Chris Watson, in fact, looks ordinary enough to blend into any landscape. Which may go some way to explaining how the increasingly high-profile BAFTA award-winning sound recordist went from being a founder member of experimental electronic pioneers Cabaret Voltaire to become David Attenborough’s sound man of choice for his Life In The Undergrowth and Life In Cold Blood series, and, with Bill Oddie, Springwatch and Autumnwatch.
Watson also makes sonic installations, and has worked with Scottish artists Alec Finlay and Hanna Tuulikki, while his hypnotic 2003 album of field recordings for Touch Records, Weather Report, was named as one of a thousand records essential to hear before you die. As well as working on feature film The Constant Gardener and with theatre company The Clod Ensemble, a recent week-long stint on early-evening TV magazine The One Show thrust Watson into the mainstream like never before. As for that journey to the centre of the earth, the results of the trip to Icelandic glacier Snaefellsjokull could be heard in Jules Verne’s Volcano, a 30-minute documentary made by Watson and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 last week.
This week, however, Yorkshire-born Watson is resident in Edinburgh at the behest of Edinburgh University’s Geography, Music and Sound Design departments, working with MSc students prior to a performance tonight presented by Dialogues experimental music festival in conjunction with Edinburgh International Science Festival. Three days ago, on a day out organised by the university-based Experimental Research Network, Watson hooked up with a group of researchers for a day out to record in North Berwick.
As Watson joins up with the researchers outside WH Smith, the noise of the ongoing arrivals and departures is offset even more by the industrial screech of a station in repair. From Platform 11, high above on the other side of the station a billboard displays a picture of a man wearing headphones. “Sound Investment Thinking,” bears the headline.
“I was in North Berwick recording for Springwatch on Bass Rock for three weeks,” Watson says of his familiarity with the local terrain while on the 9.38am train that’s a long way from Snaefellsjokull.
“That was a really quick turnaround,” Watson says of Jules Verne’s Volcano, which was recorded less than a month ago as an exploration of life in Iceland a year after the volcano, and features the voices of members of left-field post-rock band Sigur Ros among others. “I think the programme lost a bit of its narrative element. Normally you have a year to edit things, but if we’d gone any earlier it would have been permanently dark.
Just before Musselburgh, Watson’s ears prick up to a slow-moving harmonic clang that’s coming from a place hard to pinpoint.
“That’d be good to pick up with contact mics,” Watson says. “It’d make a nice ambient track. You should always have your equipment set up, ’cos you never know what you might hear. You say you’ll get it on the way back, but you never hear it again.”
Several of the researchers are on their feet, pressing microphones against the train walls as a doctor might place a stethoscope on someone’s heart. This is the essence of sound recording, something Watson has described as trying to find the soul of a place.
Watson’s lifelong adventure with sound began at the age of 11 after his parents bought him a portable tape recorder. A discovery of music concrete further expanded his outlook, before he hooked up with Stephen Mallinder and Richard H Kirk to form Cabaret Voltaire, who combined primitive electronic rhythms with found sound documentary samples.
Watson left Cabaret Voltaire in 1981 to work as a sound recordist with Tyne Tees Television in Newcastle, where he now lives. For more than 20 years now Watson has travelled the world, flitting between recording nature documentaries, making installations for sonic arts festivals and passing his expertise on to others by way of workshops and residencies such as his current Edinburgh tenure.
On the beach in North Berwick, the sun is up and a haar is rolling in as Watson gives a show-and-tell on his electronic kit of microphones and reflectors. There is much talk of omni-directional capsules, which are small microphones Watson tapes either side of a coat-hanger, so “you could hang it on a banana tree in a tropical rainforest. They’re designed to go on performers, so they can cope with humidity as much as make-up and perspiration. The only place I’ve had any problems with them is in the South Pole, where it was so cold they stiffened up and made David Attenborough’s voice sound metallic. But there are a lot more interesting places to put them than on people. In a way, Phil Spector was right in that you can do everything on one microphone. If you use a second, all you’re adding is background noise.”
The researchers tramp the beach to record wind, air and sea that can be heard beyond the ice-cream van chimes, children playing and men repairing their boats as starlings and other birds flap about by the harbour. As amplified seaweed sounds for all the world like popping bubblewrap underfoot, Watson instinctively finds the best rock pools to record.
“There’s a really nice channel there,” he says, bounding across the beach like some human divining rod as the tide rolls in increasingly faster, the haar lending the scene a strangely prehistoric air. “I quite like the fact that some of the sounds are transitory. They’re there for a few minutes, then the tide takes them.”
Next week, Watson is off to Norfolk for 14 days to record sounds for a documentary on photographer Emma Turner, who in the 1920s was the first person to capture on film the rarely-spotted bird, the bittern.
In the meantime, tonight’s Edinburgh performance should set free some of the sounds captured by Watson this week. One that won’t be in evidence is the metal hum heard on the train out to North Berwick. On the journey back to Edinburgh, the sound is nowhere to be heard.
“That’s how it goes,” says Watson. “It’s never the same.”
Dialogues: Chris Watson, Inspace, Edinburgh tonight, 8pm