Learning to listen with Chris Watson

Sound Recordist Extraordinaire Chris Watson is one interesting & incredibly inspiring man. I’m old enough to have experienced Cabaret Voltaire the first time around, a band that Watson was a founding member of. Quoting from an old Sound On Sound article “Cabaret Voltaire began their musical life in a flat in Sheffield, equipped only with an EMS VCS3 synthesizer, an oscillator, and a Revox tape machine…” Apart from the heavy use of electronics & electro beats I also remember them as using great vocal samples/fragments in their music. Tunes such as Yashar with its haunting refrain: “There are seventy billion people on earth, where are they hiding?” and the following video for the song Sensoria, still send a shiver up my spine….

Back in 1983 Chris Watson left Caberet Voltaire to found The Hafler Trio (with Andrew M. McKenzie) before becoming a location sound engineer and it is his latter career that I would like to draw attention to.

Photo of Chris Watson by Kate Humble | Iceland 2007

Apart from his work on film and television soundtracks (the above photo comes from his work on the previously mentioned Sigur Ros DVD) Chris Watson also releases some of his exquisite location sound recordings on the Touch record label including:

Outside the Circle of Fire
Stepping Into The Darkness
Weather Report

Note: All of these albums are available in MP3 or FLAC format via the excellent Boomkat

A while back I bought the first two CDs and despite being slightly cynical of the genre, I was overjoyed to hear incredibly detailed & evocative recordings that any normal humans would just never otherwise get to hear. My cynicism (and thats not quite the right word) about location sound recording presented as art stems from the wide range of material available, and I mean wide range as in wide range of quality – technically & aesthetically… Unfortunately it seems if you make ambient music then it is almost obligatory to include either some badly recorded bird song or some distant recordings of children playing. This is obviously a generalisation & maybe only a trait of the naive, but I always take a deep breath before investing the time to find out. Because I spend much of my waking time either recording or auditioning/editing & manipulating sound, I am wary of cliches (unless they serve a specific purpose that outweighs the overuse) & also constantly have to make judgement calls on the quality & usability of sounds recorded on location. I also question why, when we all have a good set of ears & live in the real world, do we need someone to record what is often outside our own front door & frame it as art. But as with much art, the proof is in the pudding, the ‘why’ is often justified by the ‘what’ – if it evokes something in us then it can be considered successful. Equally if it only evokes a grimace and another question of why, then I tend to reach for the skip button….

Such was not the case with Chris Watson, as this example illustrates: “We listen to a recording from Kenya, of vultures consuming a zebra killed by lions. By tying tiny microphones to the ribs and disguising the cables, Watson takes us right inside the animal. It’s a mildly horrifying mix of screaming, pecking, flesh ripping and flies buzzing. “I told some schoolkids that this was the last thing they would hear were they to be eaten alive by vultures. As a joke.” He laughs – then reveals how three of them burst into tears.”

If you happen to live or visit the UK, I’d also like to draw your attention to a course that Chris Watson contributes to, namely the WILDEYE SOUND COURSE which aims to provide:
– An introduction to film sound and learning to listen.
– What good quality sound can bring to a production ie sound is not a problem to be overcome, rather it is a creative opportunity to improve and enhance the overall quality of a film.
– All aspects of wildlife sound recording for film & tv in order to provide the dubbing editor with useful, high quality material for track assembly.
– The importance of being able to follow a soundtrack through from location to transmission.

“I’m fascinated by the secret languages of bioacoustics,” says Watson. “I like the idea, with animal sounds, that we’ll never understand them – never have that spell broken. With some of the higher mammals, we’d probably be terrified if we did. We can hear sounds like the cheetah and just appreciate their beauty and eloquence – like listening to a foreign language we don’t understand.”

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