Spot Festival

Underwater music on aqua-instruments

Music like you’ve NEVER heard it before; Five musicians, each submerged in a giant aquarium, playing a concert under water – on re-imagined and totally new kinds of instruments, custom-made for the occasion. When “Between Music: AquaSonic” premieres on SPOT Festival, you’re in for an unique musical and visual experience.

By Henrik Friis

In 2004, Laila Skovmand had the idea of trying to sing under water. So she put her head in a fish tank, and discovered that the acoustic patterns of her voice behaved in completely alien ways under water. And while experimenting with sounds and effects, she became so fascinated with exploring and developing the possibilities of water-based music, that she couldn’t let it go. So Skovmand, by now a fully graduated singer and composer from the Royal Academy of Music in Aarhus, has been exploring underwater music ever since – the past three years with Robert Karlsson, as Between Music.

The voyage of discovery makes preliminary landfall on SPOT Festival, when Laila Skovmand and her musicians submerge themselves in five aquaria, each holding between 750 and 2000 liters of water, in order to play at SPOT Festival. They will play on new and re-imagined instruments – some even custom made for the occasion. They do this to express an idea, which has been in a stage of continual development for more than a decade.

Some of the instruments you can experience are:

A Setiphone, consisting of amplified note bars – an instrument invented by the Englishman Matt Nolan, who has created instruments for Björk, Massive Attack, and various opera houses.
A Crystallophone – an instrument inspired by an old 18th century glass accordion, created by Master Builder of Instruments Andy Cavatorta from New York, who has previously built instruments for e.g. Björk
A Rotacorda (inspired by the hurdy gurdy of folk-music fame)
A Hydraulophone – a refinement of the only instrument created specifically for underwater music. Custom-created for AquaSonic by Canadians Steve Mann and Ryan Janzen

– I’ve tested all sorts of instruments over the years. I used to think the xylophone was self-evident as an underwater instrument, but it didn’t work – you need a lot of mass and power for an instrument to work under water, says Laila Skovmand.

She also had a hunch that the timbre of the violin would work well under water. Rather than submerging a Stradivarius, however – a dubious decision at best – the group employ a carbon fibre violin.

– Under water, the high harmonics disappear, and you get fascinating deep timbres instead. So we’ve been working with Tibetan singing bowls, Arabic darbouka-drums, and gongs from Java and Nepal, which aren’t played with rubber mallets!

A typical rehearsal
A typical rehearsal night consists of putting on the wetsuits, and entering the aquarium. The musicians and singers take turns in surfacing to breathe, and stay on track via waterproof in-ear headphones – since they are blocked from keeping visual contact by water and glass walls.

– I love pop and rock. And this is a pop-rock template, submerged, with inspiration from neoclassical music, Laila Skovmand says, and elaborates – The music is inspired by human evolution, and when you hear the sounds we produce, some of them are similar to the sounds a foetus experience. I think people experience a kind of flash back.

Musically relevant – not a gimmick
– First and foremost, it’s important to us to get the project away from being perceived as a gimmick – and prove that it has true musical relevance. It would be easy to create a flowing new-age soundscape – but we want to go in another direction. We want to get as far away from the mermaid-image as possible, and reach another palette of colours entirely, states Laila Skovmand.

Laila Skovmand (frontwoman, composer) and Robert Karlsson (organizational frontman) have spent the equivalent of 3-4 years worth of man-hours on AquaSonic, which is a very demanding project – economically and otherwise. At several stages, Skovmand tried to let the project go – but has always been drawn into it again. And with economic support from both local and national art councils, things have now come together at last.

And now, Between Music and their three musicians have reached a point, where they can serve the first audio-visual treats for an audience at SPOT, where they will perform 15-minute concerts – and a full concert is planned for the fall.

– We would love to go on tour with this, Laila Skovmand says. She believes in the project, even if the logistics are challenging – you don’t just throw instruments and aquaria in a flight case and take off. – We hope to get set-up and dismantling down to only two days, Skovmand finishes.