As the first underwater sound art festival comes to Edinburgh, Neil Cooper discovers that music sounds better down where it’s wetter
Underwater, you hear things differently. This is part of the thinking behind Wet Sounds, a knowingly named tour of sound art which takes place not in uptight white space galleries, but in ten public swimming pools between London and Nairn.
With the Edinburgh leg docking at Leith’s Victoria Baths, each date will feature work by 12 artists pumped through submerged speakers and listened to in situ by passing swimmers. With sound travelling four times quicker in water than in air, the waves generated will not only be heard by the ears, but felt in the bones and the body. Although this sounds akin to heavy dub played in a flotation tank, curator Joel Cahen is prepared to go with that particular flow.
‘The properties of sound and water are fascinating,’ says Cahen. ‘The fact that sound travels faster in water makes for an entirely different listening process. With a lot of the sound art events I’ve put on, what’s bothered me is that they aren’t always listened to properly, because people are standing up and chatting. Here, the audience has to float to listen to it, so that social aspect of it is lost, and you get something much more intimate and private.’
Swimming pools have long been a source of artistic metaphor. Beyond Busby Berkeley’s synchronised spectaculars, Jerzy Skolimowski’s 1970 film, Deep End, soundtracked by Can and Cat Stevens, displayed the erotic potential of a London swimming pool as John Moulder-Brown stalked Jane Asher.
Further precedents include American sound artist Max Neuhaus, whose ‘Water Whistle’ pieces in the early 1970s piped sound into swimming pools which was only audible when the listener’s ears were underwater. Rather than use drips and gurgles as its source material, however, Wet Sounds goes further.
‘It’s not just about ambience,’ Cahen insists. ‘I want to present a variety of styles. That’s why curating it has been so complex. Yes, there will be some drones, but there will also be vocal works. It’s music and sound that has to do with human interaction with water. There’s a community aspect of it that appeals as well. People who may not normally go to galleries might come to Wet Sounds, because it’s in a swimming pool.’
Wet Sounds looks set to make an even bigger splash: entry costs no more than an ordinary ticket for a swim.
‘As long as people immerse themselves in the experience,’ says Cahen, ‘I want to leave things open for surprises.’
Dive in the deep end and take a listen.
Leith Victoria Baths, Edinburgh, Tue 15 Jul. See www.newtoy.org/wetsounds.html