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Devon’s nature sound recordist

PUBLISHED: 15:02 21 April 2015 | UPDATED: 15:02 21 April 2015

Chris Watson recording the natural soundscape

Chris Watson recording the natural soundscape

Matt Austin Images 2013

Chris Watson, one of the world’s leading wildlife recorders, is bringing sounds from rural Devon into the heart of the city for a special exhibition

Photography by Matt Austin

Four seasonal recordings from a variety of locations in Devon will be used to create a changing soundscape evocative of Devon’s diverse ecosystems in a special exhibition titled Ebb and Flow at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery in Exeter.

Chris Watson is a BAFTA award-winning audio recordist who has worked with the BBC on many of their best-known natural history productions including Tweet of the Day, Frozen Planet and The Life of Birds.

When using the stairway linking the garden entrance to the Down to Earth gallery, visitors throughout the rest of 2015 will be treated to soundscapes from nearby coast and countryside captured by Chris from rock pools and estuaries, farmland and meadow, pebblebed heathlands and oak woodlands. Four seasonal recordings from each location will be used to create a changing soundscape evocative of Devon’s diverse ecosystems.

Collectively the sounds are familiar, relaxing and even soporific, but once you stop and listen, individual sounds draw your attention and even compete for it. Though so familiar, few will be able to identify the component parts and fewer will know the extraordinary stories that the sounds can tell.

Chris Watson recording the natural soundscapeChris Watson recording the natural soundscape

In the lapping waves of a coastal rockpool, limpets can be heard grazing and pistol shrimps heard stunning their prey. Less than an inch long, the pistol shrimp has asymmetrical claws. When prey is close, the outsized claw snaps shut with such force that it forms a vacuum and it is the shock waves from the filling vacuum that causes the pistol crack and stuns the prey. Relative to its size, this is one of the loudest sounds emitted by an animal.

In a spring heathland dawn chorus the haunting amphibian-like sounds of a nightjar rings out. Its nocturnal life, silent flight, eerie sounds and gapping mouth have given nightjars an almost supernatural reputation and some still call them goatsuckers, from an ancient folk tale. They arrive from sub-Saharan Africa from late April to breed in the UK, returning to Africa in August and September. The male’s churring song is sometimes punctuated by the click of its dislocating wing, this wing clapping being part of its mating display.

These are just a few of the sounds of Devon that will be heard at RAMM. Whether listening to nature’s symphony or picking out the individual sounds, Chris Watson’s recordings will be a joy to hear and a pleasure to listen to.

Passionate about sound, Chris was a founder member of the influential Sheffield-based experimental music group Cabaret Voltaire in 1971. Since 1981 he has made a career recording the wildlife sounds of animals, habitats and atmospheres from around the world.

Sound recordist Chris Watson, left, with Tony Whitehead from the RSPBSound recordist Chris Watson, left, with Tony Whitehead from the RSPB

Recording Devon soundscapes was made possible by New Expressions 3, a national programme fostering collaboration between contemporary artists and museums to provide fresh approaches to collections and visitor engagement. The programme will allow 20 artists to present specially commissioned work in 15 museums across England.

New Expressions 3 is supported by the National Lottery through Grants for the Arts. Arts Council England provided additional funding through the creative digital component of RAMM’s Major Partner Museum grant. The RSPB helped identify suitable recording locations.

Ebb and Flow: Chris Watson, Saturday, 28 March to December 2015, Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter EX4 3RX. rammuseum.org.uk

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