Chris Watson is a unique artistic talent. As a musician, sound recordist and artist he has uses CDs, radio, site-specific venues (Palm House in Kew Gardens, Alder Hey Children‘s Hospital Liverpool and Holy Trinity Church in New York) and galleries throughout the world to present his breath-taking sonic cinematic landscapes. According to producer/DJ Andrew Weatherall, ‘trying to describe Watson’s work would be like sharing last night’s dreams.’ Chris is probably best known for his sound recordings for BBC TV’s ‘Life of…’ and more recently the ‘Frozen Plant’ series written and hosted by Sir David Attenborough. I have been lucky enough to work with Chris when he was creating work for an outdoor exhibition in Mexico that I curated, and which I am proud to say contributed to the ‘El Tren Fantasma’.
Chris is one of the world’s leading recorders of wildlife and natural phenomena, where he edits his field recordings into a filmic narrative. The unearthly groaning of ice in an Icelandic glacier is a classic example of, in Watson’s words, putting a microphone where you can’t put your ears. He was one of the founding members of the highly influential Sheffield-based experimental music group Cabaret Voltaire. With Rough Trade (records) they released several acclaimed musically experimental singles and EPs, including Extended Play, “Nag Nag Nag” and “Three Mantras”.
His sound recording career began in 1981 when he joined Tyne Tees Television. Since then he has developed a particular and passionate interest in recording the wildlife sounds of animals, habitats and atmospheres from around the world. He has specialises in natural history and documentary location sound, together with track assembly and sound design in post production.
Chris’s previous CD, Weather Report, was listed as one of 1,000 to listen to before you die by The Guardian. Weather Report was Chris’s first foray into composition using his location recordings of wildlife and habitats – previously he has been concerned with describing and revealing the special atmosphere of a place by site specific, untreated location recordings. For the first time he constructed collages of sounds, which evolved from a series of recordings made at the specific locations over varying periods of time. ‘Ol-Olool-O’ – a fourteen hour recording in Kenya’s Masai Mara between 0500h – 1900h condescended into 18 minutes.
His latest recording is ‘El Tren Fantasma’ (The Ghost Train) whose title is borrowed from a 1927 silent Mexican film and was started 10 years ago when he was commissioned working on the BBC show Great Railway Journeys, and he took a ride on one of the very last passenger trains across Mexico. Described by radio producer Sarah Blunt as “a thrilling acoustic journey across the heart of Mexico from Pacific to Atlantic coast using archive recordings to recreate a rail passenger service which no longer exists’.
Andrew Weatherall described his experience of listening to ‘El Tren Fantasma’ as follows: ‘I’ve taken the trip, courtesy of Mr Watson, on a number of occasions but like any rail journey one undertakes regularly, although physically and geographically the same, in terms of evocation, memory and feeling they differ greatly each time…. (it can) change, morph and crystallize into a million thoughts and memories every time you leave the station. That’s how evocative this piece of work is.’ As you follow the journey you encounter the ghosts from Mexico’s history and forgotten landscapes, tracing a fascinating track into Mexico’s industrial history.
BBCi awarded it CD of the month and went on to say ‘in his book Civilizations, historian Felipe Fernández-Armesto focuses on man’s overriding impulse to impose its will on the world, “a relationship to the natural environment, recrafted, by the civilising impulse, to meet human demands”. This process lies at the very heart of ‘El Tren Fantasma’, a composite document of a train ride across Mexico, describing a passage “from Los Mochis to Veracruz, [from] coast to coast, Pacific to Atlantic… But it’s during the points of human absence that El Tren Fantasma works best. Hear Watson’s ability to create whole worlds, entire lifetimes in the listener’s imagination, beyond the moment of recording.’
I would encourage the reader to go and buy it or listen to it on Spotify. It needs to be closely listened to, it can not be rushed because the listener will get so much more from it if they pay attention to the sounds. I understand how this sounds, a little too chin stroking, but every now and again, music and sounds we listen to demand more love and attention. As Weatherall puts it, this piece is ‘a benchmark in field recording, not to mention a map of the soul, an insight into the human condition and a key to dreams.’