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Strange World Of...

The Strange World Of... Chris Watson
Luke Turner , January 25th, 2023 09:14

Chris Watson is the Sibelius of the tape recorder. Ahead of his appearance with Felicia Atkinson at Kings Place next month, Luke Turner speaks to him about twelve key points in his career from early tape experiments to recording at Chernobyl, via a founding stint in Cabaret Voltaire

Over the course of tQ’s 15 years online, I can think of few other artists who have provided me such joy as Chris Watson, the sound recordist who began his musical career in the mid-1970s with Cabaret Voltaire and has now arguably reached as many ears as the world’s biggest music stars via his work recording the natural world for David Attenborough’s hugely popular documentaries. The popular perception of sound art might sometimes be austere and academic, the sense is that it lacks the familiar formulas of musical genre which enable emotional connections with the listener, and I would occasionally be inclined to agree. Even the term ‘sound art’ can feel dry, chewy, or otherwise indigestible. Watson’s work, however, has an uncanny warmth to it that, when I sit down to listen to one of his albums or encounter one of his myriad live projects, seems to become an illumination of flora, fauna or place.

One Friday lunchtime at the National Gallery many years ago, deft deployment of sound recordings through speakers set around the frame turned John Constable’s painting ‘The Cornfield’ into a 3D space, the church bells chiming in the distance and sound of a dog curiously making the pastoral scene far more honest and less idyllic than it had previously seemed in the artist’s brush strokes. At Kew Gardens in the summer of 2010, his Whispering In The Leaves installation brought the rasp and hiss of insect life to the formality of the iron and glass Victorian greenhouses. At Newcastle’s Boiler Shop at dawn on 11 November 2018, his installation 'A Nightingale On The Western Front’ featured the sound of the dawn chorus recorded on the former battle fields of Flanders, making very real the landscapes which, a century before, the First World War had destroyed and upended. It goes on, right up until I last saw Watson onstage at the 2019 Unsound festival, where with Hildur Guðnadóttir a fearsomely powerful live incarnation of their soundtrack to the Chernobyl TV series was an unnerving yet beautiful response to the human curse of environmental destruction, something that is fiendishly difficult to get right in art. What these and many other performances, happenings and talks have in common is a power to hit you, right out of nowhere, as astonishingly moving.

Part of this success comes in how accessible it all is – if you ever get a chance to hear him give a talk on his work, seize it with both hands. Rather than dress what he does up in theory (though he unquestionably knows all that), he comes across like a genial school science teacher with a life ambition to enthuse about his craft and use it to communicate knowledge and understanding to all comers, whether that’s about historical time, art, environmental destruction, or what a beetle dealing with a cow pat on Newcastle Town Moor, a tiny event in the middle of a chaotic city, sounds and feels like. Forty-five years after post punk, Watson is perhaps still known by many readers of this site as a founder member of Cabaret Voltaire, and in 1978 single ‘Nag Nag Nag’ responsible for one of its greatest moments. Yet in terms of what he’s done since, this is just an early staging post within his musical adventuring. I’d argue that in his enthusiasm for technology and his use of mass communication and mainstream culture to disseminate art, politics and ideas, he might even be considered the most successful post punk artist of them all.

At the start of February, Watson’s latest collaboration will be with Felicia Atkinson at King’s Place in London as part of the Sound Unwrapped festival. Thus far, this has been planned remotely for the past 18 months, with ideas being sent back and forth, Atkinson reinterpreting Japanese poets and providing skeletal musical arrangements, with Watson delving into his library of recordings made during a commission in Japan. “Water is significant,” he tells me; “one of the early pieces is of rain and following river water down a sacred mountain, through cedar forests and past temples. There are a lot of insects, especially the bell cricket which the monks at Kyoto say has the voice of Buddha. It's another departure for me.” After this near half century of departures for Chris Watson, let’s take it back to where it began.

Early Tape Experiments

My being given a reel-to-reel tape recorder is the reason we're having this conversation now. If my parents hadn't done that when I was 12 or 13 I would be doing something else. I discovered through the medium of analogue tape this idea of sculpting and being able to physically shape sound with a razor blade and an editing block, cutting and splicing. That tactile connection was very powerful for me as a young teenager, and then discovering that it wasn't just a tool for documentation, but composition. Finding Pierre Schaeffer and musique concrète on Radio 3 showed me that grown-ups use this to make music. I realised I could play things backwards, and at different speeds, and be transported into the science fiction worlds that I was watching on television. Adding to the creative potential was the famous paperback Composing With Tape Recorders by Terence Dwyer, that was my bible, my manual. That and the tape recorder, the razor blade, the editing block and a microphone – they were my instruments.

The First Cabaret Voltaire Happening, mid-1970s

I was working at the post office as a telephone engineer and met this guy who’d started an organisation called Science For People, they had an event at Sheffield University. He said they were looking for people to come and play and that someone told him I was in a band – this was Cabaret Voltaire before we'd done anything. We turned up and did this afternoon gig with tape loops that I'd recorded on this tiny machine that my parents had given me. I had a tape loop of a steam hammer that we'd recorded somewhere like Calais – Richard [H Kirk], Mal [Stephen Mallinder] and I used to go on holiday together before we had the band, as friends. We made a percussion loop out of it, it was pretty hardcore, it was great. It ended in complete chaos, a proper Cabaret Voltaire, Dadaist happening, people got really pissed off, it got violent, somebody, perhaps Richard, got thrown off the stage. We had a good friend who was in the police force, a big guy called Alan Cook, who took control of the situation and sorted people out. I remember this guy saying that we'd ruined the reputation of this organisation Science For People with our ludicrous behaviour – it was absolutely brilliant.

Cabaret Voltaire's Trans-Pennine Early Days

We'd drive over the Pennines on a Friday night in a furniture van and play with bands like Suicide, Joy Division and Buzzcocks at the first Factory at the Russell Club in Hulme – it didn't get any better than that! It was a West Indian club so there was goat curry and Red Stripe. Tony Wilson would come down and help us set up. At the time we were kids, we loved it, we had no idea how it would pan out – it was just a great weekend away. We weren't interested in doing tours or anything like that. The rest of the time we'd hang out in the Western Works in Sheffield, where we'd rented the top floor of this sweatshop, and just experiment, work out what we were going to do. There was certainly a sense that we were doing something different and creative and thriving on it and learning at the same time.

Tyne Tees Television

When New Order went on Top Of The Tops they invited us down. Soft Cell were number one and we had some connection with them too. We stood in the studio and I thought, ‘This is the last place I want to be, this is not what Cabaret Voltaire is about’. I had no dislike for what we were doing, it was what was looming on the horizon – record contracts, tours, things like that. I realised I was more interested in what I was recording outside on walks in Derbyshire than what I was helping to create inside the studio. I was always interested in the overlap between sync sound, location sound and film soundtracks, and still am. I’d really enjoyed doing Cabaret Voltaire’s Johnny YesNo soundtrack. I've always liked that blurring point of, ‘Is what you're listening to a piece of music or is it a film soundtrack?’ Tyne Tees Television was a small but thriving independent company, and Channel 4 had just started a music series called The Tube with Jools Holland and Paula Yates. I applied for a job and was offered it. I had this terrible decision to make, but it was great. I got access to proper film sound equipment and started to learn the art and craft of post-production and composing in the studio, working out of the music environment and more in a sound environment, where I could apply the things I was interested in, and use all this technology in the evenings and weekends. I worked on Farming Outlook and was part of a news crew during the miners’ strike, seeing these massive battles and being on the front line of it – that experience was eye and ear-opening.

The Tube

In 1984, I was a junior sound recordist and was sent to Jamaica as The Tube was making a film about the Reggae Sunsplash Festival. I got to hang out with Lee Perry in Black Art Studios, which had burned down a few months before. He thought the place had been infiltrated by evil spirits so he just set fire to it. I went out with this guy from Black Uhuru in the botanical gardens in Kingston, got massively high and he took me around recording bird song. We went to Pete Blackwell from Island Records’ old pirate house in the Blue Mountains; I went around the garden there too, recording bird song. I was so excited to meet King Tubby. He was a tech freak, and when we turned up at his studio he had a black and white camera outside the door. We were all from the north and north east, the director knocked and said 'Mr Tubby, it's the film crew from The Tube'. You could feel him looking through the camera and he said, 'I don't like the look of you, you're not coming in.’ The following year he was shot on his doorstep, so I never met him. That's one of my great regrets.

Stepping Into The Dark

It took me a long time to record an album because I was bringing up a family and felt a bit scarred by what had happened at the end of Cabaret Voltaire, not so much with the band but with the scene. It was something I didn't want to revisit. Touch was the catalyst. Mike Harding and Jon Wozencroft got in touch with me and Stepping Into The Dark, my first record, evolved out of that. I'd not be here doing this if it wasn't for them. I'd moved up to Newcastle and we were discovering Northumberland, an astonishing place with the coast, the hills, the moorland and Kielder Forest. I was interested in social history and folklore, ley lines and dowsing and the magic of landscapes. I'd been reading a lot of Tom Lethbridge's work, a 1930s writer who was an honorary Keeper of Anglo-Saxon Antiquities at Cambridge, but eventually had to leave because of his views – a fascinating guy. He introduced me to this idea of the sense of a spirit of place through landscape, and really got me interested in making a connection with landscape that I'd not done before. In order to find out recording locations I started to look at Ordnance Survey maps for remote, tranquil parts of Northumberland, but places that had once, three centuries ago, been inhabited by these people called the Border Reivers, clans like the Armstrongs and Elliots. That part of Northumberland and the borders, the debatable lands, were really lawless in that they were so far from London and Edinburgh that they didn't consider themselves English or Scottish but made their own laws. These families were super powerful, and they were bloody, violent times. If you were visited by the Border Reivers, you were be-reived, that's where the word ‘bereaved’ comes from, because they took everything and killed everybody. I looked at the OS maps and found places around the borders called Bloody Bush, Hangman's Rock, Murder Cleugh, and I'd go to do some recording inspired by Lethbridge. I was convinced that if you could reproduce the acoustics of environments and the sounds of places you could perhaps think about recreating something of the history of the event, the spirit of place. People often say when they enter a house they can sense an atmosphere – it's that intangible thing – and it's the same with landscapes and habitats. It's something the fauna responds to as well. I went to these places, made recordings, and got the chance to release some of this. It coincided with a time when I was doing a lot of work with the BBC Natural History Unit and discovered that people like you and I have exactly the same feelings, from Borneo to the Maasai Mara, they sense that some places are good or bad, where you'd take your family or not want to go. The first time I played any of it live I went to one of the last gigs at The Hacienda with Martin Rev from Suicide, he was doing a solo set at Disinformation, Paul Smith's event, and I was playing these sounds of the Kielder Forest at night to these ravers. These girls came up to me at the end and said, 'That was amazing, we're just going to have a few more drinks, take the car out to the countryside and just listen'.

El Tren Fantasma

I still work in a circular rather than linear fashion, it's not abstract, there's usually a narrative element, even if it's in my imagination. I worked on a series called Great Railway Journeys for BBC2, and we did one with Rick Stein the chef where we went across Mexico from Los Mochis on the Pacific coast to Veracruz on the Atlantic. Like our railways at the time, it was a state system, forged through the revolution with amazing feats of engineering through the Mexican landscape. But just like with British Rail, it had been driven into the ground and become unsafe and uneconomical, so this trip was the swansong of the great Mexican state railway. We were living on our train for a month with a presidential carriage from the 1950s, each had our own bedroom with four poster beds, a dining car where we had huevos rancheros for breakfast, tequila slammers, and then a lounge on the back with a veranda so we could sit barrelling through a canyon or across the desert with our cold Victoria beers, a bricklayer's beer in Mexico. It was just brilliant. I'd never slept on a train before, and we were rocked to sleep by the rhythm of the train every night. I collected this whole palette of sounds. I'd said to the director that I'd help with the post-production if I could have access to the original recordings. It's the same today, all footage is assiduously archived and documented, but nobody cares about the location sounds, so I picked up these DAT tapes in a shoebox from a shelf at BBC Manchester. I sat on it for ten years, thinking of what I might do with it, and in the end I thought I could follow the narrative in sound, and create something of the feel of the journey. It's El Tren Fantasma because the railway line ceased to exist, it was privatised and like ours, fell apart. It was poignant for me to make that work.

The Life Of Birds & Work With The BBC Natural History Unit

In 1984 I was getting into a bit of a rut of regularity at Tyne Tees, and saw this post advertised to be the first ever sound recordist for the RSPB. I worked there for two years and a lot of my colleagues migrated over to the BBC Natural History Unit. Peter Bassett called up and said, 'I'm starting on a new series with David Attenborough called The Life of Birds, there'll be lots of wild track recordings which I know you like doing and you'd be working with David, do you fancy doing that?' I said, Yes! That sounds great.’ It won a BAFTA for Best Factual Sound. We all just really got on and I've been working with them all ever since – we were working together a few months ago on Skomer, for a new series called Wild Isles. David doesn't do so much location work these days, but at one point we were lying next to a Manx shearwater nest at three in the morning.

Creating Soundtracks To Paintings

The first one I did was Constable's ‘The Cornfield’ [also known as 'The Drinking Boy'] at the National Gallery. The curator told me that they'd done some research and the average time anyone spends in front of those paintings – Turner, Constable, Monet, Gainsborough – is four seconds, so they were thinking about ways of getting people to engage for longer with them. More recently I did one to one of my favourite paintings, Akseli Gallen-Kallela ‘Lake Keitele'. Paintings aren't mute, silent worlds, so I imagine what you can't see but you can hear beyond the two-dimensional image in a small frame – it's a bit like a television image really. I'm interested in what's outside, what's beyond what's there. With ‘The Cornfield’ and ‘Lake Keitele’ there's an integrity to it, so I use sounds that you can hear in those places, but arranged in a compositional form. I'm really taken by perspective and how painters achieve that visually because I'm always interested in capturing that in sound. I try to marry those together, rather like the creation of perspective and the golden ratio, to find somewhere that takes your eye and somewhere that takes your ear as well, so you're drawn towards it.

Nature Disco

I love that ‘Nature Disco’ is such a cheesy title, people come up and have no idea what it is and I haven't either, I just like the combination of those two words. Basically, I just do what I want. I think of a connection, a narrative, like a DJ would I imagine, and then just pick things that fit, they're really spontaneous. Sometimes I do requests – someone at Port Eliot was asking, 'Have you got a hippo?'

Radio Work, Including The Signalman (listen here)

I've always really enjoyed doing radio work because it's sound-based media – the cliché that radio is better than television because the pictures are better is true. I love how expansive it is, doing essays for the World Service. I had a commission from Hull City of Culture a few years ago and spent 18 months recording a piece that was a journey down the Humber Estuary from Goole Docks to Spurn Point. I'd been recording at a place called Flaxfleet, where the Knights Templar used to land on their return from the Crusades. There was a hospital there but now there's just a reed bed and some soggy ruins. On the way back we had to cross a single track railway line and the gates were down at a signal box named after a place called Oxmardyke, which is an Anglo-Saxon name. I stopped and got my gear set up to record a couple of trains passing and this guy got out of the signal box to ask what I was doing. I thought I was going to get my collar felt but he asked me up, I was like an excited little boy, in a proper signal box, with levers! This guy was called Dave, he was a great story teller, sitting alone in this moth-eaten armchair. In front of him, in prime position on top of the control unit, was this brass bell, and I remembered how one just like it appeared in the Charles Dickens ghost story called The Signalman that the BBC did an adaptation of in the 1970s. The bell will just start to suddenly tone if a signalman down the line rings it, it's really spooky. A bit like with the ghost train, obviously I've got this fascination with the sound of trains, which probably stems from Pierre Schaeffer's Étude Aux Chemins De Fer. I thought I must do something with this, the sounds of the signal box levers and everything, and made a programme called The Signalman for the BBC. The presenter is a really good writer called Ross Sutherland and he tells the story as if he's going home from the pub one night and walking down the track because he's got no money for a taxi, and comes across this signal box.

Chernobyl Soundtrack

Like a lot of these things it's the process even more than the end product. This part-decommissioned nuclear reactor in Lithuania was the darkest place I've ever been. It's an exact copy of Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl, which is why they chose to film there. It was vast, there are corridors at the back of the reactor that are a kilometre long, with dozens and dozens of rooms with Russian names and labels on them, some of which had people in them. It was under heavy guard, and everyone was checked for radiation all the time. Incredibly, it suffered from the same problem; they fixed it but didn't bother telling the people at Chernobyl. It was all recorded spatially with a surround sound array, and then Hildur [Guðnadóttir] worked with it in post-production. She had the sound of the space, some of it was activated, some of it was the dreadful 'noises off'. Hildur and her partner Sam created this stunning soundtrack full of musique concrète, which goes back to what I was interested in at the start: the sound of place.

Chris Watson's collaboration with Felicia Atkinson takes place at Kings Place in London on 11 February. For more information and tickets, please go here