Lending an ear to the sounds of Sheffield

Chris Watson  leading a dawn chorus recording trip on Blackamoor
Chris Watson leading a dawn chorus recording trip on Blackamoor
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“I’m just underneath Sheffield station in the Megatron,” says sound recordist Chris Watson.

Sheffield-born Chris, who is these days probably best known for his appearances on BBC nature shows Springwatch and Autumnwatch, was also one third of city electronic band Cabaret Voltaire.

He has been busy creating Inside the Circle of Fire, which is described as an immersive sound map of Sheffield. Now based in Newcastle, Totley-born Chris did a piece last year following the River Tyne. He decided that rivers were also key to to the story of Sheffield.

He said: “Sheffield is where it is because of the rivers. They feed the city and the environment but when you get to the middle you hardly see them.”

That led to the Megatron. “It’s this incredible flood relief system. There’s a huge system of tunnels that’s cathedral like. It’s a great connection to the piece, finishing under the city.”

One highlight of recording was “Forgemasters without a doubt. It’s harmonically very rich. The sound’s got a really interesting musical nature to it.”

He added: “I also went to matches at Hillsborough and Bramall Lane. Luckily we went to two really good games with one of my sons. I just stood in the crowd and recorded all the songs and chanting and the atmosphere. It’s really electrifying to be in the middle of a group of people like that.”

The nature of the city also plays a big part. Chris said: “When I lived here I used to go to Blackamoor. I led a sound walk there at 3am when the temperature was -2°. There was lots of wildlife and unusual things like red grouse, snipe and golden plover creating an alternative dawn chorus.

“Before dawn it’s dark and all around you is full of birds carrying out their displays and singing. It’s like a concert around and above your head from birds you can’t see.

“I also did a dawn chorus in Ecclesall Woods with completely different species, migrant birds from sub-Saharan Africa who have come back to Ecclesall Woods where they were hatched a year before. “

Sheffielders also submitted their own recordings.Chris said: “I wanted to make sure we reflected Sheffield because I’ve not lived there for 30 years. I wanted to encourage people to contribute.

“One was Sheffield Buddhist Centre chanting. It was new to me and great to be able to get something I wouldn’t even have known about.

“Every contribution has been included in the piece. Not all the things are immediately recognisable but they are part of the body of the work and make up a great collage.”

Chris’s attraction to recorded sound began as a boy.He said: “When I was about 11 or 12 I lived in Totley Rise, where I grew up. My parents bought me a reel-to-reel tape recorder from Wigfalls in London Road.”

Chris explained his fascination: “Sound stimulates your imagination like nothing else other than your sense of smell. You put some headphones on and you can be transported to these places that you hear.”

As a teenager his interest turned to music.

“I discovered that there were proper composers that were using what we call found sounds to make music with.

“I was amazed to find that grown-ups were doing this and it was a recognised music form. You didn’t have to study the violin or piano for years, you could record music on this technical device.”

That led to forming Cabaret Voltaire with Stephen Mallinder and Richard H Kirk. They signed to Factory Records in Manchester, recording alongside Joy Division, OMD and the Buzzcocks.

Chris has had a career as a sound recordist for TV and film that has taken him around the world. He has also has a solo recording career.

Inside the Circle of Fire opens at the Millennium Gallery tonight and runs until February 23.