Chris Watson // Unheard Sounds of Bradford // National Media Museum

The other week I had the pleasure of taking part in a two day workshop with renowned field-recordist Chris Watson. Chris has spent the last decades capturing sounds from the farthest-flung reaches of the planet.

The workshop was intended to capture the ‘hidden sounds of Bradford’- sounds that go unnoticed, unheard, or uncelebrated. These sounds will eventually be arranged and shaped into an installation for the National Media Museum summer exhibition by Manchester based sound collective Noise Orchestra.

All sound tells us something about the world. The transmission of information through speech is a minute segment of the information that can be gleaned from sound events.

Let’s take a simple analogy; we have a recording where someone shouts goodbye down the street to another person about 20 meters away, and about five seconds later the other person shouts goodbye back. The standout information from this exchange is of a verbal communication. Beyond this, though there are many layers of sound information, which can be even richer than what is initially emergent. The quality of the voices tell us about age, gender, and possibly dialect; the vocal inflection and possibly delay between the voices will tell us about the relationship that these people share; the sound of the voices will interact with the acoustic environment, telling us something abut the surroundings in which these people find themselves; there will be environmental sounds which define the type of neighbourhood; there may even be other key sound events which reveal other presences.

Sound is a form of knowledge, which is complex and multifaceted, but indisputably rich. To be a field-recordist, as Chris Watson is, one must hear each sound in context and understand how best to capture it, which microphone to use, and how best to recreate it. You have to know why you are listening, what you are listening for, and how that sound experience should be perceived by others. Below are some questions and ideas that I took away from the initial workshop with Chris:

  • Listening is a route to recording
  • You can never capture a whole soundscape – so you need to understand it and what you want to capture from it
  • Why are you recording a particular sound event / soundscape?
  • Walking through a soundscape is a good way to create a narrative of that space
  • What do we listen for in a piece of music?
  • In soundscapes are we looking for what we would listen to in a piece of music?
  • Are we aestheticising soundscapes by recording them?

Capturing the hidden sounds of Bradford is a way to expose the unheard information that exits in the city. It asks the question, ‘how might the sounds that we don’t normally experience shape our understanding of the city?’. One ‘hidden’ sonic domain that was particularly interesting was the pump room underneath the water fountain in the city centre. The machinery produced a range of rhythmic effects and drones as it pushed water up to the fountain above. Chris made the point that it wasn’t necessarily these sounds that were interesting, so much as the transition between below and above that put the sounds into context; the transition between heard and unheard.

Below is probably my favourite recording from the day. Despite a lack of low-mid frequency capture on the built in microphones on my Zoom h6 (and that these aren’t really hidden sounds), I think it captures the dynamism of Bradford market. Sound systems clash with each other and interjecting snippets of nearly-understood speech interrupt each other. We hear different languages, and small interactions juxtaposed against generic and omnipresent pop musics. We hear the sounds of tills, refrigerators, clattering, all sonic markers which build up a sense of the experience.