Spot Festival

Between the Sound Waves: Underwater Music

Two beautiful ladies in red dresses singing, a bearded guy playing the violin, another lady and a man with drums and percussion – seems like a usual band ensemble: except they are playing underwater.

By Annabella Stieren, Jutland Station

We all know the feeling of changed sound perception, when your head is underwater. In the morning while showering, your own voice suddenly sounds exactly like Luciano Pavarotti’s vocals. Once you take a dive in the ocean, every sound around you disappears, with only the bubbles rising from your mouth making little crackling sounds.

The composer and singer Laila Skovmand was always interested in the change of sounds in different environment. In 2004 she did her first experiments with water surfaces, singing on a bowl of water. Two years later during a two-week workshop, she puts herself into a suitcase full of water, singing into a microphone, protected from the water — by a condom. The idea of an underwater concert was born.

Custom-made instruments built for the use in water
Today Laila is the artistic director of “Between Music”: five musicians sitting in their own small aquariums, playing custom-made instruments built for the use in water. On the opening night of the SPOT festival yesterday, Between Music showed the world’s first underwater performance at Godsbanen: Aquasonic.

What they do is not simply a concert; it is a visual performance, a challenge for your ears and your brain. In an almost mystical way, the water carries the sounds of the instruments. It changes the normal acoustic sound waves and creates sounds that are completely unexpected. The singers, for instance, bring off very high, almost screaming tones when they “sing” into their underwater microphones. Laila has developed a distinct technique for that. She fills up her lungs with air and dives beneath the surface of the water; there she opens her mouth and lets water flow into it. The sounds are actually produced by a big bubble that she can control in her throat, moving up and down.

A fascinating sense for rhythm
Together with the other instruments, they build up melodies. As the composer, Laila has a fascinating sense for rhythm and the interaction of unique sounds: the deep, loud beats of the drums sound almost like an expensive electronic subwoofer. The rubbing of the singers’ hands on the glass windows of the aquarium produce exceptional melodies — so disturbing and beautiful that it is almost unbearable for the ears.

Robert Karlsson is the manager of Between Music and a professional violin player. He joined Laila not only because of curiosity, but also because he love the technical side of the project. The musicians get most of their expertise and assistance from Preston Wilston, an Underwater Acoustics Professor from Texas. “Basically, the aquariums work like the body of a music instrument, like the body of a guitar. We have to map out everything. Sometimes it makes a difference where the percussions stand: two or three centimetres can be important”, Robert explains. The set of percussions comes from all over the world: a gong from Indonesia, golden carillons that were tested in water buckets, drums from Tibet.

Robert also likes the way the intense practising blocks have changed him personally. Not only do his lungs get stronger during the three to four week long practising session with five to six hour in the water, he has also changed his perception of space. Before he did not really like water and bathtubs, as they gave him claustrophobic impressions. Now they are his working space. Apart from the violin, Robert also plays an underwater glass harmonica. Andy Cavatorta, an instrument inventor and computer engineer, modified this old instrument, which was originally invented by Benjamin Franklin in the 18th century.

After the four shows in Aarhus for SPOT, they want to tour the world, with a longer performance. Their newest instrument came in yesterday: an organ that works with water instead of air. For today, they have convinced the audience: “It was real music, I was not expecting that”, a spectator says.

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Annabella Stieren is a German journalist based in Aarhus, and currently one of the Culture Editors for Jutland Station.