Chris Watson is one of the UK’s pre-eminent sound recordists. He has worked all over the globe and won a BAFTA in 2012 for his soundtrack on David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet series. This September, Watson’s exhibition Inside the Circle of Fire will transform Millenium Gallery, Sheffield, turning it into an immersive sound-map of the city, where the recordist grew up. Watson speaks to Aesthetica about his journey through Sheffield and his approach to sound.
A: Inside the Circle of Fire is a sound map of Sheffield – what does this mean and how did you approach such a project?
CW: Being born and brought up in Sheffield I’d become interested in the sound of the city and the sound of places. I knew the city and was interested in the geography of it, so when Museums Sheffield gave me the opportunity to make a sound piece it seemed interesting to me to do something that was very site-specific rather than a general or abstract piece. I have always wanted the opportunity to record more in Sheffield because I don’t live there any longer, I’ve not lived there for 30 years.
I was really interested in this idea of creating the sounds of a place and linking them together. A long time ago, I made an album called Outside the Circle of Fire, which was based on the work of a French anthropologist in South America studying effects and events of people and towns outside the circle of the campfire, in the darkness. I decided with this piece, Inside the Circle of Fire, I wanted to look in from the edge of the city inwards; so I started on the very edge of Sheffield and made my way, in sound, down to the city centre.
As a vehicle for this journey I used water and rivers. As a part of the process of this piece I discovered something I’d really never registered when I was growing up in Sheffield, which is that Sheffield is a city of rivers. So I really channeled myself down through some of those rivers, through the sound of water, because that’s what brings life into the city and has driven it industrially, and to a large extent, creatively. And so that’s where we end up, in the centre of the city, actually in the heart of the city, underneath its surface, in these amazing flood relief systems, the great Megatron.
A: Is the project personal at all, have you incorporated sounds that personally remind you of home?
CW: It’s a deeply significant and personal work for myself, it’s the realisation of a lot of work I thought about when I was down in Sheffield. The place that I chose to start, and was guided to actually, was Blackamoor on the very periphery of the city, with this fantastic view over the valleys of Sheffield. This is the place I grew up, in Totley, on the edge of the city and on the edge of Derbyshire. One of the first places I started exploring in sound were these high heather moorlands. Blackamoor has one of the most exotic and wild-sounding dawn choruses that you’ll hear anywhere in the world, not just in Britain, with all these exotic bird’s doing aerial displays; curlew, redshank, lapwing. So we started in the darkness in late April on Blackamoor, a place I remembered walking as a young teenager, so that was very significant form me.
The project has also been guided by the people I’ve met, people who live and work in the city, they informed my work with a fantastic series of contributions. Even things like the one o’clock siren – which, astonishingly considering how loud it is, I’d just been unaware of – was pointed out to me and I’ve had a few recordings from different perspectives.