In the last decades our attention span went down to four seconds due to our compulsive need for gratification and daily overstimulation, causing the loss of our ability to listen and imagine. We are no longer capable of spotting details that surround us, including the most peculiar and fascinating sounds. Even bells ringing – the perception of which could fade into the traffic noise to the human ear – may only be heard by those who are still able to listen carefully and consciously.
Nevertheless, the strange and coercive situation we suddenly found ourselves in during lockdown has been a unique opportunity to (re)listen carefully to the world. As Chris Watson recently said, ‘thanks to the lack –  or sudden reduction – of acoustic pollution, we had the privilege to listen to the world in the same way people used to many years ago’.

Watson – one of the foremost sound recordists of wildlife and of the most remote areas on Earth – due to the coronavirus pandemic, found himself sound recording in his back garden in suburban Newcastle (UK), discovering surprising sounds that up until a few months ago were concealed by an acoustic overlap. According to Watson, lockdown has changed our sound perception and has become an extraordinary opportunity to listen to the home environment of urban areas and interact again with the surrounding nature. Watson – a well known British composer and sound artist – believes you don’t need to walk through the rainforest to be able to listen to tropical birds sing: you just need to walk through a park, at a slow pace, to hear even the subtlest of sounds. It is also possible to experience new sounds and perceptions in our most familiar environments. This has positive effects on our mental health and wellbeing.

Since the 1980’s Watson – who was also a founding member of the famous musical group Cabaret Voltaire – has worked both on sound recording all over the world and on the creation of site-specific sound installations that display a strong sense and spirit of the place where the artwork is created. His installations have been commissioned by art galleries like The National Gallery in London and the Louvre of Paris, and international festivals such as the Aichi Triennale in Japan, Unsound in Kraków, and so on.

Furthermore, Watson has created soundtracks for some famous tv programmes such as David Attenborough’s Life series. The Life of Birds won a BAFTA Award for Best Factual Sound in 1996, and the BBC series Frozen Planet also won a BAFTA Award in 2012. His music can often be heard on the BBC Radio 3 programme ‘Late Junction’. He has also worked extensively for the RTÉ Radio 1 ‘Sound Stories’ series. In 2013 he received a Paul Hamlyn Composers Award.

In conclusion, Chris Watson is a legend in the field of music and experimental sound and I was looking forward to finally interviewing him.

Caterina Tomeo: You are very famous for your tropical sound recordings and for your travels to the most remote areas of the world, but suddenly you have found yourself in quarantine like all of us, stuck at your place in the United Kingdom. You recentlty said that this is a unique opportunity. What do you exactly mean?

Chris Watson: I was very happy to have that restraint and stay at home.

We are fortunate in that we live in suburban Newcastle Upon Tyne, in the North East of England, so we have a garden, a back garden, so I took the opportunity, because it’s spring time, it’s the perfect time of the year for bird song and for listening to wildlife and so I started to explore the sound potential of my garden – a very small patch – which means I could explore it intimately and investigate it over a longer period of time, which was very rewarding.

Caterina Tomeo: So you explored only the world around you or it also has been a good occasion to explore inside yourself…

Chris Watson: Yes, I think that’s part of what I do anyway, and I was also very lucky in that if I wanted to escape I could go to my studio and immerse myself in the sound of the Namib Desert…

I recently returned from Mexico, from Baja California, where I’ve been trying to record the song of the largest and loudest animal that has ever lived, which is the blue whale, so I could listen to some underwater recordings from the Sea of Cortez. So I could very easily take myself to other places even though I was staying at home. Psychologically it has an impact on what I do.

I think about it all the time, because it’s one of the things that sound does. It’s very visceral, it strikes directly into our heart and imagination, almost like our sense of smell, which I think is probably the most powerful sense. And so I am always interested in exploring that with the direct connections that it makes, whether it’s in my back garden or the Sea of Cortez.

Caterina Tomeo: Why is so important to recover the listening ability in a conscious and responsible way? How could we react to the daily sound overstimulation?

Chris Watson: I think we react constantly to sound because we can’t not listen. We don’t have ear lids. We’re listening even while we are asleep, because we are all evolved from people who were good listeners.

Forty thousand years ago, when people were living in the caves around or on the coast, and they were sleeping together and living together at night, when a pack of hyenas or a sabre-toothed tiger came into that cave – we are the people that have evolved from those that heard that animal in their sleep and woke up and escaped. The people that didn’t hear those predators approach haven’t evolved, very simplistically, to be around today.

So we are all good listeners. The challenge is that, in the 21st century, we are surrounded by noise pollution, or we have been until this change. I don’t know if you have noticed the change in the sound environment of Rome, I guess you have, during your period of lockdown, I certainly have here. And so people have started to listen again, they tune in, because in the past, in order to get through the day, in order to communicate, we have been blocking out sound but now is the opportunity to open our ears and listen.

Caterina Tomeo: How did your passion for sound recordings come out? What is sound?

Chris Watson: I sort of think of sound as a vibration, that’s what I think it is. It’s a physical stimulus. So the moment we are hearing each other at the end of this journey through changing air pressure, so you’re hearing my voice coming out of the speaker, and I’m hearing you for these headphones…it’s air pressure. But most of sound is a vibration, it’s a physical vibration, and so again that’s why I think it profoundly affects us, our nervous system and the limbic areas of our brain. It’s a very powerful stimulus. That’s what sound is to me.

Caterina Tomeo: When did you start to explore this field?

Chris Watson: When I was very young – I was about 12 or 13 – my parents bought me a tape recorder, a National reel to reel tape recorder, just as a gift, either a birthday present or a Christmas present, so I explored everything in the house with that, following my mother around and recording sounds in different rooms, and then I realised, because it had batteries in it, I could take it outside.

In our back garden in Sheffield, where I grew up, we had a bird table – we put food out for the birds – and I could see the birds through this kitchen window but of course I couldn’t hear them. I like to think, I could remember it, it was something like watching a silent film. Then suddenly I realised I could take this tape recorder out there, leave the microphone out and come back inside. So I did that.

And again, I like to imagine being able to play that tape back and being transported to another world, a place where we could never be, because our behaviour would affect it. That was a really profound – I didn’t realise it then – but it was a very profound moment, as I realised the power of sound in terms of time shifting and recorded sound. And then I discovered, you know, the work of composers who were manipulating those sounds as well, so it became fascinating for me.

Caterina Tomeo: I’m curios to know what’s your musical and artistic background…

Chris Watson: When I was a teenager, like a lot of young people, I was interested in all aspects of the arts: culture, film and writing, and music, of course.
And a few of us got together and we started a group, a band called Cabaret Voltaire. This is a long time ago, around the time of the punk era, in the late 1970s. And so we were interested in electronic music and I was interested in the music concrète, that can be described as a sort of experimental sound in a way.
We did quite well, we were successful. We signed up to a record label called Rough Trade in London, and then we signed to a label in Manchester called Factory Records.
We made quite a lot of records and we travelled quite a lot. We came to Italy – quite a lot of playing there, because it was a very interesting scene with people interested in experimental music and contemporary music. So we travelled around Europe and America and so that sort of developed. At the same time I was always recording, I was sound recording. I was always going back to that when we were not in the studio.

Caterina Tomeo: Which are the figures that have influenced your work most?

Chris Watson: Musically?

Caterina Tomeo: Yes

Chris Watson: Well, lots. For example, Pierre Schaeffer, who was a French composer in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, along with Pierre Henry, probably the person who evolved this idea of music concrète. I think that one of the most powerful influence is the fact that people were using tape recorders to sculpt sound, so I found that fascinating. Then latterly, more contemporary musicians, electronic musicians, people whom we met because we were working in music and so people in the recording industry.

But I always like to go back to composers like Schaeffer… But also, more recently, people like Sibelius…Messiaen, Scelsi, the Italian composer, really interesting combination of sounds and music and the reinterpretation of one of his tracks the other year for our label. So I like to think I’m influenced sort of constantly now by what I hear, because we are. We can’t not be… we can’t work in isolation. All of us have powerful references. But I suppose for me it was those people, those composers…

Benjamin Britten, you know, I like him. I was influenced by his work because I was asked to work on a piece for the centenary of his birth so I started to investigate his work. I have a friend, Hildur Gudnadottir, who is a cellist whom I have worked with recently on a television series about Chernobyl, and I’m very influenced by Hildur’s work and the way that she approaches sound and music. Claire Singer, who is an organist in London at the Union Chapel. Because I really like her work, I’m influenced by the music that she makes but also the whole philosophy around it, so that’s what interests me. And the label I work with, Touch, because it has such an interesting roster of artists that I like and enjoy, so…Jana Winderen, a Norwegian artist, Philip Jeck, Christian Fennesz…

Caterina Tomeo: Among your numerous international collaborations, you have worked on an audiovisual project by Carlos Casas, which I love and know very well. Could you describe this work?

Chris Watson: Oh yeah, Carlos. We actually did it in Rome last year {in the Theatre Bienniale…was it the Theatre Bienniale? Anyway…} It exists in several different forms. The first one, Carlos wanted to make it, it’s Carlos’s project. He simply invited me to work on aspects of it. It started out mainly as a film about the final journey of an elephant, an Asian elephant, and there was a session in it where the elephant disappeared into this place that Carlos had imagined as a child, the elephants’ graveyard. And he invited me to compose the soundtrack for just that portion of the film. It started off as about an eighteen minute part of the film but the screen was black. And I really loved this idea of dark cinema, it’s something I’ve always liked to explore, when I’m given the opportunity.

So the filming being established, set up, almost like it was a drama – which was about this elephant being prepared for his final journey, and some poachers arriving, some criminals arriving and then the elephant disappears into this place – and Carlos invited me to create the soundtrack for this other world, the elephant’s graveyard. So as part of the commission I wanted to record elephants or improve my recordings. So with a friend of mine, Tony Myatt, who is Professor of Sound at the University of Surrey, who works on all the spatial aspects of my installations, we went to the Wellcome Trust and we went to Amboseli National Park in Kenya and I worked with a friend of mine, a woman called Joyce Poole, who is probably the world expert on elephant communication and I worked with Joyce several times. So we went out there, she was commissioned to work with us on the film, and we spent a couple of weeks recording elephants and then I, along with Carlos, composed the score for this dark part of the film.

It’s really a sort of expanded cinema piece, because it’s really designed for live performance. So a very large projection of the screens – which we did in the apertoire in Rome last year in the Theatre Festival – and then a huge sound system. So the regular part of the film has a stereo soundtrack, which I didn’t create. But then, when the elephant enters the graveyard, the screen goes black, it goes dark and the soundtrack then cuts through a 32 channel ambisonics sound system which is surrounding the audience… so from going from a flat screen to this sound, the audience are dropped into this place in darkness. And this huge surround sound system and the dark part of the film plays out and myself and Tony do a live diffusion of the sounds throughout that piece.

And then the film resolves back to an image and a stereo soundtrack. So it’s a portion, really, of the film, and we’ve done it several times live around Europe, in Belgium, in London, in Italy and it works really well. It’s a really powerful experience. There is a film version now as well, which is just a regular 5.1 soundtrack, which is different. I really liked it, Carlos is a great person to work with, I really liked this idea, this sense of expanded cinema, where you’re using sound and vision in almost a unique way.

Caterina Tomeo: You are not only an extraordinary composer, but you also are a fantastic sound artist, what is the focus of your research?

Chris Watson: A lot of my work is what interests me, because it started off with animals and wildlife and habitat. I’ve always been very interested in this sense and spirits of place.
When I was younger – I was in my twenties – I was really {into} a lot of the work by Thomas Lethbridge, who was an English academic – he run the Museum of Antiquities at Cambridge University in the 1950s – and I was fascinated by his work and writing about conjuring essence and spirit in place and how you tap into that. And also the work of some walkers, people like John Hillaby, who would examine landscapes, what became known as psychogeography, I think. So I was interested in that and how sound worked in relation to that. And at the same time I was starting to travel with my film sound work.

I was working a lot with the BBC Natural History Unit here in the UK, and travelling the world and going to very remote places, working with indigenous people, and getting an idea of their world of sound and I was fascinated by that. And I realised that there was a connection between Lethbridge’s writing and my experience with people and places. And so I started wanting to somehow find a way of interpreting that. So that’s when I started making records with Touch, and the first one was

Stepping Into The Dark, which was about that experience of sound and place because I think that’s powerful…it has influenced the way that we create music. You know, I’m certain that all our music that crossed all our cultures has evolved from people listening to and then mimicking the sounds of the natural world. That’s always been important for me. That’s a former reference. Now I’m very interested in landscape and the sound of landscape, and recording that and working with it, and then presenting it.

Caterina Tomeo: Could you describe the sound site specific installations you realized in recent years?

Chris Watson: I’ve been very interested, recently, in the sound of underwater, the sounds of the sea and the oceans. You know, we think, living here in Newcastle and Rome, that we live on Planet Earth. And of course we don’t. We live on Planet Ocean. Seventy per cent of this planet is occupied by the seas and the oceans, and sound is a very rich medium in the ocean. Sound travels almost five times faster through sea water than it does through air. So the seas and the oceans have turned into the largest habitat on this planet. They are the most sound-rich. Everything.

I did a podcast last year for The Guardian newspaper and I spoke to Professor Chris Clark from Cornell University, who is a brilliant marine biologist, and he told me that they have yet to discover a deaf sea animal. Everything in the ocean lives in this world of sound or in the ocean’s vibration. So I have been recording with hydrophones for the last ten-fifteen years, recording underwater sound and then working with that.


So again the privilege I’ve had working with the BBC Natural History Unit is that I have been to the South Pole and the North Pole and particularly there, recording underwater through the sea ice. It was very revealing. And then I was commissioned to record in places around the world and then I have been working with that material and creating installations, underwater installations.
I’m just doing one at the moment, quite a big commission for the United Nations next year, who has declared next year as the Decade of the Oceans. So I was commissioned by a broaching company in Berlin to make a large scale underwater sound work and then present it at the opening of this Decade of the Oceans, which is why I was in Mexico recently, trying to record blue whales, where I failed completely to do it. One of the few times I’ve been somewhere and not recorded anything.

The sound underwater fascinates me. And the spatial aspects as well, so I work with Tony, my friend, Professor Myatt. He always does a spatial design for my installations. I create the compositions and then I work with him in spatialising them in spaces, because it always has to be bespoke for each individual space. So I really enjoy this process, I like the process of recording. I like the isolation, actually, of recording.

Because when you put headphones on, there’s only you who can hear the world like that, whether it’s above the surface or under the surface. So I like that sense of working on my own. But I also like the collaborative aspect of working with Tony and other people and realising my work, so I could eventually put an audience where my microphones or hydrophones were when I made the original recording. I really like that process. I enjoy it.

Caterina Tomeo: Are you interested in an interaction of the audience?

Chris Watson: I think everybody interacts with it, but they might do it internally. If you mean people go and press buttons and do things, I have not really done much of that. But I’m interested in stimulating a reaction by my pieces, but quite often that’s quite intimate for people so they do it inside because a lot of my work… the ocean piece for instance, Okeanos… we react to that but it’s a physical reaction, it’s what we were talking about earlier, it’s a vibration, so it has an effect on people.

I put people in a dark room – you need to be in a comfortable environment but one where the distraction of light in particular is taken away – so it works best in a darkened space, where people can sit down or lay down or be seated somewhere…or sometimes walk around to experience the spatial aspects of it. And I think that people, yes, they have a reaction to that, but it’s mainly internal.

Caterina Tomeo: You have decided to share two tracks online, which can be downloaded for free, in collaboration with an Association, to offer people the opportunity to travel to distant places, listening to remote sounds. What is it about?

Chris Watson: I have a friend, a poet called Alec Finlay, who is Scottish, he lives in Edinburgh, not very far from here, and Alec is not very mobile. He started working with a charity, a Scottish charity called Paths For All. It’s a walking charity but it also helps people who can’t walk, who can’t get out, and he decided to write some poems about landscape and then invited me to create a soundtrack of a walk, which is quite a challenging walk where a lot of people wouldn’t be able to get to.

So I chose two places in Scotland, the Flow Country, which is this area of the marshland and peat bogs, in the Scottish Highlands. And then I chose the Caledonian Pine Forest, the great forest in Speyside, and I created the sound walks through those environments and so people at home who can’t get out – either with the lockdown status or physically they’re not just able to get out much – they could go to these places by putting some headphones on and listening or downloading the track.

Caterina Tomeo: What is in your opinion, the future of sound experimentation in the artistic field?

Chris Watson: That’s a huge question. I can only answer it from my perspective because it obviously has a fantastic vast future. Once people are more liberated and able to get out, I think they will be quite eager to go and explore their environment they’ve been restricted from. From my point of view I’m just very interested in developing this idea of spatial sound because I like the realism of it and the way I can present my work in a way that relays to the direct experience of being there…the physicality of it.
I did a couple of things recently. I worked on a piece for the Unsound Festival in Poland last year and I made an installation called Forest, that was a journey through six different forests on six continents.
But I also worked with a perfumer from Berlin, Geza Schön, who devised the perfumes for this particular forest. That was a really interesting idea, combining sound and perfume. So I like those experiments with different mediums in that sense.

I worked with Jo Burzynska, who’s one of New Zealand’s most well known wine critics, and she’s also a sound artist – really interesting woman – and she does this ‘wine and sound’ evenings where people taste wine whilst listening to different sounds and I think that combination of areas like that it’s something that really interests me. For me that’s a new area to explore.

Caterina Tomeo: What will your next sound adventure/experience be?

Chris Watson: In about two hours.


I’m quite happy not to go abroad for some time. I think I’ve flown too much anyway so I’m quite happy not to fly. When I’m in Europe I always try and use the railways. My next trip is in about two hours because I’m going to my favourite oak woodland in Northumberland, quite an ancient – a thousand year old – oak woodland – where I hope nobody’ll be there. And I just go there with Maggie, my wife, and we’re going to spend the day out there listening.

Other project for Penguin Books, the publisher. They’re publishing a series of poems later this year. They have commissioned me to create some soundscapes to go with the poems so that’s the reason I’m going out in the next couple of hours.