"When I'm on location, it's a totally solitary activity. You put some headphones on, and at that moment, nobody can hear the world like you can." Chris Watson is talking to me over Skype from his home in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, explaining the details of a soon to be released smartphone app, which contains a cherry-picked collection of his sound recordings made as far back as the 1990s. Many originally appeared on CD (via Touch, who now also have an iPhone app), but Watson is enthusiastic about finding new formats such as this for his work. "The app is going to be used by individuals, and that means there's an individual at either end of the chain," he says. "I like the idea that wherever you are, you can drop into this environment."
Built by Brighton arts collective The Nimbus Group for Brighton Digital Festival, the free app, Nimbus, will be released on 10 September. As well as 14 of Watson's field recordings, it also includes four sonic games: a sound based navigational game, whereby players have to find their way to a destination purely by listening to the directional sounds; a game which uses the north-south auditory axis; a collection of sounds for insomniacs; and one sound which will only unlock when you travel at the velocity of a diving peregrine falcon (300 km/hr).
Designer Carina Westling describes the app as a paint box – "in line with Chris Watson's perception of his practice as a 'sound painter'," she explains. It allows you to "reposition or reframe your day to day experiences, by travelling within portable sound environments from unique situations that would be impossible to inhabit in any other way".
Watson's recordings have always been based around the premise that we have become desensitised to the precise character of our environments. "I'm convinced that a location – part of the sense of place and spirit of anywhere – has a sense of character and spirit which we can tune into," he says, "and I think a lot of that is to do with the sounds of the place, and the acoustics of those environments – something that we're very sensitive to but have probably forgotten how to use."
The chosen recordings offer stark contrasts to the common sounds of Brighton and other UK cities and suburbs: vultures eating a zebra, insects, a nightjar in Mozambique, sounds from the Sgurr na Lapaich mountain in the North Highlands, and what Watson says is one of his favourite recordings: elephants sleeping at night in the Maasai Mara Nature Reserve in Kenya, originally released on Outside The Circle Of Fire. "We stopped at two in the morning just to have a flask of tea, and these elephants came out of the grass and into an open area," he says. "There was a matriarch, the lead female, with one of her babies, and others, and they followed her in silence and came around our vehicle, totally ignoring it. Then 100 metres in front of us, this matriarch – the lead animal and the largest – drops onto her knees and just rolled over and went to sleep. I've never seen anything like it! Right in front of us, and all the others took their lead from her. I was on the roof of the vehicle with a directional microphone on a pole, so we sat for about two hours and recorded them.
"I really love the way it ebbs and flows,” he continues. "Sometimes you can hear it and sometimes you can't – they have huge lungs, so the breathing cycle is quite long, and it sounds like waves on a beach. It really stuck with me that sound, it's harmonically very rich and it's very musical."
Nimbus will be available for free on iOS and Android from 10 September 2014, during the Brighton Digital Festival, at which there will be a live event. Chris Watson also performs this weekend (24-27 July) at Port Eliot festival in Cornwall.