There is undoubtedly something odd about visiting a cinema for a non-visual experience. The irregularity of the situation is exaggerated by the room layout: the chairs placed in serried rows facing one direction; suggestive of a ‘front’, despite this ‘front’ being, and remaining, draped in heavy black cloth. Speakers surround the rows of chairs, placed at short, even intervals, as well as being secreted between the chairs and out of eye sight from above, creating ambisonic sound (total surround-sound). The acknowledgement of context through the arrangement of the room highlights the importance of sound in cinematic experience, which is so often taken for granted; and the capacity of sound to capture multiple-narratives and histories. Yet, the moment that the lights dim, and, upon request from an usher, you close your eyes for the duration of the piece, the presence of all this technology is lost, and a creaking gate welcomes the listener onto the town moor.
Watson’s audio collage transcends the limitations of various other artistic approaches through its expression of the passing of time, and articulation of the multiple identities of public spaces. The ensemble of recordings depict the town moor as a natural place, a meeting place, a place for partying, and a place for relaxing, a place for both people and nature, within the city. The sound of the sky lark, grazing cattle, and dawn chorus, lend a sense of continuation to the portrait of the town moor, the footsteps of those who have inhabited and used the space historically and contemporarily, echoes through the pounding of trainers on turf during a Fun Run. The recording moves seamlessly between sites, each location sharing with the listener a different chord to this polyphonous space.
Chris Watson is principally known as one of the world’s foremost wildlife sound-recordists having won two BAFTA awards for ‘Best Factual Sound’ in 1996, and 2012, both for his work on David Attenborough documentaries. ‘The Town Moor: A Portrait in Sound’ began life as material commissioned for a BBC Radio Newcastle programme. This audio material has since been reworked with new material added for the exhibition. The use of ambisonic sound, creates a full surround-sound effect, enveloping the listener with sound directed at them from all angles to create a totally immersive experience. The intensity of this submersion in sound is heightened by lack of visual stimulus in the blacked-out space. Heavy handed technology in creative practices can be oppressive and obscure the intentions of the artist, but in the case of Watson’s installation the clarity of sound and its ambisonic installation, combined with the engaging sound journey is totally transportive and obliterates any awareness of cables and speakers. The recording tells a narrative which has no need for visual elaboration. Sounds prompt the mind to create a personal mental experience of the town moor, sourced from either memory or recognition of similar sounds from past experience. The audio narrated journey has the immediacy of lived experience, and the forty minutes which could have dragged, evaporated.