AQurld Waves: St. Louis' First Underwater Multimedia Concert

How would you describe the scene and physical experience participants can look forward to at AQurld Waves?

There is a very strong visual element with videos. A colleague we've worked with many times, native St. Louisan Van McElwee, a Guggenheim Grant recipient who teaches at Webster and has exhibited internationally, generated original visions or video files that will then be mixed and processed digitally. Some of these images were taken with underwater cameras from beneath the surface and some above the surface. They will then be shown on the surface of the water and on a large screen at the end of the pool with two large projectors -- very bright theater-like projectors. The illumination of those are measured in lumens and both are 6,000 lumens. Most home projectors are 3,000 so this is very bright.

The images are very beautiful. Both the sounds and images that we'll use are all very abstract. The audience, most of them floating in the water, will see images dancing off their bodies and off the pool bottom. We've already experienced this four times and it does work. It's a very quiet, meditative, focused and peaceful thing. When you're floating in the water, all your attention is focused on your senses. We're providing a lot of stimuli for that.

The event is taking place in three separate short programs, all live improvisation. It's the same for the two people playing synths, Mike Murphy and Kevin Harris. It's mostly analog synths with some digital processing. I'm joined by a colleague Ted Rubright, and we will be standing in the water playing instruments. All these sounds are broadcast in this pool with underwater speakers so people can clearly hear what's going on. It sounds different than the same music played through speakers through the air.

See also: Experimental Artist Kevin Harris Releases a Split Tape

The real focus of the event is to experience a different way of perceiving sensory stimulation. Not everyone wants to get in the water, so they're welcome to sit outside; however, it will sound completely different. I've been thinking about this for almost two decades. Finally, because of Regional Arts Commission's innovation grant, we've been able to bring it to fruition.

What sorts of special instruments and underwater resonating devices did you have to create for the performance, and how did you go about innovating them?

Mostly through past experiences, through learning what resonating bodies do and then placing them in water to see how they react. Most of them fail. If you put a drum in the water, it goes "thunk" and is of no use whatsoever. I needed bodies that resonate continuously like vocal chords in a whale, so I had to make instruments that do that, resonate and sound well with the water speakers and underwater. They're hard to describe verbally. Some are found objects. We've made frames that suspend and transfer their resonance properly. Mine's almost six-feet-tall. I invite people to come see them and hear them.

We are also going to be using aquatic animal sounds. I've spent hundreds of hours listening to various kinds documented since the '70s. Humpback whales come to mind first. They've always been a favorite of mine along with porpoises and harp seals, which can sound like synthesizer sounds yet come from biological animals. It's fascinating what's going on under the surface of the water. Lakes and especially oceans are very busy.

A whale can be heard from hundreds of miles away. They communicate, compose and sing. I was struck by how human-like they are except their range of expression is much wider than our vocal possibilities, from subharmonic sounds to sounds that are higher than a bird, almost instantly. They're very peaceful, amazing animals that use low rumbling, high squeals and even plaintive snores. They constantly change their sounds, and they imitate and improvise just like musicians. All of us evolved are taking a cue from whales in the way they think when they produce sounds. We will reflect this model as we generate electronic music out of respect to animals.

Location Info


Webster University Student Center

175 Edgar, St. Louis, MO

Category: General

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