Sound way of viewing the city

Chris Watson recording in the General Cemetery
Chris Watson recording in the General Cemetery

From birdsong up on the moors on the edge of the Peak District to thundering furnaces of Forgemasters Chris Watson has mapped out his home city in sound for an installation, Inside the Circle of Fire, at the Millennium Gallery.

Since the age of 12 when he was bought a tape recorder by his parents (“from Wigfulls”) he has been fascinated by natural sound which he channelled into co-founding Sheffield electronic music pioneers Cabaret Voltaire and a career as one of the UK’s pre-eminent sound recordists.

It has spanned everything from soundman on films, on a news team covering the miner’s strike to capturing the songs of Weddell under the Antarctic sea ice for David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet. Becoming a specialist in wildlife and natural phenomena, he won BAFTA for Best Factual Recording for his work on the BBC’s The Life of Birds and now presents programmes for Radio 4’s Nature series (“recording my own voice was a strange moment for me.”)

For the past 30 years he has lived in Newcastle and made regular trips back for more than a year recording the signature sounds of his home city for the commission.

“I remembered it was a rich place for sound with its woodland and industrial and urban spaces but it was visiting Little Mester Brian Alcock in his workshop that provided the key.” He saw how much he was dependant on water, that steelmaking is a cold water process, which reminded him that Sheffield is a city of rivers.

“It the perfect vehicle for the sound map so we start in the hills and follow it down into the heart of the city, from rain up on Blackamoor to the Megatron, that huge arched flood drain down by the station. The sound of flowing water and the trains overhead seemed the perfect ending.

Familiar sounds in between include the Cathedral bells, the roar of the terraces at Bramall Lane and Hillsborough (“you have to have both”), the 1pm siren on Fargate, the Don Valley engine at Kelham Island.

Watson’s recordings have been woven together with contributions from the people of the city who responded to an invitation to submit the sounds which they feel are synonymous with Sheffield.

“It’s been great to hear Sheffield sounds that mean so much to othere people and be able to collage them into the finished work,” says Watson who was particularly taken with a recording of the Sheffield Buddhist choir.

There is a visual element to the show provided by Alan Silvester, Museums Sheffield’s digital producer, who accompanied Watson on some of the recordings. “It’s not a slide show but provides visual markers,” says Watson. “It’s always a challenge if you have a blank space so he has filmed in black and white some of the signature locations.”

Inside the Circle of Fire opens today, September 12, and runs to next February.