Chris Watson

We quiz sonic expert Chris Watson about his latest project, a ‘sound map’ of Sheffield.

Jim Ottewill
  • By Jim Ottewill
  • 3 Sep 2013
  • min read
Chris Watson has loved sound for as long as he can remember.

He became bewitched by recording as a teenager in Sheffield and while he hasn’t lived there for more than 30 years, his music and experiences are ingrained in the landscape and cultural ambience of the city.

Chris was a founding member of industrial innovators Cabaret Voltaire, an experimental group thought of as one of the forefathers of electronic music.

While he left the band to focus on sound recording across a range of media (including nature programmes and films), his latest project sees him revisiting the place of his birth for a new installation at the city’s Millennium Galleries.

Inside the Circle of Fire attempts to sonically map Sheffield, plotting a course from the moorlands of its periphery to its more built up, industrial centre. Chris has invited residents to contribute their own sounds in addition to his own recordings of what will become a sonic map of the area when it is unveiled later this month.

We caught up with Chris to quiz him about the project and why he feels we need to block out excess noise in our everyday lives…

Can you remember how your fascination with sound began?

When I was 11 or 12, my parents bought me a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder. I remember becoming so fascinated with recording on it, I’d tape the sound of everything in the house. I was into the idea of time shifting and slowing sounds down and speeding them up.

I could see through our kitchen window of our house in Sheffield to the bird table in our garden. You could see all this activity on the table but couldn’t hear it, which was a bit like watching a silent film.

So I frightened all the birds off, put some seed down and set the recorder off. The birds then returned with my mike there. When I played the tape back, I like to think I can remember being transported to this other world, a place we could never be where I could hear all this detail, rhythm and sounds of the birds. We could never experience this because our presence would alter their behaviour.

How did you get involved with Cabaret Voltaire?

In my mid-teens I got into electronic music and I discovered the work of Pierre Schaeffer, a French composer from the 40s and 50s. He invented the use of location sounds as a tool for composition. It really grabbed my attention and I started to work with that and got involved in the electronic work of Cabaret Voltaire. That was the start of it. It was a long time ago.

Did you use the tape recorder as an instrument itself with Cabaret Voltaire?

Yes we were influenced by people like William Burroughs. I was reading about his work with sound recording in Tangier and allied to that, the sense of creating music by manipulating recorded sound.

I got increasingly interested in what I was hearing outside the band than what I was creating inside. There’s already enough music around. You just have to listen more carefully.

The industrial world of Cabaret Voltaire and recording the natural world seem far apart?

To me it’s exactly the same thing - it’s a progression. I’ve never been career-orientated but I see now, I’m doing now what I did 40 years ago. Which was going out with a mike and a tape recorder and using it creatively. I did that in Cabaret Voltaire and couldn’t have done one without the other.

Can you explain the Inside the Circle of Fire project?

Sheffield was where I first started recording sound and the first place I went to get away from the man-made noise in the built up environment was the moorlands surrounding the city. So when I got offered this commission to work in Sheffield, I immediately thought of a sound map of the city.

I decided to start the map where I began as a teenager on the periphery of the city, then work my way inside the circle towards the city centre, recording on the way and making a piece which moves from the outskirts to underneath the city centre streets. It’s a geographical journey as well as a journey through sound.

But because I haven’t lived there for 30 years, I was keen to engage people and invite those who live in Sheffield to contribute their key sounds of the city. I’ve had an incredible amount of contributions, something like 40 odd different pieces from the people who live there now.

How are you going to present the piece?

I work with a guy called Tony Myers, who is professor of sound at Surrey University. He’s designed this spatial system specifically for the Millennium Galleries into which the work is mixed when we’re in there. He has this 20 odd channel system so people can experience the sound and their spatial relationship to them.

The sounds literally speak for themselves. It engages people. It’s very immersive as you hear sound all around you in the way that you do when you’re in the environment - whether that’s built or natural world. It should strikes into your heart and imagination in a visceral way like a sense of smell. I’m trying to create the essence of an experience and spatialise the sound in that way. There’s a form in how it starts in the wild moorlands and ends in another wild environment underneath the city streets in this giant tunnel called the Megatron. It's a huge flood relief tunnel which channels water under the city.

Do you think the world we live in is too full of noise?

We’re constantly bombarded by sound and noise. We hear everything but rarely get a chance to listen and I think the two things are very different. I’m listening to our conversation but ignoring my barking dog or the traffic on the road.

I think we spend a lot of negative energy blocking out what we don’t want to listen to just to get through our daily lives. When you go somewhere - whether it’s the countryside, or a gallery - where there are no other distractions, it can be very creative and engaging to spend time listening. With this new project, I hope people will hear the sounds of their city in a new way, perhaps for the first time.

Find out more from the Millennium Galleries website and from Chris Watson’s website.

Inside the Circle of Fire runs at the galleries 12 September until 23 February 2014.