Ahead of appearing at Sound of the Thames Delta this Saturday, Chris Watson tells ICYMI about his enduring fascination with sound and place that’s taken him from industrial music experimentation in Sheffield to some of the most awe-inspiring places in the world
IT’S inspiring talking to Chris Watson, both about his former career and the one he’s got now. In the 1970s, Chris was part of groundbreaking experimental group Cabaret Voltaire who were at the vanguard of the British electronic movement in that era. Nowadays, he’s one of the world’s foremost sound recordists, renowned for his field recordings of nature.
Check out the web page on the BBC Radio site dedicated to Chris’s field recordings, entitled A Life In Sound, and you’ll find his recordings of extraordinary – and ordinary – places, from deserts, mountains and caves to Newcastle central train station. Chris has travelled around the world to make these recordings and is fascinated with the idea that sound and place are inextricably linked.
Listen to Chris and the sounds of the Kalahari desert here
He’ll be travelling to Southend this weekend for the Estuary festival to talk about those ideas with music writer Pete Paphides and Martyn Ware of the Human League, Heaven 17 and a soundscape composer who knows Chris from their formative years in Sheffield.
“It looks like a really good festival with some very interesting stuff happening,” says Chris when asked what attracted him to the festival. “Martin and I have kept in touch over the years. We’re both interested in the sound of places and how it influences musicians. Martin and I grew up in Sheffield, we’re a similar age and have got similar influences.”
The industrial sound of the Steel City certainly had an influence on the music Chris and Martyn made; using synthesizers and electronic equipment, they were part of the wave of electronic acts that emerged from Sheffield, a heartland of the industrial north, in the 1970s and 1980s.
“I’m interesting generally in how the sound of a place influences music. I’m convinced that all music is influenced and stimulated by the natural world. I think everything comes from the natural world.”
Chris traces his interest in sound environments to when he was given a portable tape recorder by his parents as an 11-year-old and started recording the world around him, then playing it back and manipulating what he heard. He got into the ‘musique concrete’ technique developed by Pierre Schaeffer and took that approach to his work with Cabaret Voltaire, which combined Dada-style performance art and experimental sounds.
The band were a major influence in the electronic and post-punk era but Chris left the band in 1981 to become a sound engineer and pursue his own interests in recording, embarking on an artistic journey that’s taken him around the world.
“I gradually realised I was dissatisfied with the music industry and ‘style’. I hated all that. I became more and more intent on what I could hear and record outside the studio rather than inside. I became more intent on film sound design, that’s where I was drawn to and I gradually drifted into location sound.”
He’s certainly not regretted making that move.
“I love what I do now. I’m very privileged to have been to the South and North Poles. I love the experiences I get to have. I still get to explore.”
For his sound recordings and installations, Chris has to combine the instincts of an artist with detailed technical know-how. Is that a tricky balance to get right?
“I really enjoy both sides of it, it’s all part of the palette for me. I start with the sound recording, but I couldn’t do one part of it without the other.”
He may have been to some of the most dramatic landscapes in the world, but Chris says he has a particular soft spot for the East Anglian coast.
“It’s full of sound, especially at this time of year. You get wading birds from the Arctic coming down, this big wave of migrant birds, and these places along the coast really come to life.”
Chris has just done a sound piece for BBC Radio 3 in which he traces the sound of the River Thames from Southbank to Canvey Island and Grain Island in the Estuary, which is just about perfect preparation for his appearance at Sound of the Thames Delta this weekend. You can expect him to talk with some passion about his belief in how the world around us influences us and the music we make.
“Whether you live in Essex, Sheffield or a remote island in the Orkneys, you’re influenced by the sound of what’s around you.”
Locations That Make The Music with Chris Watson, Martyn Ware and Pete Paphides is at The Royal Pavilion, Southend Pier from 4.15pm. Find out more about Sound of the Thames Delta and the Estuary festival at www.estuaryfestival.com Find out more about Chris’s work at chriswatson.net