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Pooling resources for sound art innovation

Wet Sounds brought performance art to London’s York Hall Swimming Pool during a tour of selected swimming facilities earlier this year. Simon Duff took the plunge (but spared us the pictures of him in his Speedos).

Wet Sounds brought performance art to London’s York Hall Swimming Pool during a tour of selected swimming facilities earlier this year. Simon Duff took the plunge (but spared us the pictures of him in his Speedos).

“Like being in the womb” is how one listener described the experience of being at Wet Sounds, an underwater ‘deep listening’ art gallery that toured selected UK swimming pools earlier this year. Wet Sounds presents programme material to a floating and diving audience in the water. The aim of these events is that participants are fully immersed in sound, free to move weightlessly in the space. The London event, held at York Hall Leisure Centre, Bethnal Green in March, featured a specially commissioned work by French musique concrète composer and electronic music pioneer Pierre Henry, entitled Analogy – a 40-minute integrated noise, piano and bass collage.

Wet Sounds effectively creates three separate sound spaces: one under the water, one above it and one a merger of the two as the listener floats on the surface of the pool. These three distinct areas are used to convey parallel narratives, musical and literal, as listeners move in, out and around the space.

“There are four pools in this tour where there is a similar set-up,” comments Joel Cahan, organiser and director of Wet Sounds and a practising sound artist. “In Bangor, Glasgow and Newcastle we have had four two-way speakers surrounding the water and tilted downwards for the most direct sound. In London we are using 12 speakers around the pool – a combination of d&b audiotechnik Q7s, Q Subs [Subs? How apt – Ed], T10s and E8s driven by D 12 and D6 amps, supplied by Hark, an east London hire company.”

Added to this there are four underwater speakers: a combination of Lubell Labs and Clark Synthesis models, driven by an Inter M Quad amp. Despite receiving a stereo signal they are perceived as omni-directional, because sound travels 4.5 times quicker in water, too fast for the brain to detect the direction of the source.

Another important – and somewhat unusual – factor is that because the sound is also perceived by human bones, listeners can cover their ears and still hear the sound as if it’s coming from inside their head.

The combination of these two very different systems provides for an unusual experience. Above the water, there’s an open, reverberant effect as the audio reacts to the space of the building. Under the water, however, is a very personal space in which everything sounds close and immediate.

Mixing at ‘front of pool’ was sound engineer and artist Rebecca Horrox, who opted for a Yamaha DM1000 console, supplied by Orbital Sound. The programme included an assortment of sonic art, predominantly off laptops running Pro Tools and other stereo sources. Sixteen outputs from the console were routed to the speakers in and around the pool, four to the underwater units and 12 to those on the surface.

Mixing Pierre Henry’s composition off Pro Tools was French sound engineer Etienne Bultingaire (pictured), Henry’s regular choice for studio and live work. “The DM1000 is a great desk, easy to use and flexible,” he says. “I have all available functions running at 44.1kHz, such as EQ and delay. In parts of Pierre’s composition I am delaying the over-water speakers from those underwater so that the people submersed get the music first. Sometimes this is by as little as 5ms then at others by as much as 500ms. I am constantly varying when and where I am sending things. It is a really warm, precise, powerful sound with plenty of dynamics so I am very happy. I am able to EQ each speaker, so for example the Q Subs and Q7s that we have placed at the corners of the pool have a bass cut and a slight mid boost to compensate for the acoustics. But I have not used any compression or any other FX on the desk.”

Around 200 people donned their bathers at York Hall to hear a performance of Alvin Lucier’s seminal piece of sound art I Am Sitting In A Room, first performed in 1969. Appropriately renamed I Am Swimming In A Pool for this event, it was read and recorded by sonic artist Simon Whetham. The form of the piece is as follows: dialogue is played out and dubbed back on to itself, the resonant frequencies of the room reinforcing themselves. Any semblance of the original speech is therefore destroyed and what the audience hears is the natural resonant frequencies of the room, articulated by speech. It was a fitting opener for the event, certainly. Other highlights included work by Ryan Styles and Cahen’s own sonic explorations.

As sound art becomes increasingly popular, Cahen is more than happy to keep exploring different ways to use swimming pools in an artistic way while focusing on content for underwater ‘deep listening’ and performance art. He sees sound artists as sculptures or architects of sound in space, the consideration of space being essential to the very definition of ‘sound art’.

“This is a distinguishing factor that separates it from either music played by itself or in its relation to video or dance,” he says. “Furthermore, there is a definite lack of these spaces in our culture. Deep listening in public spaces is either done in a concert hall, which is still modelled after a theatre and is a primarily visual performance, and on headphones, which try to ‘cheat’ the listeners out of being where they are, which I find distracting.”

What are his favourite swimming pool acoustics? “Tiled walls in a deep pool give very good sound and in Rennes I had the pleasure of dipping the speakers in a 10m deep round pool, it sounded incredible. I like diving pools. The deeper you go the richer the sound.”