When Chris Watson was driving around Sheffield with the rest of Cabaret Voltaire blasting out their music to an unsuspecting public little did he think he would be staging a major sound installation in the historic Howard Assembly Room in Leeds.
Since those days as an electronic pioneer Watson has gone on to become a world-renowned sound recordist described as ‘the daddy of wildlife and sound recording’ for his trailblazing work on Frozen Planet.
His new show produced in collaboration with Opera North was inspired by a painting he saw in Dublin featuring a mysterious island called Hy Brasil off the coast of Ireland that may or not have existed. It seemed the obvious choice to create a fantasy world using some of his collection of sounds from the natural world.
“There is an account from the 18th century of some sailors finding black monkeys on the island,” says Watson. “So I have a recording of black howler monkeys from South America who have this sort of remarkable booming, roaring voice so they will be living amongst the indigenous trees.
“I’ve followed sunrise to sunset so everything has a narrative element and it’s not abstract. I drew a map of the island so everything you hear exists at the level and in the place I recorded it. It was an enjoyable experience as normally when I’m working with pure natural history the integrity of what you put where is paramount.”
The trick about this show is that apart from some lighting there are no fancy visual tricks. It’s just recordings Watson has made of ocean currents that start off in North America. Everything that visitors conjure up in their mind’s eye will be unique.
“Hy Brasil is completely in my imagination and people will imagine that they can see based on what they hear because you are immersed in sound as a very direct experience,” notes Watson. “Our sense of sound, along with our sense of smell, is the most powerful in stimulating our imagination and psychologically as well.
“A good film is one in which you could close your eyes and still get something from it. I like the collaborative nature of film when I’m working in it, but I really like the idea of this where I’m given the opportunity to just to work on my own.”
Recently the Eccentronic Research Council (ERC) appeared on BBC 6music with Mark Radcliffe and said that Cabaret Voltaire used to drive round Sheffield playing avant-garde electronica to tired steelworkers standing at bus stops. But surely that is just an urban myth passed down through generations of Steel Town’s electronic noiseniks?
“No, it’s true as that was one of the things we were interested in doing at the time as a performance part of our work,” laughs Watson. “We were all exited by all these things because the stuff we were listening to at Sheffield City Hall was diabolical. We were all in our late teens, early 20s so were interested in doing something new.
“At the time Andy Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable was happening and we were interested in Dada as an art form so this side of presenting work unannounced to the public was exiting to us. We had an old Austin van with speakers in the back so instead of creating a political rally we trying out our music.”
How did that go down?
“The reaction was exactly what you think it would be!”
Right up to the ERC’s amazing contemporary work with Maxine Peake and back to the days when Watson shared a building with Clock DVA and had The Human League for neighbours, Sheffield has been at the cutting edge of electronic music.
“It was just one of these moments like a piece of evolution which happens in all arts forms where you have an eureka moment and things coalesce. It was mixture of technology and of dissatisfaction. It was the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire so it was genuinely an exciting place.
“I’m not a social historian but the stuff that was coming into Sheffield was crap yet we were reading about what was happening in New York and in Europe with band like Can and Kraftwerk. One of things that helped us was the restrictions as the technology was there, but it was still expensive, so our development took several years to learn how to use and abuse the technology which fuelled us creatively.
“There was a sense of competition and we still exchanged ideas with the other bands in the Beehive which was our local pub on West Street.”
It’s a long way from blasting housewives with electronic music to recording birds on the Galapagos lslands, but for Watson it is driven by a childhood obsession with sound.
“This all started when I was 12 or 13 when my parents brought me a little reel-to-reel tape recorder as a gift,” Watson recalls. “I can’t remember asking for it but that liberated my enthusiasm and passion so I recorded everything in the house and then outside.
“This show is a tribute to my parents for their inspiration, and my work with Cabaret Voltaire was part of that journey.”
Hy Brasil is free and is in the Howard Assembly Room at Opera North, Leeds from February 28 to March 15, 2014.