AQUASONIC - SYDNEY FESTIVAL
AQUASONIC, Sydney Festival at Carriageworks Bay 17; 6-8-9 January 2018. Photography by Charlotta de Miranda - above: Laila Skovmand
Between Music is a self-described avant garde music ensemble from Denmark. Led by artistic director, composer, vocalist and “hydraulophonist” Laila Skovmand, with musicians Robert Karlsson, Morten Poulsen, Dea Marie Kjeldsen and Nanna Bech have, since 2009, been experimenting, researching and inventing instruments and vocal methods specifically to play music underwater in custom-built tanks (with the collaboration of sound designer Anders Boll and sound designer and engineer Roman Komar).
The idea of underwater instruments is potentially interesting: aside from the hydraulophone, there is a plain old submersible violin, a crystallphone, rotacords, percussion and drums; and of course, voices and noises made by rubbing fingers on the sides of the tanks or blowing bubbles while vocalising, all variously amplified.
On a website called Jutland Station – “an online magazine for expats in Aarhus and Jutland connecting Danes and internationals through journalism” – a performance of Aquasonic is reviewed by Sanika Diwanji and Hon Sophia Balod who write, inter alia, that after a period of silent darkness, “The performance began with sounds of gurgling, bubbling and flowing water.” This is true. They go on to say, “the audience sat in rapture.” That may have been so in Aarhus but at Carriageworks, it was more a sort of polite curiosity.
Then, “Aquasonic is a performance that is rich in creativity, originality and experimentation.” This could only be written by someone who has yet to experience much musical creativity, originality or experimentation in free music or improvisation. The performers each occupy a large fish tank for the duration – some 55 minutes – and individually and collectively produce music that the writers above described as “mellifluous,” including “mermaid songs, melodies and white noise”. They somehow missed the underlying recurring motif of unicorn mating calls.
Rather than original, the music of Aquasonic is derivative of and descended from the experimentation of such genuine pioneers as Fred Frith and Henry Cow and their offshoots. The new element here is the water tank and one would have to ask, “why?” Just because something can be done is not necessarily a reason to do it.
The amount of time each performer is able to spend totally immersed ranges from ordinary to impressive. The learned techniques of freediving – during which swimmers vie to see who can stay under longest or dive deepest – enable the current world record holders to hold their breath for 11.35 minutes (male) and 9.02 (female), but no musical instruments are involved.
During the amazingly long 55 minutes the “music” ranged from ambient to excruciating. (A violin played poorly is agony at the best of times, being underwater doesn’t improve it.) In the main it’s the kind of soundscape that can be heard in beauty spas and meditation classes – but with added splashes, bubbles and gasps. During the performance a steady trickle of patrons quietly headed for the exits, but the majority stayed and applauded enthusiastically at the end.
Meanwhile, your correspondent pondered all the above and also, what an OH&S nightmare the show must be for the Festival (lots of water, electronics, lights and wet people); that the performers must have the pruniest skin and cleanest finger nails in all Denmark and that whales still have it all over humans when it comes to making music underwater. After ten minutes I was bored to sobs, and then they kept doing it over and over.