this deep, sort of life-affirming quality to it, a richness to it.” And he then said, “What, do you mean to tell me that you can tell the difference between different oceans?” And I said “Yes!”
Not long before that, we had actually been on the Atlantic, in the South Atlantic. I had been recording on a beach in South Africa with David. And I mentioned this specific beach and I said, “The surf there had this sort of harsh, more abrasive quality to it. Pacific surf doesn’t really sound like that. It’s much softer.” He challenged me on it, and I described it to him, and I ended up making him a CD (laughs), a one-off CD to compare and contrast the sound of these two oceans. I could certainly hear the difference between these two places, and not necessarily just the Pacific or just the Atlantic, but there’s certainly a lot of variety and similarity in the sounds of waves, which are basically bubbles bursting, wherever they are, due to the dynamics and the temperature conditions and weather conditions. So that’s where that came from, and it’s sort of grown a bit out of that, out of this conversation I had with David in a bar (laughs). It’s now become sort of world-wide public knowledge (laughter). He’s still got the CD, actually, I asked him about it.
That’s amazing. That CD is probably very valuable by now, if it’s the only copy that exists.
Yeah it is, yeah, it’s in David’s library.
That’s something I’ll have to listen for if I ever make it to both oceans quick enough to compare them. I’ve never even considered that they might sound different.
I think it started off when I was out on Galapagos on one of those trips. I’ve had the privilege of going there quite a few times. Actually, it was another series for National Geographic, a series about the Galapagos Islands. And of course, every shot in the series, more or less, had the ocean in it somewhere. I was involved a little bit in the sound design, the post production. I realized that I was going to need a really rich and engaging palette of sounds of the Pacific Ocean so that the sound designers didn’t have just two or three recordings to use throughout the series. I made a point of carefully recording the ocean from lots of different perspectives. I made a whole series of recordings on the beach at Santa Rosa, Tortuga Bay. I would record at the very top of the beach, in amongst the grasses and the cacti, with a pair of omnidirectional microphones, and then go a bit closer, maybe 30 yards closer, and make another recording, and then go 30 yards closer, make another recording, and then end up, five or six recordings later, with the microphones above where the waves were breaking. I had a whole collection of sounds from different perspectives.
What was interesting about that was that when I came to work on scenes within the film, I would put all these tracks up in parallel on the mixer, and play them back, and rather like finding a chord, I could play back all these recordings at different levels of different perspectives. At one point the sound would sort of gel into almost a chord. There was a musicality to it that fitted that moment. So I would draw upon that palette of recordings. And I did that again when we were working in South Africa in the southern Atlantic. I gained an experience and a familiarity with the sound of the oceans by working with those recordings very closely. That’s probably where it formulated in my mind. But it’s a good technique, layering them up in parallel.
That’s an amazing story—I never put it together in my mind that you would have multiple choices of sounds to put in a specific scene like that. One last question. Is there anything in the future that you’d like to plug or talk about that we haven’t gotten to? Any projects that are upcoming?
Yeah, I’m working on one at the moment which is hopefully going to be premiered in Berlin in May called Seaphony. That’s a commission from a Berlin-based production organization called Oceans21. This year is the United Nations Decade of the Oceans, and as part of the opening of this idea, then, I’ve been commissioned by this organization in Berlin to do an underwater soundscape of the seas and oceans, which I’m just working on at the moment in the studio. It’s an ambisonic spatial sound installation in a place called Alte Münze, which is one of the old coin mints on the banks of the River Spree in Berlin. This’ll be a 40-minute, 22-channel ambisonic piece where the aim is to put the audience on the sea floor and take them on a journey from the Antarctic to the Arctic on the floor of the ocean and experience the sounds and music and rhythms of the seas and the oceans and the animals that inhabit it along the way. But at the moment I don’t even know if I’m going to get over there, with the way things are. But that’s my ambition, currently, is to get to Berlin at the end of May.
So you used hydrophonic microphones and just took them down as far as they would go?
Well, you don’t need to put them that far down because sound travels almost five times faster through sea water than just through air. I’ve got 20-meter cables on my hydrophones and I’ve made recordings over the last ten years from the Antarctic to the Arctic. There are some new recordings in there, but it also draws upon [those]. I’ve been interested in recording sounds in the seas and oceans for many years now using hydrophones. I’m fascinated by it. I mean, it’s the most sound-rich environment on the planet. We think we live on Planet Earth but of course we don’t, we live on Planet Ocean. Seventy percent of the planet is occupied by the seas and oceans and sound travels so much faster through sea water than it does through air, so the oceans are not only the largest habitat, they’re the most sound-rich.
I made a podcast for the Guardian about ocean noise pollution. I spoke to Chris Clark, who is a brilliant bioacoustician from Cornell University in New York State, and he told me that in their research they have yet to discover a deaf sea animal. Everything in the seas and the oceans lives in a world of sound and vibrations. From the tiniest crustaceans in a rock pool to the largest and loudest animals which have ever lived, which are the great whales, [they all] live in this world of sound. So I’ve been fascinated to try and bring that to an audience and put people on the sea bed for 40 minutes and take them on a journey.
I bet that’ll sound amazing, and I hope that it comes off. I hope that people are able to safely travel to it and experience it in Berlin.
Yeah, thanks Matthew, so do I.
Well, thank you for talking with me. It was fascinating. I think I could hear these stories all day (laughter). But I’m going to let you go, and thanks so much for your time. It was so fun talking to you.
Thanks, Matthew. Take care.
Some of Chris Watson’s albums can be found at Bandcamp. You can purchase the Unsound Festival compilation Intermission at Bandcamp. You can learn more about the BBC Planet series, which Watson has contributed to, at the BBC website.
Thank you for reading the fifty-seventh issue of Tone Glow. We’re all living on Planet Ocean, baby.
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another brilliant interview!