Chris Watson is a BAFTA award winning wildlife and natural history field recordist who frequently collaborates with Sir David Attenborough. He is currently creating a sound installation called "No Man's Land" at Berry Head National Nature Reserve in Devon. It has been produced for "The Tale", a Torbay based arts event which takes the audience on an immersive journey through the interconnected sounds of our oceans and seas.
A founding member of influential 70s/80s band Cabaret Voltaire, Chris approaches his installations like musical collages, seeking to engage and entertain through his carefully molded compositions. The following interview with Chris, appears on The Tale's blog. Here Chris talks about his piece, the process so far and working at Berry Head.
What can you tell us about your installation? What can audiences expect? What will it feel like?
No Man’s Land begins on the cliff at Berry Head with the familiar sounds of nearby Paignton Harbour, before evolving into the sounds of the vertical sea cliffs at Berry Head, which slowly slips into the ocean with the incoming tide. Sound travels so well through the seas.
Once the tide comes in and the recognizable sounds of Brixham Harbour and the sea cliffs disappear, the aim is to create the effect of the audience standing on the seabed with these sounds happening all around them, and in particular above them. The audience are immersed in this oceanic environment for most of the duration of the piece, while the sounds of the animals and the waves create the piece that’s happening all around them. No Man’s Land takes the audience on this journey through the gloriously rich musical sounds of the ocean and then back onto the quayside at Berry Head as the tide ebbs away and back on to dry land. That’s the ambition for the piece.
What is special about the site of your installation, Berry Head Quarry, and the relationship between your installation and the site?
It’s a site-specific piece; the first series of sounds have been recorded in that location, taken from Brixham harbor, the wave wash on the quayside at Berry Head and the sounds underwater directly under the quay at Berry Head. The audience will be perched on the edge of the largest and most sound rich habitat on the planet. The audience will be able to turn around and look across the ocean whilst simultaneously hearing what’s actually underneath this vast, trackless place, this No Man’s Land, a place which is very hostile to us, a place we know very little about.
It’s often been said we know more about the dark side of the moon than the surface of the ocean. No Man’s Land is a sonic journey of the imagination through this dreamlike seascape. From Weddell seals singing under the Antarctic sea ice to the coral reef in the South China seas; the songs of humpback whales in the Caribbean to the hunting sounds of pods of Orca in the North Atlantic, to the songs of grey seals in the North Sea, and throughout, the slow rhythm of the oceans controlled by the tide, as our many of our lives.These ocean sounds are very familiar to us. Underwater sounds are the sounds we hear when when our hearing first develops at 16 weeks old in our mother’s womb. We first hear the world through a fluid and so we have an association with listening to sounds underwater which echoes back to before our memories kick in and listen to the world in the way we first heard it, before we were even born. The other thing to discuss is the fact that it’s a spatial audio piece, it’s a very challenging piece to create and install practically, and I’ve never made a sound piece that’s for a vertical space, which is really interesting. In my studio I’ve had to set up something that’s not a conventional surround sound system but a vertical system so that I can recreate on a smaller scale the place. Once the tide comes in and the sounds of Brixham harbor and the seacliffs disappear, the aim is to create the effect of the audience standing on the seabed with these sounds happening all around them, and in particular above them, so you’re literally immersed in this environment, this oceanic environment for most of the duration of the piece and you can imagine that you’re free standing on the seabed while these sounds, these animals and the waves action creates the piece that’s happening all around you, particularly above you. That’s the ambition for the piece.How do you approach the recording and editing process for No Man’s Land?It’s a bit like fishing for sound. Some of the earlier recordings in the piece were recorded off the quayside at Berry Head, the sounds of pistol shrimps snapping and cracking just below the surface. I use hydrophones (an underwater microphone) and target the place I’m going to record thinking of the animals. There are also sections we recorded in the rock pools with Sound Communities (a local arts project). A lot of the sounds from Torbay are from the collaboration of the young people from Sound Communities. And finally, could you tell us a little more about the sounds audiences can expect, or listen out for?This morning I’ve been working with the sounds of the coral reef in the South China seas, the snap, crackle and pop of these tiny crustaceans - it sounds like Rice Crispies! The piece then moves on to the Caribbean to the sounds of humpback whales. It goes from sounds of very tiny microscopic animals to some of the loudest animals that have ever lived. The sound of humpback whales is an incredibly powerful physical sound, and I’m really looking forward to it coming out of the system at Berry Head.
Find out more about The Tale, and how to get involved, here: https://the-tale.co.uk/