Hy Brasil: The sounds of a mythical island

Femke Colborne

The wind rustling through the long grass; waves breaking gently on the beach; the call of exotic birds as they fly overhead – it’s all in a day’s work for Chris Watson.

That’s because Watson is a sound recordist, best known for his work on the BBC’s Frozen Planet series. His work capturing the sounds of nature for documentaries has taken him all over the world, and now it’s bringing him back to Yorkshire, where he was born. Following on from his Sound Map at Sheffield’s Millenium Gallery, Watson has created a 20-minute sound installation, Hy Brasil, for the Howard Assembly Room in Leeds, using sounds he has recorded from the Galapagos Islands to the Arctic.

Hy Brasil is a mysterious mythical island rumoured to be hidden in mist somewhere off the coast of Ireland. Legend has it that the island becomes visible to human eyes for just one day every seven years, when it can be seen but not reached. It even appears on some very early maps of the Atlantic, only eventually disappearing in the 1870s.

Hy Brasil is a mysterious mythical island rumoured to be hidden in mist

Commissioned by Opera North Projects, Watson’s new installation aims to demonstrate what Hy Brasil might sound like, using material from his global archive. The installation takes visitors on a day-long expedition from dawn to dusk, exposing them to sounds like the the swirling of the ocean, the call of whales and seals and the haunting cries of Manx Shearwaters and other sea birds. There’s also lighting designed by Tim Skelly, who has worked as a lighting consultant for Yorkshire Sculpture Park as well as various high-profile musicals and festivals.

Watson says the installation will be “a unique sonic environment” encapsulating the sounds of islands from around the world. “It’s a collage of places,” he says. “This island may or may not have existed, but it’s evolved out of the ocean, like all islands, so I can inhabit it with birds and sounds from around the planet.” Watson’s Hy Brasil is also the closest anyone’s likely to get to this legendary land mass.

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