An Upland Chorus

30 September 2013 // Chris Watson Watch

Field recordist Richard Bradley joins Chris Watson for a night walk on Blacka Moor:

Museums Sheffield have commissioned ex-Cabaret Voltaire member, top field recordist and native Sheffielder Chris Watson to create an ambitious ‘sound map’ of the city, which opened earlier this month and continues until February 2014. Now based up in Northumberland, Chris paid a return visit to Sheffield in mid-April 2013, around the same time that (following an unexpectedly drawn out winter that saw heavy snowfall in mid-March which was still lingering on in huge drifts over a fortnight later) spring migrants such as willow warblers, chiffchaffs and swallows were beginning to return back to Sheffield from their African wintering grounds.

In conjunction with Museums Sheffield’s events team, Chris was leading two nature walks in order to gather sounds for his piece – an Upland Chorus on Chris’ home turf at Blacka Moor, Totley on the 20th April, and a woodland Dawn Chorus taking place in Ecclesall Woods on Sunday 21st. I attended the former, and so it was that I found myself at 2:45am skirting the country lanes of the Mayfield Valley in a taxi, my journey soundtracked slightly incongruously by the radio playing a Bollywoodised version of Daft Punk’s ‘Da Funk’. As many peoples’ Friday nights were drawing to a close, mine was just beginning. I was following the directions given to me to reach Stony Ridge car park, and called the taxi to a halt at what appeared to be the right place. As the taxi sped off back into town to deliver the revellers of West Street safely to their font doors, I was left standing on a grass verge several miles from civilisation. I could dimly discern the outlines of people and cars beyond the dry stone wall; “Hello I’m really hoping you are wildlife sound recordists and not doggers” my breathless opening gambit. Thankfully this proves to be the case, and I join the ranks of a select group numbering around twenty who over the course of the next four hours, as night slowly dissolves into day, are about to share in a truly memorable experience.

Chris explains to us how he visited the site during the daytime the day before with rangers from the Sheffield Wildlife Trust, and owing to the careful management of the site as a nature reserve, this was one UK location with an increasing number of visiting wading birds, compared to the depressing downturns that are sadly more often the case these days. He tells us how when performing a recce of the site in the daylight he came across the perfect location to park his microphone – a naturally occurring hollow marked on maps as ‘Cowsick Bog’ . “-sick” in a place name is usually a historical reference to a field, ditch or small valley (one of Sheffield’s more exclusive Victorian suburbs is rather unfortunately named ‘Carsick’), but we are told that in this instance the source of the name is more literal – it being home to a species of plant which when consumed by cattle makes them ill. “It’s really good, with these weather conditions, this is a perfect place to start this project on the periphery of the city, the first sounds that you hear from the piece will be from this morning’s trip right on the edge of the city, it’s really good to have that overview of the city,” enthuses Chris before urging silence as we set off in the gloom to the chosen recording spot in order not to disturb the resident wildlife. We were requested to bring infra-red torches if possible, but no-one has; however one of the participants has been thoughtfully scoffing their way through a tube of Raspberry Ruffles and dishes out the red cellophane wrappers and elastic bands for us to convert our normal torches into a form of illumination less likely to disturb the moorland birds. I am one of two people who has brought their own recording equipment along : George, who coincidentally like me also works in a library and is also an electronic musician on the side has a minidisc with him, and I an Edirol digital recorder. A hungry gatherer of noises of any kind, I press ‘record’ as soon as we set off from the car park briefing – with everyone silenced the sound of our group trudging footsteps over the alternating stony and boggy terrain sounds reminiscent of a tired army on the move.

Recording equipment set up (I leave my Edirol running on a dry stone wall next to Chris’s mike), we duly retire a short distance away in the dark so as not to disturb the birds. The first hour is pretty quiet and passes slowly, with not much activity apart from a couple of tawney owls hooting and a distant bark of a dog fox. Rugs are unfolded, flasks are produced, and I think how grateful I am that I dug a pair of long johns out of the back of the wardrobe – but wish that I was wearing three more pairs of socks. Chris has had an interesting career path : from electronic punk in one of the most aggressive and abrasive bands spawned by this city to professional wildlife sound recordist. I wonder if he concealed from his bandmates his interest in the natural world during his formative years : to be into nature often (unfairly) thought of as a twee pursuit. Conditions out here on the moorland are certainly anything but twee though at -2 degrees. Chris, a seasoned pro at this kind of thing, senses a collective dip in the group’s spirits and urges us to all get up and have a walk around to get our circulations going again, just as pitch blackness is starting to turn over to dusk.

Discounting the nocturnal tawneys, our first bird of the day heard is a red grouse displaying – what sounds like someone with a Punch and Judy ‘swazzle’ voice changing device chuckling and then issuing the threat to “go back, go back, go back”. Not long after we hear a snipe chipping and drumming (a very strange sound caused by wind passing over the bird’s tail feathers during its display flight, almost electronic-sounding), followed by a woodcock, one of our most secretive of birds, roding right over our heads in the dark and issuing its strange, frog-like quack. The plaintive wail and bubbling of curlews is followed by a song battle taking place high above us between a pair of trilling skylarks, far more inspiring than anything off of X Factor. “It’s very busy down there by the microphone,” Chris says, handing us all round the headphones to listen to the hidden sound world that occurs on the edge of our city every morning around this time of year.

Listening, I find myself thinking about the particular birds that were down there in Cowsick bog passing within range of Chris’s microphone, and how unaware they were as they went about their daily business, performing acts key to their survival, that they were being immortalised by being incorporated into his sound piece. I found myself speculating in a similar way when I bought from eBay some old broadcasting memorabilia – a 78rpm disc from the BBC Sound Archive containing sound effect recordings of chickens, geese and turkeys: these historical fowl that were now issuing from my speakers would be long since dead, and how many generations of their descendants had passed in the meanwhile? The lights of Sheffield are a glistening presence in the distance summoning to mind lyrics from Pulp’s mucky opus ‘Sheffield : Sex City’ – “The whole city is your jewellery-box; a million twinkling yellow street lights”; and I wonder as well who is still up down there, and what they are up to at 4:30 am on this Friday night/Saturday morning – how many house parties are still in full swing? How many drunken street punch-ups are taking place? How many people have copped off with each other?

As dawn breaks, we drive off a short distance down the road to the woodland at Blacka Plantation that borders the moors, where Chris’s keen ear detects mewing buzzard, two great spotted woodpeckers involved in a territorial dispute, chaffinch, willow warbler, and a singing mistle thrush that Chris reckons to be the best he has heard this year. As we are making our way into the woodland, Chris’s son Alex who is leading the way suddenly pauses – he has spotted a dear, and it’s a truly magical moment as we pause to watch this creature pick its way through the trees as the early morning sun filters through the leaf cover (there is a community of red deer living around the Blacka Moor area who are the descendants of escapees from the estate of Chatsworth Park, some 8 miles to the south). It could not have been a more special conclusion to our nocturnal shared experience had we seen a nymph or wood sprite picking its way through the trees.

Inside The Circle of Fire: A Sheffield Sound Map, is at the Millenium Gallery, Sheffield until 23 February, 2014. Admission is free.

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