Photo by Kate Humble, via chriswatson.net
Chris Watson is the coolest. He’s most famous as one of the three founding members of Cabaret Voltaire. Since leaving the Cabs in ‘81, he’s continued to make experimental music (see, for instance, his wonderful 2005 collaboration with KK Null and Z’EV), but he’s best known for his field recordings. BBC Radio 4 has a whole page dedicated to programs that feature Watson and his work; if you’re not careful, you can lose yourself for hours there listening to stories like “Wildlife sound recordist Chris Watson presents the crested tit.”
Richard H. Kirk is, of course, the longest-lasting (and sole remaining) member of Cabaret Voltaire, but I wonder if it’s significant that Watson’s name got top billing on the back cover of the Cabs’ first two albums. Watson’s attic was the band’s practice space from ‘74 to ‘78, and Kirk credits his distinctive guitar sound on the first records to a fuzzbox Watson, then a phone engineer, built for him. (Check out the Burroughsian news cut-up Watson contributed to a 1981 tape compilation released by Jhonn Balance.)
Photo by Mark McNulty, via McNulty Photography
When Watson quit Cabaret Voltaire in ‘81, it was to take a job with Tyne Tees Television, where, he says, his career in sound recording began. Since 1996’s Stepping into the Dark, a collection of recordings of “the atmospheres of special places” inspired by T.C. Lethbridge, Watson has released a total of six albums of his field recordings. Each is organized around an idea or story. El Tren Fantasma (“Ghost Train”) is an audio trip across Mexico on the old state-owned railroad, which no longer exists, thanks to the economic miracle that is privatization. His latest album, In St. Cuthbert’s Time, documents what Eadfrith of Lindisfarne would have heard while he was creating the Lindisfarne Gospels.
You can find a number of Watson’s nature recordings on the Nimbus app for iOS and Android. Below, I’ve cued up three sinister selections from Outside the Circle of Fire: “Cracking Viscera,” the sound of nine vultures eating a dead zebra, captured by a Sennheiser microphone placed in the carcass; “Rattle of Wood,” the tapping of deathwatch beetles in a bedroom in Edingthorpe; and “Souls of Dead Children,” a recording of kittiwakes, birds who are reputed in folklore to be inhabited by the spirits of dead kids.
“Rattle of Wood’:
“Souls of Dead Children”: