Chris Watson isn’t a sonic journalist, he’s the sonic journalist. With a career that spans music production, video game soundtracks, sound recording, and audiobooks, his is a signature that knows no bounds. However, where his skillset tends to be most renowned is through his work with David Attenborough and the BBC. Here, Watson has delicately and expertly collected some of the most incredible sounds nature has to offer and delivered them straight to our living rooms, allowing us to hear behind a veil of nature that tends to be mute. We sat down with Chris to talk location recording, the importance of listening carefully and painting with sound.
Hi Chris! Please introduce yourself to our readers.
I’m Chris Watson and I’m a sound recordist.
So, Chris, you’ve enjoyed an incredible career in sound and recorded in some of the most remote and beautiful locations in the world. Is there a particular location that still lingers in your mind?
Yeah, I’ve had the privilege of traveling to many special locations, but the polar regions have a special magic about them. They’re like nowhere else on this planet. Now that doesn’t mean they’re my favorite places to visit necessarily, but it does mean that they have a powerful hold on my memory. When you’re at the North Pole you’re standing on the surface of a frozen sea. That sensation, knowing that’s where you are, that’s remarkable.
I was listening to a podcast recently and it was detailing how standing on this frozen sea will not be possible in the future due to climate change. There’ll soon be open water at the North Pole for the first time in history and that’s a powerful, disturbing, and worrying thought. Realizations like that make me conscious of the fact that some of the places I visit aren’t just remote, hostile, or strange, but they’re also very fragile.
Absolutely. I’d imagine going on location to these remote, hostile, fragile places felt so incredibly exciting at the beginning of your career. Do you still get the same feeling of wonder when you visit them today?
Of course, I mean in many ways that’s the thing that drives me. I’m still very passionate about the places I go, but I also believe that you don’t have to go to the end of the world to experience the magic of nature. There are powerful places right on your doorstep. Last night I was watching hedgehogs in my back garden in Newcastle and while that activity might seem trivial in comparison to something like the North Pole, it isn’t really. You’re still on your own. You’re still experiencing nature. You’re still doing something meditative that might make you feel some intangible, something indescribable, something ever-changing.
And has this vast travel made you think of the world as smaller or larger?
It definitely hasn’t made me think of the world as smaller. I think what I’ve found most interesting is how so many of these places remind me of other places. Last week I was in Germany along the Rhine and it reminded me so much of the river banks in Tanzania. Now, these two places are thousands of kilometers apart but there was something about them and their sounds that triggered me to draw a connection between them. In this way, I don’t think I’ve found the world seems larger or smaller, but I’ve definitely found it to be more connected.
You first dipped your toes into the practice of recording as a child when you would leave your tape recorder out on a bird table and capture the animal’s noises. Nowadays, do you record with the same intention of being a silent observer blending into the background as opposed to an active participant nearby?
I mean, in a sense, yes, but I also use a variety of techniques, some of which require very long cables and microphones that run sometimes 200 meters away today, however, even still you create some sort of disturbance when you go near a habitat so it’s always tricky.
Yes actually, this might sound quite basic, but how don’t you scare away the animals when you’re recording?
Well, oftentimes we cover our equipment with camouflage and local materials like cow dung to rid them of human scent. In these circumstances, I record at a distance and honestly, I prefer to do that. I don’t do much unattended recording like how you described earlier. I mean, I rarely stand beside my microphone and record things very closely because nothing will come towards or close to you if you do that, but I like to be present enough to make the editorial decisions about recordings in real-time.
One of the things I’m particularly interested in is the idea of perspective in recording, you know, the relative distance between the source of the sound and the microphone. It’s one of the things we listen for subconsciously when we’re engaging with any piece of sound so capturing it accurately is important to me. It’s the one thing that you can’t manipulate in post-production.
Earlier you used the word ‘meditative’ to describe the process of recording. The concept that you are a singular person capturing moments happening in real-time feels quite meditative. Do you ever feel the pressure that you’re the only person responsible for delivering these sounds or is this sense of meditation the prevailing feeling?
Definitely, it’s a meditative process for me. Now in saying that, I don’t mean meditative in the sense of drifting off. You have to be aware of what’s happening around you. You’re very much in the moment. You can’t think about anything else like your VAT bill or whatever. I don’t read a book or anything. I need to be there, you know, consciously listening.
However, what is also interesting, is that when I’m recording I need to think about perspective as well as my own proximity to the microphone. Sometimes I am able to see what I am hearing using binoculars, but oftentimes I’m unable to, or else what I am listening to up close in such detail is different from what I can see. This sensation is something that we’re not used to as humans apart from on film which coincidentally, is where I evolved my technique years ago.
You see when we look at something and we hear it, our eyes and ears are operating from the same perspective. They can make an assessment and make a connection together, however, with film and sound recording, it’s not the same. Instead, you can get this bizarre coming together of close-up sound and wide-angle perspectives or close-up images and wide-angle sound. It’s very different.
It’s interesting that you use the analogy of a screen because I was about to ask you about your albums Circle of Fire and Weather Report, both of which the BCC described as “cinema for the ears.” Is this analogy of filmmaking one on which you always center your work?
The best analogy is actually painting rather than filmmaking. I’ve just finished a soundtrack to a painting I was commissioned for in London and I found creating that to be such an interesting and engaging experience, for me anyway, to look deep into a painting like that was remarkable.
However, though it might sound like it, the idea of painting with sound isn’t new. It goes back as far as 40,000 years ago to cavemen painting on their walls and such. It’s interesting to think of paintings in that context because it means that paintings aren’t silent. I mean, they might appear to be but they’re not in many ways, and perspective plays a part in that as well as dynamics. In this way I like to think of my work as painting with sound, if it’s not too grand a statement, that’s how I like to imagine the pieces unfolding, like a developing canvas.
I don’t think it does. That description, painting with sound, kind of triggers a sort of internal ‘aha moment’ that really makes sense when you think of the fullness of a piece of audio, right?
For sure. There’s a cliché that is often used within the BBC that says, “radio is better than television because the pictures are better,” and of course, it makes sense. Sound stimulates our imaginations in really unique ways, particularly when you take away a visual aspect.
I’ve seen you mention in numerous interviews that you believe all humans to be good listeners. What exactly do you mean by that?
Well, all of us here today are evolved from humans who were very tuned into their environments, people who were asleep in caves tens of thousands of years ago and managed to escape a tiger or a clan of hyenas who came into the cave due to their senses and abilities. The people who didn’t hear predators approaching came to a very short evolutionary end and aren’t here today to sit here and experience life and talk to you.
Of course, to a certain extent, we have now lost the same degree of hearing humans had then because having it is not vital to our daily survival. We’re at this interesting evolutionary stage where the environment we live in is so noisy that we exclude many sounds.
In my opinion, and this could be rooted in my old age, I don’t think so many people walk around with headphones or earbuds because they’re obsessively listening to music or podcasts, I believe it’s because they want to block out the noise that surrounds them.
That’s an interesting point actually. As someone who has made a career out of listening, do you only listen to podcasts and music intentionally or would you listen to it casually as a sort of background noise?
The first one. I travel quite a bit and so I might listen to music whilst on a train or plane, but I always make a conscious decision to listen. I don’t put something on for the sake of it.
And do you think you generally listen more intently than the average person?
Well, it’s hard to say. I mean, I’m careful when I listen. I pay attention. However, as humans, we’re technically never not listening. We don’t have earlids. We’re even listening when we’re asleep which goes back to our fight or flight reactions that sustained our ancestors that I spoke about earlier.
I definitely like to listen carefully, but I don’t think that’s a magic thing, we can all learn to do it. As humans, we always hear, but we don’t always listen. There’s something immensely rewarding about listening and engaging with people and places, but you have to move past hearing and truly listen to these things to truly understand them.
Today, most people you meet have probably heard the sounds that you’ve collected, particularly those for your projects with David Attenborough, however, most of these people wouldn’t recognize you if they met you in person. Do you feel relieved with this anonymity?
That’s a good question. I actually haven’t thought about that much. I mean I see the effects that a lack of anonymity can have on someone’s day-to-day life through working with David. His lack of anonymity troubles him. He can’t escape it and that’s definitely not something I would like, so I suppose I feel content with it, yes.
On that, you’ve led such a varied and exciting career and have turned your hand to everything from video game soundtracks to music production to of course collecting nature sounds. Do you enjoy focusing on a variety of projects?
Yeah, I think so. I mean, sound is ubiquitous in that sense. It transfers across all mediums. I am often aware of my camera colleagues whose careers are stuck in a two-dimensional world of filmmaking because with sound, I can work across a multitude of mediums. I can talk to you today, I can make a radio program, I can make a film soundtrack, make a record, make a soundtrack to a painting – everything. Sound is boundless in terms of mediums and ways that you can work with it.
And to finish, what is your favorite sound?
Hmm… I don’t tend to have favorites at all, but I can tell you what sound I am looking forward to hearing most today which will be the sound of Fraya, my 18-month-old granddaughter’s laughter when she comes around this evening. I’m really looking forward to hearing her laugh.
interview by Alice O’Brien, for Bear Radio
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