Caught by the River

An Interview With Chris Watson

Chris Watson | 8th May 2016

Ellie Broughton chats to Chris Watson about Okeanos, sound as an agent of change, and the hunt for his missing song.

unnamed-11 Chris Watson by Jason Roberts

Last January, in the near-dark of a concrete hall under the Edgware Road, some 500 people listened to Chris Watson’s large-scale sound art piece Okeanos. Recorded almost entirely underwater, it reported the songs of whales and seals, as well as the percussion of waves and melting ice.

Although without an overt political message, the piece engaged the listener with bigger questions about conservation and our relationship with the seas.

I called Chris at home in Newcastle to talk about this piece, as well as other large-scale sound art pieces he’ll make this year.

Can we start off by talking about where the idea for Okeanos came from?
Okeanos evolved over several years. I’ve been interested in recording the sounds in our seas and oceans for a long period of time now. I was travelling a lot several years ago and worked on the BBC programme Frozen Planet and visited both the South and North Poles. At those extremes of the planet the seas and oceans are a very sound rich environment.

Then I discovered that sound travels almost five times faster in seawater than it moves in air. It’s the most sound-rich habitat we have. It’s also the largest, of course – some 70% of the planet is occupied by the seas and oceans.

This caught my ear and attention for many years, but it really demands a large scale piece. So when Lucy Railton from the London Contemporary Music Festival gave me the opportunity of working in that huge space [Ambika P3], I thought it would be perfect to do a big ocean piece there.

Here in Newcastle on Tyne, I take our dog Jess down to the beach every day when I’m at home. I love those long views across open sea and the horizons, seascapes and all the weather. It was fascinating for me to discover that actually it’s even more exciting below the surface.

It must have taken a long time to record those sounds in the first place.
We hear sound through the air, that’s how we’re hearing each other now, through changing air pressure. I record underwater sounds with hydrophones (underwater microphones) because sound in water – freshwater and seawater – is more of a vibration than in normal conditions – hydrophones convert those vibrations into audio signals.

I was amazed to discover that there’s so much variety in the sounds. I’m also interested in spatial sound and in using more than one hydrophone – arrays of transducers and hydrophones – to try and give an awareness of space and the size of the environment, which is difficult to do.

A couple of years ago I went to record the song of humpback whales in a place called Silverbank, about 150 miles off the coast of the Dominican Republic and Tony [Dr Tony Myatt, University of Surrey] built this complex ambisonic array with 12 hydrophones. It records not only periphonic surround sound – horizontal surround like 5.1 or 7.1 in the cinema – but also height and depth, hydrophones placed both above and below the horizontal array. It’s an experimental process which we’re still investigating.

Processing that sound is quite complicated as well. Tony’s 12-hydrophone array recorded a signal called the b-format signal, which is the encoded format for ambisonics. There’s a lot of information which then needs to be decoded. These were all built as one-off devices.

When I did Okeanos at Ambika that was horizontal surround only. I used the speaker arrays to give the impression of depth and height by fixing mounted speakers in different horizontal positions.

It’s something we’re still experimenting with and there’s not much of it happening so we’re sort of finding our way. But thinking about making it a good experience for an audience, that’s what it’s all about: the presentation. That’s the sole purpose of it.

That’s the end result, something that’s believable – or even unbelievable – as well as engaging, entertaining and surprising.

unnamed-12 An orca surfaces to breathe. Photo: Chris Watson

Did you intend Okeanos to be political?
[Laughs] Not really, no, I didn’t. There was no specific intention. But once you hear something like that, you start to think about it and you make your own decisions. People are smart enough. It’s quite obvious that we need to look after these environments and protect them and engage with them. And that’s the best way of informing people so they can make their own political decisions, I think.

What was the most memorable place you recorded in for Okeanos?
Probably in Svalbard, in Arctic Norway – an archipelago that’s about 80 degrees north. I was there one April, about this time of year, probably three years ago, and the sea was frozen, at least around the island that I was on. The depth of the sea ice was probably, I don’t know, two or three metres thick and there were holes in the ice that had been made by bearded seals to come up and breathe through and for the females to come up and calve on the surface of the ice.

I put one of the hydrophones through some of these holes in the sea ice to record the songs of male bearded seals – they sing to retain their harem of females.

These songs were just the most remarkable I’d ever heard. Because of the way sound travels through seawater, particularly when the surface is frozen and there’s no wave action, it sounds like they’re in a free space. They were kilometres away and about 800m deep in the water and there were these astonishing alien songs coming up through the darkness and into my hydrophones. None of this could be heard on the surface, although louder songs, like that of the humpback whale, can be.

At the other end of the scale, freshwater insects called lesser water boatmen have the loudest song-per-body-size of any animal in the world. They’re just a few millimetres long. Last year, I was in my local park in urban Newcastle, recording for a radio programme by this freshwater pond. The song of the lesser water boatmen was so loud that they were vibrating up the reed stems. You could hear them clearly on the path by the side of the lake, which is quite astonishing, considering the size of these animals.

Before the performance of Okeanos at Ambika, you recounted seeing orcas ‘tossing seals about like cocktail sausages’…
I’ve seen that a few times, both in the peninsula at Valdes in Argentina in the south Atlantic, and also in the Ross Sea in Antarctica. It’s chilling because orca are highly intelligent – probably more intelligent than we are. Their brains are almost five times the size of ours. I’ve seen orca work cooperatively to track Weddell seals in the sea. Just seeing them work out strategies from a boat or from the ice is a powerful experience, as is their physical prowess. The females were ploughing up the beach on peninsula Valdes, just power-swimming towards the shingle at speed, grabbing a seal off the beach then wriggling back down again.

I’m still trying to get recordings of the one thing that’s eluded me so far, which is the song of the largest and loudest animal which has ever lived: the blue whale. I’ve been going to Iceland for the past five years, working with an Icelandic marine biologist. I’ve still not managed to get close. I hope I’ll have another chance early next year.

Are you thinking of doing another big piece of work like Okeanos again?
Yes I am. One of the great things is that I can’t really predict what I do in that sense – I have to wait until I get invited or commissioned. But I’m increasingly interested in large-scale sound installation pieces because I think they really are so powerful. It’s a really good way to engage people on lots of levels, whether it’s what you were referring to earlier – that political-with-a-small-p idea of public engagement – or of [getting] people into science through artistic representation. It’s a very powerful way to get people interested in what’s around them – and then for them to potentially understand why it’s important that these places are retained and not harvested or polluted, as is often the case.

Sound is very powerful. It’s rather like our sense of smell. It affects us in quite a unique way. It strikes into our hearts and imaginations powerfully. Large-scale installations are a good way of doing that. For me it’s the best way to present my work.

With broadcast, it disappears off into the ether and millions of people might get to see and hear it, but I like that connection of standing up in front of people when I’ve made a piece of work and presenting it directly to them.

Most, if not all of what I do, is completely solitary. When you’re out on location – whether you’re stood on sea ice in Svalbard or in the Taiga forest or by an urban lake in Newcastle – you put headphones on, and no-one else can hear the world like that.

I’ve just got back from working on my first permanent sound installation at some man-made sand dunes at the largest nature reserve in Belgium, near a place called Zwin. It’s all been refurbished and reconditioned prior to opening in the summer. I’ve been working with a Belgian sound artist, Els Viaene. We’ve put a 32-channel ambisonic sound system in there with the theme of migration – the sounds of birds round the world migrating as if they’re passing through this sand dune.

Have you got any advice for people working in natural sound recording at the moment?
I run lots of workshop courses and that’s probably the best, most practical help I can offer.

What you need to do is to get out and do it and now is absolutely the best time of year, because we’ve got this remarkable seasonal occurrence. At our latitude, we’ve got the best dawn chorus in the world. And it’s happening now. At 4.20 this morning I was woken up by blackbirds, robins and song thrushes in my small urban back garden. It’s not the best time to learn birdsong because there’s so much of it. In terms of an experience, though, it really couldn’t be any better than April and May.

And get some experience of getting cold, and wet, and rained on, and it being too windy. And start to critically appraise your recordings as well. Start learning to listen; it’s not that difficult.

Chris and Els’s installation in Zwin opens to the public on 1 June. Chris is currently working on commissions for Philip Hoare’s multi-arts project ‘The Tale’ in Torbay, Hull’s City of Culture festival next year, and the Trienniale in Aichi, Japan. Chris recently spoke to Bowers & Wilkins about International Dawn Chorus Day – read here.

Chris Watson on Caught by the River