Chris Watson began his tape experiments as part of pioneering electronic band Cabaret Voltaire, and later co-founded The Hafler Trio. He has recorded albums for Touch Records, created sound installations across the world, recorded nature documentaries with David Attenborough and collaborated with artists including Alec Finlay and Hanna Tuulikki. He is currently working on ‘Whispering In The Leaves’ for 2008’s AV Festival in Sunderland.
What’s going on in the garden?
I was commissioned to do a sound piece for the Winter Gardens in Sunderland. It’s similar to the sorts of places I remember in Sheffield from when I was a kid. All these rich Victorian philanthropists who didn’t know what to do with their money sent out their people to collect specimens and showed them for public benefit in what were basically massive public greenhouses. As soon as I walked in it reminded me of plants from a rainforest, where you hear more than you see, except it was as if someone had provided me with a set. I’ve done two pieces using sounds from rainforests, one for sunrise and one for sunset. Both are about 20 minutes long, where the sounds are compressed in the way that time-lapse photography is. It’s the best way to interpret what I record, because with television and film you rarely get a chance to use your imagination. Here you can literally immerse your audience in the sound of a place.
In at the deep end?
I’m also doing this piece with Nurse With Wound called ‘Wet Sounds’. The last two years I’ve recorded sounds of the ocean for a commission from National Geographic. So now people can go into a swimming pool and hear sounds from the Pacific, including some really nice recordings of killer whales. A lot of people say they want to swim with dolphins, but I’ve yet to meet anyone who wants to swim with whales.
What’s the frequency?
With sound installations, curators are still at a very early stage in terms of dealing with sound properly, and when it’s bad it’s really crap. How something’s presented is crucial. It’s the same as if a painting is lit badly. It kills the experience.
From industrial urban to back to nature. How did you get here?
From aged eleven when my parents bought me my first tape recorder I’ve just been doing the same things, really. In Cabaret Voltaire I became more interested in sounds outside the studio than those inside. It was that fascination that was the deciding factor why I left, through a gradual sense of detachment, and being able to hear things outside that sounded more beautiful, strange and immersive. Industrial was never a term Cabaret Voltaire used. Our major influences were Stax, Tamla Motown and early German stuff, but the industrial tag was never important. It was only later when we met people like Kraftwerk we realised there was this subliminal connection. Funnily enough, my next album for Touch is full of industrial sounds recorded on a train journey in Mexico.
What was Cabaret Voltaire’s experience of ‘playing’ the 1975 Edinburgh Film Festival?
We weren’t there. We sent a film and a sound tape, which were deliberately unsynchronised. Most of the staff didn’t know what to do with it. It was an extreme, but it was an extreme which was exactly right for the time.
Nature or nuture?
I’d like to think people are risking more in terms of what they listen to. There’s enough music in the world. Now we have to learn to listen. This morning I was coming out of a shop on the high street, and there was a mistle-thrush singing, and with all the traffic noise it was a moment of beauty.
What else do you listen to?
Late Junction, Radio 3, Larry McCrae. John Lydon summed it up when he said that there’s decent music and there’s rubbish.
Favourite album covers?
I’m biased, but I love Jon Wozencroft’s covers for all the Touch Records stuff. It’s so sympathetic, and immediately strikes a chord which encapsulates the work. I like all the Soul Jazz covers as well, the vibrancy of the colours.
What art is on your walls?
I’ve got originals by John Steel, a Northumberland National Park Ranger, who does natural history paintings. There’s also an old Cabaret Voltaire poster from a gig we did with William Burroughs at Plan K in Belgium.What’s next?
I’m working on a piece in the Italian Alps, I’ve a co-commission with Matthew Herbert, and am working on a film in Orford Ness, a weird low-lying spit off the Suffolk Coast, which must be one of the most secretive sites in Britain. It’s a strange mix of abandoned Cold War technology and a wildlife reserve. I also spent five days working at FACT in Liverpool, and stayed at the Adelphi Hotel, recording the noises of the lifts and corridors. There’s a great acoustic there, and it’s full of history and ghosts. It would be great to re-create that somewhere.
Neil Cooper is an arts writer