The Wild (-Life) Sound Recordings of Chris Watson

As most of us know, the English word “gift” doesn’t just mean “present” it also means having an inherent talent or skill. Nevertheless, it’s likely that neither the battery-run tape recorder which Brit Chris Watson was given at the age of 13 nor his undeniable talent for finding, recording, documenting and processing all manner of sounds are solely responsible for the fact that he is perhaps the most important and best-known sound recordist known today.

According to him, his multiple successes are all something anyone could have done, he modestly claims. He has been successful over the past 53 years as co-founder of the groundbreaking experimental band Cabaret Voltaire, composed countless sound carriers from field recordings, written radio programs, workshops and podcasts for the BBC, created soundtracks, performed live as well as, most recently, assisted Oscar winner Hildur Guðnadóttir with her recordings of a Lithuanian nuclear power plant. And now the man is launching the “Decade of the Oceans” in Berlin in 2021 with a huge sound installation commissioned by the UN.

Chris Watson and long-time collaborator David Attenborough in Costa Rica 2019
Chris Watson and long-term collaborator Davis Attenborough

“We are all innately good listeners. I think one reason for that is that we all descend from people who were good listeners. 40,000 years ago, we were all living in caves. So we would have been somewhere up in the Alps or in Lascaux in France or in the Bale Mountains of Ethiopia or in the Kalahari. And when we were asleep at night, and a saber-tooth tiger or some spotted hyenas crept into our caves, the people who woke up and escaped out of the back of the cave got to pass on their genes. The people who didn’t wake up aren’t sat here with us now because they weren’t good listeners, and they came to a very rapid evolutionary dead end.”

In our contemporary visually fixated world, saber-toothed tigers may no longer be able to tear us apart, but Watson is aware of the importance of sustained emotional and sensual experiences and is confident that there are a new curiosity and longing for deep listening experiences and the collective experience of the aural richness that our world, whether in nature or in the city, holds. 

Chris Watson recording for Arizona November 2019 for Green Planet
Chris Watson recording for BBC’s Green Planet in Arizona

„Give people the right opportunity to listen. So they’re in a comfortable space, you turn the lights down, you don’t need flashy lights or images. Just let people be comfortable and put them in a good environment with good acoustics, with a really good spatial system, and people get it.  

You don’t need a lot of artistic justification because sound is visceral. In that respect, it’s deeply emotional and powerful, but you need to get people the opportunity of hearing it. Shut everything else up.“

All the sounds Chris Watson uses for his preferred creative medium, installation/performance, which he has ‘recorded’ on countless journeys under water, on land and, um, inside decaying animal cadavers, in the ‘field,’ need to be found first. How does someone who started out in an experimental but nevertheless in the broadest sense pop music band get to go from the comfortable world of the interior into the deep unknown outside? What drives him today?

“You put your headphones on for the first time, and you have this unique perspective of the world in a way that only you can hear at that moment.”

 „Discover, listen, record, and engage. Mostly with (sort of) the natural world but really with anything that I’d be interested in. The older I get, having children and grandchildren, I need to focus on what will be interesting and productive, and engaging. And that is one of the things that you learn through experience, through the field craft. I still have that amazing spark of excitement and enthusiasm. 

You put your headphones on for the first time, and you have this unique perspective of the world in a way that only you can hear at that moment. I also love the other end, where I broadcast it to the wider world, being able to share that experience with an audience.“

If we are all good listeners, does that mean we can all become good sound recordists?

“I think I became more interested in what I was hearing outside than what we were creating inside in the studio.”

„Take your iPhone out, go make some recordings. You don’t need thousands of Euros of equipment around your neck. But you need to know if you like it because it is quite a hardcore activity standing out there when it is raining or its freezing cold. It’s dark, so you need to get physical and practical experience. Some people like the idea of it, but they don’t like being outside. 

I like that sense of isolation. When I was with the band, what probably happened was that I became frustrated with the studio, and it was the antidote to being in the studio. On the edge of Sheffield, there is open moorland and forest, and there are a lot of green spaces where I would just go walking with Maggie (Editor’s Note: his wife, who is still often traveling with him) back then.

Recording wood ants, Northumberland
Recording wood ants, Northumberland

And because we had the studio, I took more and more sophisticated recording equipment with me out of the studio and out on these walks and listening to these things back. I think I became more interested in what I was hearing outside than what we were creating inside in the studio. I found it stranger but more engaging and just fascinating and ought to explore the potential of that. And that wasn’t possible within the constraints of the band.“ 

Thank God, we want to exclaim. Not only because that means we don’t need to pity a great artist like Chris Watson, as he embarks on a boring pop-music reunion tour, but the artist who is at home in many different media may also finally be able to record and pass on a sound that has been close to his heart for a long time but never in our ears:

„I have been very interested in recording sounds in the seas and the oceans for the last 15 years, and I have done a lot from the Arctic to the Antarctic, but there is one thing I always wanted to record. So when I was commissioned to do the ‘Decade of Ocean’ piece, I was asked what that thing was. I said I always wanted to record the song of the blue whale.

So I will go to the Sea of Cortez in Baja California where blue whales gather to spend ten days, trying to record them with underwater microphones and then hopefully in summer also record beluga whales for the same project.“

Which, despite all the inherent difficulties, will surely still be easier to fulfill than the request of a gaming company, which has to remain unnamed here, (strictly off the record) who once asked him to record a real saber-toothed tiger (!) for the sound of a video game. That the very humorous and extremely unpretentious Chris Watson nevertheless fulfilled the customer’s wish to his complete satisfaction by recording a few crows in his own back garden is just a rumor that can’t be confirmed at this point.

Adele penguins, Ross island, Antarctica
Adele penguins on Ross Island, Antarctica