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The Sheffield culture guide written by in-the-know locals

Inside the Circle of Fire: A Sheffield Sound Map by Chris Watson

In 2013 Millennium Gallery hosted the incredible, immersive soundscape Inside the Circle of Fire, created by BAFTA-winning sound recordist and former Cabaret Voltaire member Chris Watson. Visitors were invited to sit down, lie down or walk around and soak up a sonic environment created with recordings of the city of Sheffield. Now, Chris has revisited his original work, turning it into a stereo experience that is best listened to using headphones. The work is accompanied by photographs taken by Alan Silvester, Digital Producer at Museums Sheffield.

Stream Inside the Circle of Fire below. And scroll down to read our interview with Chris from the original exhibition in 2013.

"You can find music, if you choose to listen, in almost anything." Chris Watson’s fascination with how things sound began as a teenager, when he set out exploring his surroundings using a tape recorder and a microphone. Starting off by recording patters and peeps from the bird table in his back garden in Totley, his love for music and nature – and the music that can be found in nature – went on to take him all over the world, first as a member of Cabaret Voltaire and, since the early 1980s, with documentary series like Frozen Planet and The Life of Birds.

After thirty years of sonic expeditions it seems quite natural that Chris Watson has come to produce, in Inside the Circle of Fire, one of the most prized possessions of any explorer: a map. Returning to his former hometown, he spent eighteen months charting a sound map of Sheffield, recording everything from the roars of Bramall Lane to the siren that sounds out one o’clock from the top end of Fargate each day.

The sound map is built on one of the notions that has been at the heart of Chris’s drive to record since his youth: "I was always intrigued by the idea of time-shifting," he explains. "I could come home and lay in bed at night and play back the sounds of the moorlands and really recreate an essence of the experience of being in that place. Sound is so much more powerful than a photograph in that respect, it’s incredibly stimulating."

Chris Watson

In many ways Inside the Circle of Fire is a very personal map. This is a route through Sheffield plotted by Chris, a route that exposes parts of his character along the way – his love for rivers, for birdsong. "From the periphery of Sheffield up on Blackamoor – with the birds and the wind and the rain – the piece follows the rivers down through the hills, valleys, and woodland, and ends up underneath Sheffield station in the Megatron. Along the way it weaves all over the place, into Forgemasters, Kelham Island, Hillsborough, Bramall Lane and Fargate."

Chris’s own recordings are mixed in with around twenty clips submitted by people across Sheffield, of journeys to work, of children playing, and – creating a strikingly serene moment – of chanting at Sheffield Buddhist Centre. In this way, the map becomes personal to a lot of people. It's the map’s "key signature sounds," as Chris calls them, that make Inside the Circle of Fire really feel as though it's something the whole of Sheffield can share. That’s our town hall’s clock striking, those are our community's voices from our market.

Day-to-day, it can be easy to develop a degree of immunity to the sounds of the city; that one o’clock siren probably gets away with barely being questioned, or even noticed, on most days. By composing a track out of such sounds, Chris allows certain features that make Sheffield unique to become more discernible, to shine, to become music. "Once you strip away much of the traffic noise, which is the homogenous element that makes most European cities sound the same, and once you go to a place and you don’t just hear but you actively listen – which is quite a creative function – then you can start to hear the real voice of the city."

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