We can be such noisy creatures. Not just our vehicles and machines, but our voices, toys, and clothing - even our footsteps can cover the sounds around us. And for the most part, we seem oblivious to what we're squashing underneath the continuous soundtrack of our own noise-making. British sound artist Chris Watson has valuable things to teach us.

Learning to Listen

“We’ve evolved from good listeners,” Watson says. “It used to be that what we heard and how we reacted to it was a matter of life and death...In our modern lives, however, we’ve been conditioned to do practically the opposite: to block out sound simply to get through the day...We go into buildings with dreadful acoustic design, we’re in public spaces where we can’t have a conversation, we’re in open-floor-plan offices where we can’t hear ourselves think.” [1]

Mostly, we understand that if we want to develop a relationship with another person, talking without listening doesn’t get us there. One-sided conversation may make you known to the other, but it isn't what is needed for you to also know the other. We get to know someone by paying attention and listening. To understand the wider world around us, the same is needed. After spending time listening to birds in our back yard, eventually we can distinguish between the songs—the good morning song, the danger song, the "you can do it" song of a robin encouraging young ones to fly. Without intentional listening, this knowledge remains undeveloped.

Watson learned habits of good listening when his parents bought him a reel-to-reel tape recorder when he was 12.

“At first I didn’t realize that it could be used outside, so I explored everything in the house. Then I remember looking out of our kitchen window in Sheffield, where I grew up, and seeing the birds on the bird table but not being able to hear them. It was like watching a silent film. I was really interested in sounds that I could see but couldn’t hear, so I ran outside with the recorder, fixed the microphone by the table and hung the recorder underneath. I put out some food then ran back inside and started recording... I can remember playing those sounds back and being transported into a place that we can never be: hearing these magical time and location shifted sounds...I could hear things on the recording that we could never hear, because our proximity to the birds would affect their behavior,” he says. “It was like a hidden world, this secret world, and as a teenager, that fascinated me.” [2]

The Power of Listening

Sound has great power to immerse us in an environment. We can remain distant and distinct when we look at something, and sound can be a powerful entryway into truly experiencing and being part of the world. Take for instance the painting below by John Constable, The Cornfield. Enjoy it first as a painting by itself.

The Cornfield, John Constable, 1826, National Gallery, London

Now, while looking at the above picture, listen to the sound recording embedded below, The Drinking Boy, which Chris Watson created to accompany it. Does your experience change? If you close your eyes and listen, holding the picture in your imagination, does this change your experience as well? Listen to the end and you will hear a human call to praise mixing with the other sounds you will hear.

Watson makes his sound recordings by placing microphones very close to what he wants to hear and then removing himself so as not to be disruptive. The goal of his produced field recordings is to transport his audience to the experience of his recording—to put people right where he was. Having worked with people such as David Attenborough for the last 30 years, providing field recordings for numerous films, those places are diverse. Listeners may be transported under an ocean, into a field, inside an anthill, on top of an ice field, within a tropical forest. Watson's own listening skills have been so honed, that it is said that he can distinguish between the sounds of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Lessons from the Pandemic

Early in the pandemic, Watson noted that lots of loud things got quieter, especially traffic and industrial noises, which meant that quieter voices became louder.

In October of 2020, a study published in Science, showed that seismic noise—caused by everything from trains and airplanes to industrial processes, had been reduced by 50 percent, the longest and most prominent anthropogenic noise-reduction period on record. [1]

Many people (including Watson) made new connections to their natural spaces:

"I was restricted, we were all restricted here in the U.K., so I then turned to my suburban back garden and made the most of that. It’s a place that I had forgotten about because I travel so much. It was great to discover, or rediscover, what was literally on my own doorstep. I began to draw in all those sounds. I could put microphones out there and run the cables to different places in the house. I could lie in bed and listen to the dawn chorus—which was like another world—and make recordings lying in bed! It really doesn’t get any better than that, rather than fly for eleven hours and then trek through a jungle. It was great, it was liberating. I made the most of it and had microphones all over the garden just to reveal what was in this relatively small place and how the wildlife responded to the lockdown as well..." [3]

For many this also brought a realization that their own backyards can be remarkable places, "...putting [your] head out of the bedroom window at four o’clock in the morning and realizing that you don’t have to go very far to hear the most remarkable sounds... [3]

In my own experience, early in the coronavirus, I had many conversations with people about what we might learn and take into the future from that time. Two years later, much of that deep questioning has faded away. But I want to encourage us to stop and reexamine those questions. What can we learn? Is it beneficial to become better connected to the world around us? If so, can better listening make that happen?

When you look through a picture window and see the trees moving in the wind, do you ever step outside to hear the sound the wind and tree are making?

The verse below reminds me of the songs of creation all around us. Does it make you long to hear more clearly the songs around you so that you can blend with, not overshadow, the other voices around you? I know I long to hear the forest sing for joy more clearly. And if that means that I need to be quieter and listen more closely, I want to learn to do that.

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
   let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
   let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.

Psalm 96:11-12


Feel free to comment via the link below, or contact me directly at info@circlewood.online.

To hear sound recordings made by Chris Watson during lockdown in May 2020, watch the video below.

For further explorations, you can hear more of Watson's sound recordings or visit his website.

[1] Noone, Greg, October 15, 2020, Has Nature Gotten Louder During the Pandemic? https://www.outsideonline.com.

[2] Flint, Tom, December 2018, Chris Watson: The Art of Location Recording, https://www.soundonsound.com/.

[3] Blackwell, Matthew, March 4, 2021, Tone Glow 057: Chris Watson, https://toneglow.substack.com.