Chris Watson’s new piece compresses a year on Newcastle’s Town Moor into 38 magic minutes of sound. It’s being performed in the Tyneside Cinema’s small upstairs gallery and it’s pitch black bar the green exit signs. The room has been acoustically supersized: there are Genelec speakers on the walls, floor and ceiling so that we can hear the sounds from the perspective of Watson’s microphones, with fireworks and birdsong up above us and the sound of insects at our feet.
There’s a lot of sound. The piece begins with the clang of a gate and a skylark, before taking in the lairy sounds of the annual Hoppings fairground which charges around the room like a sonic boyracer pumping out volumatic Eurotrance. Cattle graze on the grasslands, which has been common land for over a thousand years, and we hear them alongside two accordion players who’ve taken to practising on this urban moor.
There are drone aircraft and bat sounds drawn down into our hearing range, as well as a recording of Lesser Boatmen from a tiny reed bed at the southern end of the moor. It is, says, Watson, his ‘favourite sound of the year’.
The bar for that particular accolade is set pretty high as Watson’s year also included a trip to Argentina with David Attenborough, and a job in Iceland to record the sound of prehistoric air and gasses being released from melting icebergs.
And at the end, there’s a gorgeous section recorded last month on International Dawn Chorus Day. It features migrants like Willow warblers, Blackcaps and Whitethroats, birds that have completed a perilous journey to breed on the Town Moor. Many of their traditional watering grounds and refuelling stations have been destroyed and there’s always the risk of being shot on the way. But still, the birds followed their biological impulse, and so their alarm calls and mating songs have been woven into this powerful soundscape. It’s a story with great resonance in a year that’s seen the biggest movement of people across the planet since WWII.
The piece began life as a four-part radio documentary for BBC Newcastle, inspired by producer Murphy Cobbing’s daily cycle to work over the Moor. Having stripped out the recorded interviews, Watson moves the listener through the seasons, letting the humans slip in and out of the mix so they’re overheard as they’d be overheard if you were walking past them on the long central path that bisects the Moor.
“Is it on your arse?”
“No it’s on my hip”
And before you know it they’ve gone, just another half-heard snip of conversation, immortalised forever.
The Town Moor by Chris Watson is on at The Gallery at Tyneside Cinema, Newcastle until 24 July 2016, every hour between 10am and 5pm and Sundays 11am to 5pm.
Emma will join Luke Turner on our Port Eliot stage at the end of July, where the two will share stories and audio from their favourite woodlands. Emma will then take to the Caught by the River Thames Waterfront Stage on Sunday 7 August, accompanied by aural-art collective SoundCamp.