How Chris will capture sounds of the Steel City

Chris Watson
Chris Watson
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We’re surrounded by noise day in, day out, though few of us stop to listen. But there is one man whose life’s work is dedicated to listening to the sounds that most of us ignore.

Sheffield born-and-bred Chris Watson is a BAFTA-winning sound recordist, who travels the globe capturing modernity’s parallel universe – its sounds.

But now, the sound recordist is working on a very special project, which is soon to be exhibited at the Millennium Gallery – the sounds of his home city.

Known as Inside the Circle of Fire: A Sheffield Sound Map, the show takes in sounds from Sheffield’s Peak District borders through to the centre of the city.

“I didn’t want to make a clichéd piece about Sheffield so I focused on the freshwater rivers of the city as water is one of the reasons Sheffield became what it is.

“Even now there are little mesters who have water running through their workshop. Water is at the centre of Sheffield’s industry.”

His city sounds include buskers, street noises and sounds from the city’s most prestigious foundry – Forgemasters. And as well as documenting the sounds of Sheffield today, his work also shows how the city has changed over the years.

“The noise in the city centre has changed a huge amount – the sound of the traffic has gone and the industrial processes that were once heard in the east of the city are gone.”

But his sonic collage does n0t just take in urban life. Many of Chris’s Inside the Circle of Fire tracks include the dawn chorus of birds on Peak District border.

“If you stand on the moorland you can hear redshank and red grouse – it’s almost an alien sound to us now and it’s quite strange hearing this in a tree-less environment.”

Inside the Circle of Fire will be Chris’s most ambitious project to date, and certainly his most significant. It was Sheffield, after all, where his career as a sound recordist started.

“My parents bought me a tape recorder when I was 12 or 13 and it was an inspired gift. I started recording anything in the house – doors, my mum cooking and the birds in the garden.”

But among his recordings, it was studying the sounds of the birds in the garden that opened his eyes – or rather his ears – to a sonic universe that he never realised existed.

“I remember looking out of the kitchen and seeing all the birds feeding and singing so I put the microphone near them, came back inside and recorded them.

“I could hear everything that was going on and it was quite a privilege – birds normally fly away when you get near to them but this proved to be quite a transitional moment in my recording.”

Birds feature heavily in Chris’s career. The sound recordist won a BAFTA for Best Factual Recording for his work on the BBC’s The Life of Birds. But it’s not just birds and Sheffield he records.

Chris is fascinated by the sounds in the world’s oceans. “I use hydrophones, which are underwater microphones, to record sounds in the sea and beneath the sand. Sound travels much more efficiently in sea water and it’s amazing what sounds there are in the sea.”

One of the sounds he describes is that of the humpback whale’s mating call. “They stand up vertically and sing for about two or three hours. They are 50 to 60 feet long and they perform a song for female selection.”

And while his work largely focuses on the organic sounds of nature, his trade was as a musician, contributing to the electro and inorganic sounds of Cabaret Voltaire. He then started working for Channel Four television on shows such as The Tube in the 1980s.

But whether organic or inorganic, it’s sound that preoccupies Chris.

“People cannot cope without sound. Putting people in a soundless room is a form of torture, as people start to search internally for sounds.”

With Inside the Circle of Fire, however, Chris is looking for Sheffield’s signature sound. “A lot of European cities sound the same, mainly because of the traffic, but I want to show why Sheffield sounds like it does.”

To achieve this, Chris has also invited the Sheffield public to submit their own sounds of the city.

“I’ve had an amazing response and I am keen to hear more contributions for people as I can guarantee that these sounds will be heard

So far, Watson’s recordings will be woven with the public’s contributions.

“The ‘sound map’ will be realised using the very latest in ambisonic technology, creating distinct pockets of spatial audio throughout the Millennium Gallery’s main exhibition space.

“It’s been wonderful rediscovering the signature sounds and rhythms of my city, from the high moorland boundaries to the urban and industrial core. I’m also really interested in gathering people’s favourite Sheffield sounds to collage into the finished work, so it will be great to hear the city sounds that are special to them,” says Chris.

Full instructions on how to contribute a recording of the sounds they feel are unique to their experience of Sheffield can be found at www.museums-sheffield.org.uk

Inside the Circle of Fire: A Sheffield Sound Map by Chris Watson will open at the Millennium Gallery on Thursday September 12, 2013 and continue until February 23, 2014 – entry to the exhibition is free.