Text by Hope ‘Leye
Upstairs in the grand interior of Opera North‘s Howard Assembly Room is Chris Watson’s most recent art installation Hy Brasil. Commissioned specifically for the space, the piece brings together many of the prevailing interests in Watson’s practice and creates a immersive sound and light experience for the viewer.
Renowned as a wildlife sound recordist, Watson has regularly worked with well-known clients such as the BBC, working on projects such as the BAFTA award winning series Frozen Planet. Having collaborated and worked solo to create several experimental music albums, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Technology degree in 2006 for his vast contributions to the field of audio technology, art and his continued work in documentary and natural history sound recordings. Regularly speaking on BBC radio and a respected expert in his field, Watson recently worked with Alder Hey Children’s Hospital on an exciting project where he created a sound piece using the sound of children to calm patients whilst they undergo treatment.
Hy Brasil is a narrative sound piece that works in tandem with lighting to take us on a journey. Over the course of twenty minutes, we are taken to a mythical island that comes directly from the inner workings of Watson’s mind, where he carries us through the depths of it’s oceans, walks us across it’s coast, weaves us through it’s forests and then lifts us above it’s treeline. Starting at the waters edge of the island like a natural point of birth and a starting point for life, it is understandably easy to lose yourself slightly whilst experiencing this installation. Curious sounds from the ocean fill the room, sounding both familiar enough to be unquestionably believable and completely foreign at the same time. Watson weaves a collage of sounds that surrounds the audience, from the mating songs of humpback whales to the crackling of flurrying shrimps.
From the water, we seamlessly emerge onto the beach where the lights progress along with the ambient sounds of the piece, pulling us across the coastline. Describing this part of the island as a ‘hugely hostile place’, Watson presents a very diverse array of sounds. From scuttling crustaceans to grey seals voicing the choruses of sirens and mermaids, the piece quickly progresses into the islands colourful forests. This part of the piece heavily draws on Watson’s own experiences documenting the Galapogos islands. From the cries of monkeys to the noisy mating rituals of giant turtles and the fluttering of exotic birds, this part of the installation takes full advantage of the Ambisonic surround sound system, which places listeners at the same position as the microphone at the time of recording.
Concluding the journey above the treeline of the island we are ushered up and away from the mysterious place by tropical tree frogs and manx shearwaters – creatures that gather and migrate to the island under the shade of night to nest around the cracks and crevices of the islands summit peaks. Rumoured on other islands to be evil spirits due to their ominous night choruses, they help provide exiting sounds as our adventure with Hy Brasil ends.
Bringing together the breadth of Chris Watson’s passions and experience, Hy Brasil feels less of journey through a place and rather a journey through his mind. Regardless, it is presented with perfect precision and the same level of editorial skill that has made him stand out as a audio technician and sound artist. Personally I found the whole experience over everything else to be a beautiful self-contained vacation from the rush and unrest of Leeds, and the show provides a wild sense of escapism rarely presented in the heart of such a busy city.
Easily recommendable as a must-see art piece in Leeds, Hy Brasil is open to the public until Saturday 15 March.
Image © Tom Arber