Sheffield in Sound

Sep 18 2013

Our Exhibitions & Displays Manager, Kirstie Hamilton on realising Chris Watson’s innovative sound map of Sheffield at the Millennium Gallery:

It was almost four years ago when we first started talking with Chris Watson about whether he might be interested in creating a new work based around his home city of Sheffield.

A founding member of electronic pioneers Cabaret Voltaire, Chris moved away from Sheffield around 30 years ago and went on to build a career as one of the UK’s leading sound recordists, working across radio, television, film, installation and music. Over the years Chris has been involved with so many interesting projects, from creating a soundscape for The Cornfield by John Constable to bringing the sounds of the rainforest to the Palm House at Kew, but had never done a longform installation in a gallery environment.

After an initial visit and some fruitful discussions, we came to the agreement that the idea of him creating a sound map of Sheffield, a 21st century take on a portrait of a city, was just what the Millennium Gallery needed.

Chris Watson leading recording trip As the project got underway, we received wonderful support from organisations and individuals across the city, who helped by sharing their knowledge and even taking Chris out and about on location visits. Recording for the project started over eighteen months before the exhibition opened; during this time Chris explored many possibilities, from incorporating seasonal change to following the city’s five rivers as they meander above and below ground. Over time these ideas have changed and developed, but the theme of journeying along the city’s waterways has remained at the heart of Inside the Circle of Fire.

We agreed it would be great to ask the public to contribute their own sounds of Sheffield to the project and Chris made the incredibly generous decision to include every submission we received in the work. We also talked about whether there should be visuals in the installation - our Digital Producer, Alan Silvester, came up with the perfect solution, creating beautiful images of the locations Chris recorded in which complement the piece rather than forming part of it.

One thing Chris had always been clear about from the outset was how the sound would need to be reproduced in the exhibition space. Ambisonic sound technology is a means of not just recording and playing sound in the horizontal, as we may experience surround sound at the cinema, but a way of ensuring the height and depth of sound is also represented. Chris made his recordings in this way and we knew we would have to play the piece using this innovative, but quite complex technology – luckily we have a team who thrive on a challenge!

This installation was a departure from the norm to say the least. Our Technicians beavered away making the space ready for Chris and sound specialists, Tony Myatt and Mat Steel, to ensure the technology did what they wanted it to. Tony was unable to be in Sheffield so worked on the system remotely, but was present in the gallery via Skype, with Chris carrying a tablet with him around the space so he could chat to Tony face to face - it truly was a 21st century collaboration.

Chris Watson recording in the MegatronWhen it came to the final mix, Chris felt it was important that the visitor experiences the sounds as they would naturally; when the football crowd chants, it’s as if you are on the terraces, with the sound enveloping you. The sound’s height, depth, balance and volume are an accurate as possible replication of how they would be heard first hand; you can really hear the water flowing down the walls of the Megatron, the cavernous flood relief tunnel that exists under the station.

After a lot of hard work everyone was incredibly happy with the finished result and, as planned, the doors opened to the public at 10am on Thursday 12 September 2013. Working with Chris on the project has been a fantastic experience – now we can’t wait to hear what our visitors think!

Inside the Circle of Fire continues at the Millennium Gallery until 23 February 2014 - entry to the exhibition is free.



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