No Man’s Land: the new installation from David Attenborough’s sound techie

If you’re the sort of person that loves yakking on about their ‘gap yah’, how much you adore scuba diving or how you ‘found yourself’ that time you got lost on some random island in Thailand, odds are Chris Watson’s No Man’s Land will totally be your bag. If not, you’re probably equally as likely to love it anyway.

Sound recordist and composer Chris Watson has spent 30 years working on the likes of BBC’s Frozen Planet with David Attenborough (!), travelling around the world and recording the sounds of nature everywhere he went. This month, he’s bringing his inaugural solo installation to the Attenborough Centre of the Creative Arts, taking travellers on a purely aural adventure of the seven seas. “I’ve been recording in the ocean using hydrophones for about 12 years now, and No Man’s Land is a compilation of all the sounds I’ve accumulated over that time,” said Chris in the lead up to his show. “I discovered this astonishing world of sound and songs and music and rhythms and vibrations, everywhere from rock pools to the sea ice in the Antarctic, that I’m thrilled to be bringing to Brighton.”

Working as a freelancer has afforded Chris a plethora of possibilities to record the sounds beneath the sea, which often don’t make it to the final cut for television. His soundscape begins off the coast of Brighton before following a trail around the world, and includes humpback whale songs heard in the Dominican Republic, orcas communicating in Iceland and the snap, crackle and pop of the coral reed in the South China Sea, before the listener is brought back to the familiar shores of the south coast of England.

He said: “When I had the chance to put it into the Attenborough Centre in Brighton I wanted to make it site specific, so the piece starts on Brighton beach with recordings I made there and then takes the listener the audience on a journey into the surf, off the beach then underwater and then effectively around the world in 40 minutes.”

In contrast with the usual presentation of Chris’ sounds, which are normally accompanied by visual cues, the audience for No Man’s Land will be given the ability to challenge their imagination as they are plunged into darkness.

As Chris pointed out, the format harks back to our experience hearing sounds in the womb, which would be accompanied with compete, or near, darkness from 16 weeks. The result is a warm environment where the focus is completely centred on how we feel and what we can hear. “I’m not a psychologist but I think something affects us when we hear sounds through a fluid like that,” he added. “I really want people to feel comfortable when they’re in there – there will be bean bags, so people can feel completely relaxed.

“But it will also be a very cinematic experience. When you listen to everything that’s in the coral reef, it will hopefully stimulate your imagination. There’s a saying in the BBC that radio is better than television because the pictures are better; it fires your imagination in quite a unique way.

“The recordings I’ve made really sound like something coming from another planet, which to a large extent they are – it’s coming from a place we know so very little about. We know more about the dark side of the moon than of the ocean.”

The unique installation, which takes place until Fri 13 Apr, is bound to be an eye-opener for many of us, whose limited experience of listening to sounds underwater may lie in swimming pools or the bath. Surprisingly, according to Chris, sound travels five times faster through sea water than it does through air.

“It’s a very sound rich medium. The sounds of the animals that inhabit the ocean is very clear, very powerful, very physical; when you hear a humpback whale sing in the Attenborough Centre you will feel it in your chest. You know it’s a physical manifestation.”

In our stressful, busy worls above sea level, taking some time to escape visual distractions and experience the world from the ocean bed might be just what we need.

No Man’s Land is at the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts until Fri 13 Apr. Tickets here.

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