“This work presents five performers who submerge themselves in glass tanks to play custom-made instruments and sing entirely underwater.”
That’s a strong opening to a blurb, and this work – Between Music’s AquaSonic – is an equally strong way to open to this year’s Sonica, Cryptic’s 11-day biennial festival of visual sonic art in Glasgow. Ethereal, otherworldly, spectacular – the start to a long list of adjectives failing to capture the depths of a piece that’s at once fascinating, beguiling and possessive of surprising depth. More than a gimmick or trick, it’s really quite magical; a deeply satisfying work that’s so clearly the result of rigour, of research, of enormous amounts of time, energy, (money) and skill.
And it sounds pretty good, too.
AquaSonic is a feast for the eyes as much as the ears, a well composed and articulately presented piece of performance. It starts in darkness, offering a comfortable moment of waiting with the lights off. This is the darkest I’ve ever seen it in Tramway 1 – and the longest I’ve been given to enjoy it. Then, my ears activate, hearing these odd sounds. It is water, I think – or am primed to think, knowing a little about what’s to come, having read that blurb. I hear the sound of water breaking, a surface changing, oxygen escaping. My eyes, accustomed to the darkness, glimpse a shadow at the bottom of a tank – a figure crouched around a violin.
And then the music starts.
The subaqueous instruments – described, although not identified in performance, as a hydraulophone, crystallophone, rotacorda, percussion and violin – have been developed through Between Music’s collaborative experiments with deep-sea divers, instrument makers and scientists. The results are uncanny, oddly familiar, yet definitely underwater and definitely slightly askew. I can’t tell my rotacorda from my crystallophone but there’s this one instrument that looks like an Archimedes screw attached to a gramophone and I can’t stop thinking about it. The proximity it has to something I already recognise is the thread throughout AquaSonic that makes it so pleasurable to watch. A red dress billowing, an arm sinking, a voice wavering, rippling over the surface – the body, instrument and noise, all placed underwater, offer something new. Together they speak something unspeakable to me – a noise not possible on dry land, something out of reach.
Beautiful, brilliant, saturated – the adjectives keep tumbling out my fingers to try and catch up with this work. Yet – for all its splendour, drama, epic-ness and so on – it is also funny, really funny in fact. There are five canisters full of water, each connected by a tube to the five tanks the performers are crouched in. About two thirds of the way through the performance the lights dim over the tanks, drawing our attention to these cylinders at the front of the stage. These are another instrument; each one – when blown into via the tube – produces a different quality of bubbling, a different sort of note. What follows descends into a routine about flatulence – or at least it made me think of the sheer joy produced by farting in the bath – sudden jets of bubbles breaking periods of silence. It’s a good gag, giving us all a bit of room to breathe and undercutting the suspicion that anyone is taking themselves too seriously.
When the work closes pockets of standing appreciation erupt across the space and walking out the auditorium people are crowding around the front of the stage, competing to take photographs of these new instruments. Others seem to be similarly enthralled by what they’ve seen. At a time – and in a culture – when the case for high levels of funding and long development periods seems a difficult one to make, works like AquaSonic exemplify art’s potential to offer something to the world, something speculative, spectacular, something fun – worth turning up for.
An audience member, a few steps ahead, says exactly what I’m trying to with this review.
“That was just sick, wasn’t it?”
AquaSonic was on as part of Sonica 2017 at Tramway, which runs until 5 November 2017. Click here for more details.