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Chris Watson - Back To Nature in North Berwick With David Attenborough's Favourite Sound Recordist

The man with the rucksack and tinted glasses perusing the sandwiches in the Waverley Station branch of Marks and Spencers in Edinburgh doesn't look like he's made a journey to the centre of the earth in an Icelandic volcano. Chris Watson, in fact, looks ordinary enough to blend into any landscape without fuss. Which may go some way to explaining how the increasingly high profile BAFTA- award winning sound recordist went from being a founder member of experimental electronic pioneers Cabaret Voltaire to become David Attenborough's sound man of choice for his Life In The Undergrowth and Life In Cold Blood series, and, with Bill Oddie, Springwatch and Autumnwatch.

Watson also makes sonic installations, and has worked with Scottish artists Alec Finlay and Hanna Tuulikki, while his hypnotic 2003 album of field recordings for Touch Records, Weather Report, has been named as one of a thousand records essential to hear before you die. As well as working on feature film The Constant Gardener and with theatre company The Clod Ensemble, a recent week-long stint on teatime TV magazine The One Show thrust Watson into the mainstream like never before. As for that journey to the centre of the earth, the results of the trip to Icelandic glacier Snaefellsjokull could be heard in Jules Verne's Volcano, a thirty minute documentary made by Watson and broadcast on BBC Radio Four last week.

This week, however, Yorkshire-born Watson is resident in Edinburgh at the behest of Edinburgh University's Geography and Music and Sound Design departments, working with MSc students prior to a performance tonight presented by Dialogues experimental music festival in conjunction with Edinburgh International Science Festival. Three days ago, on a training workshop for researchers organised by the university-based Experimental Research Network, led by Michael Gallagher and Jonathan Prior, Watson hooked up with a group of sonic explorers for a day out in North Berwick to peruse and record the natural sounds that float in and out with the seaside town's tide.

As Watson joins up with his charges outside WH Smith, the noise of the ongoing arrivals and departures is offset even more by the industrial screech of a station in repair. From Platform eleven, high above on the other side of the station, a billboard displays a picture of a man wearing headphones. 'Sound' bears the headline, 'Investment Thinking.'

“I was in North Berwick recording for Springwatch on Bass Rock for three weeks,” Watson says of his familiarity with the local terrain while on the 9.38am train that's a long way from Snaefellsjokull.

“That was a really quick turnaround,” Watson says of Jules Verne's Volcano, which was recorded less than a month ago as an exploration of life in Iceland a year after the volcano, and features the voices of members of left-field post-rock band Sigur Ros among others. “I think the programme lost a bit of its narrative element. Normally you have a year or eighteen months to edit things, but if we'd gone any earlier than we did it would have been permanently dark.”

Just before Musselburgh, Watson's ears prick up to a slow-moving harmonic clang that's coming from a place hard to pinpoint.

“That'd be good to pick up with contact mics,” Watson says. “It'd make a nice ambient track. You should always have your equipment set up, 'cos you never know what you might hear. You say you'll get it on the way back, but you never hear it again.”

Several of the researchers are on their feet, clutching small items of recording equipment, and pressing microphones against the train walls as a doctor might place a stethoscope on someone's heart. This is the essence of sound recording, something Watson has gone on record as describing as trying to find the soul of a place.

Watson's lifelong adventure with sound began aged eleven after his parents bought him a portable tape recorder. A discovery of music concrete further expanded his outlook, before Watson hooked up with Stephen Mallinder and Richard H Kirk to form Cabaret Voltaire. Named after the Dadaist nightclub in Zurich where proto-live art was performed by some of the anti art movement's key players, Cabaret Voltaire combined primitive electronic rhythms with found sound documentary samples from sources such as recordings of American evangelists and political speeches.

Watson left Cabaret Voltaire in 1981 following the release of the band's Red Mecca album, to work as a sound recordist with Tyne Tees Television in Newcastle, where he now lives. It was at Tyne Tees where Watson honed his craft, and, while he dipped his toe back into musical waters with another experimental combo, The Hafler Trio, for more than twenty years he's travelled the world from the Antarctic to tropical rain forests, flitting between recording nature documentaries, making installations for sonic arts festivals and passing his experience onto others with boundless enthusiasm by way of workshops and residencies such as his current Edinburgh tenure.

On the beach in North Berwick, the sun is up and a haar is rolling in as Watson gives a show and tell on his electronic kit of microphones and reflectors. There is much talk of omni-directional capsules, which are small microphones Watson tapes either side of a coat-hanger, so “you could hang it on a banana tree in a tropical rainforest. They're designed to go on performers, so they can cope with humidity as much as make-up and perspiration. The only place I've had any problems with them is in the South Pole, where it was so cold they stiffened up and made David Attenborough's voice sound metallic. But there are a lot more interesting places to put them than on people. In a way, Phil Spector was right in that you can do everything on one microphone. Of you use a second, all you're adding is background noise.”

Further introductions are made to hydrophones (microphones you can drop into water) and parabolic reflectors (a shield with a mic at its centre that focuses its subject), - “nothing's been invented since the 1930s to better it” - and an ultrasound detector, which, as Watson demonstrates, can pick up the sound of your keys jangling in your pocket.

“When people say their dog's psychic because as soon as they pick up their lead they come running, that's what it is,” Watson explains.

The researchers drift off to record wind, air and sea that can be heard beyond the ice-cream van chimes, children playing and work-men repairing their boats as starlings and other birds flap about by the harbour.

“Recording the sea is really hard,” says Watson, “but it's a good place to start. Don't think I've ever done a recording of the sea that's worked. Our brains and ears are quite clever at distinguishing sea sounds from other stuff, but microphones aren't that clever.”

With the group dispersed and scattered about the beach with their equipment, from a distance, Watson observes, their solitary outlines “look like Anthony Gormley statues, standing really still as the tide comes up.”

Next to a car-park that used to be a swimming pool and is now being drilled into by several work-men, Watson talks about Walter Murch, the Oscar-winning sound designer who worked on Francis Ford Coppola's films, The Conversation and Apocalypse Now, and, much later, Anthony Minghella's the English Patient.
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“He couldn't get a union ticket as a sound recordist,” Watson says, “so the only way he could get in was to invent the term sound designer.”

The term stuck, and now sound designing is a respected artform in itself.

Over a packed lunch squatting on rocks, someone comments on a colleague holding as reflector to the air on a hill across the way, and how much it resembles a scene in Twenty-Four Hour party People, Michael Winterbottom's scurrilous homage to post-punk record label Factory Records and its TV presenter mouth-piece Tony Wilson in particular. The scene in question found maverick producer Martin Hannett, who arguably changed how music was recorded forever and was played in the film by Andy Serkis, was in a similar pose with a reflector, only to be approached by Steve Coogan as Wilson offering him a deal to become a partner in Factory.

'What are you doing?' Wilson asks.

'I'm recording silence!' Hannett replies.

'Recording silence?'

'No, I'm recording Tony fucking Wilson!'

The first record release by Cabaret Voltaire was also the first release by Factory, with the trio's two tracks, Baader Meinhoff and Sex in Secret forming one side of the 2X7” Factory Sample EP, with Joy Division, The Durutti Column and comic songsmith John Dowie taking up the other three. Although Cabaret Voltaire produced all their own material in their Sheffield-based western Works studio, Watson knew Hannett well.

“He was a genius producer,” he says. “I went out recording with him once, and I learnt a lot from the experience. It was a pretty accurate portrayal of him in the film, but I don't think Tony Wilson was portrayed that well.”

A couple of years ago, Watson was interviewed for Shadowplayers, a DVD documentary history of Factory made by James Nice, whose Les Temp Modernes label has licensed some of Factory's lesser-sung artistes, and recently published a book, also called Shadowplayers, fleshing out the interviews from the original film, which Watson calls “definitive.”

Watson was also interviewed for Made in Sheffield, another DVD documentary, this time about the depressed Yorkshire steel-making town which in the late 1970s, managed to spawn an experimental electronic underground that, as well as Cabaret Voltaire, also sired The Human League, Clock DVA and Vice Versa, who eventually morphed into ABC. There's something in that story about how, living in the shadow of the steel-works, Watson, Kirk, Mallinder and others couldn't help but recreate the industrial rhythms they heard. In Watson's case, there's something there too about a city kid breaking out and beyond the hot metal crashes of urban life to the great outdoors where it's easier to breathe in the natural sounds around you.

In North Berwick, as amplified seaweed sounds for all the world like popping bubblewrap underfoot, Watson instinctively finds the best rock pools to record.

“There's a really nice channel there,” he says, “bounding across the beach like some human divining rod as the tide rolls in increasingly faster while the haar gives the scene a strangely prehistoric air. “I quite like the fact that some of the sounds are transitory. They're there for a few minutes, then the tide takes them.”

Beyond such beatific ruminations, Watson has a million and one stories to tell. Like how, one Christmas, he and his family miked up the insides of a turkey carcass and planted it in the garden, where hungry starlings fed on it.

“Listening to it you were basically inside that carcass,” he recalls. “It was impossible to listen to on headphones.”

Then there was the wired-up dead rabbit on Mull, which was traced back to Watson's car by a bemused family of holiday-makers, who somewhat wisely kept their distance once they spied the strange-looking man wearing headphones in the driver's seat.

“I was in Ghana,” says Watson, “and this man comes right up close to me, and he goes, 'are you recording the air? Good!', and he wanders off. Then this little girl came up to me, pointed at my recorder and just went, 'sound photo.'”

Walking back towards the station in the late afternoon sun, Watson pauses a moment opposite a church and listens to the bird-song.

“That's really nice,” he says, “hearing a blackbird through multiple reflection, even though it's probably above us.”

Next week, Watson is off to Norfolk for fourteen days to record sounds for a documentary on photographer Emma Turner, who in the 1920s was the first person to capture on film the rarely spotted bird, the bittern. Post-production will take fourteen months rather than the three weeks Jules Verne's Volcano had.

In the mean-time, tonight's Edinburgh performance should set free some of the sounds captured by Watson this week. One that won't be in evidence is the metal hum heard on the train out to North Berwick. On the fast train back to Edinburgh, the sound is nowhere to be heard.

“That's how it goes,” says Watson. “It's never the same.”

Dialogues: Chris Watson, Inspace, Edinburgh tonight, 8pm
www.sciencefestival.co.uk
www.chriswatson-eorg.eventbrite.com

A shorter version of this appeared in The Herald, April 22nd 2011

ends

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