BY: LUC RINALDI
When discussing music, people have a tendency to exaggerate originality. Stray from the typical four-chord structure and you’re innovating. Compose in an unconventional time signature—groundbreaking. Merge, defy, and subvert standard genres? Revolutionary.
While most artists fail to merit such descriptors (see: Pitchfork’s review of Alt-J’s An Awesome Wave), a few truly live up to the hyperbole. One such act is AquaSonic. Transforming your typical concert into an ambitious feat of performance art, the four members of the Danish band create their music entirely submerged in tanks of water.
“This has not been seen before on such a scale,” says Robert Karlsson, AquaSonic member and general manager. “On the other hand, it is somehow familiar, since we all came from water, both in our mothers’ wombs and [in an] evolutionary [sense].”
AquaSonic formed a few years after member Laila Skovmand began experimenting with singing underwater and performing on her own. Instead of following the typical band genesis story—listening to records, picking up instruments, jamming in a garage, etc.—the group spent its early years meeting, consulting, and collaborating with “scientists, inventors, divers, universities, and lots and lots of specialists,” Karlsson explains. Over time, the band developed an arsenal of custom-made instruments—a carbon fibre violin, a harp played with an electromagnetic device, a water organ, singing bowls—and experimented, performed, and conducted workshops across Denmark.
Though AquaSonic has relatively few performances under its belt, the concerts it has put on offer an experience unlike anything you’ve heard before. The intimate, raw soundscapes are alternately lulling (outer-worldly, wordless vocals), and frightening (the piercing drone of eight hands’ worth of fingers squeaking aggressively against glass). Their signature sound seemingly mimics the torture to euphoria experienced when drowning. The band typically performs in pitch-black rooms, lit only by the group’s four glowing aquariums.
“It is both beautiful and terrifying to see human beings making music in water tanks,” Karlsson says.
Making music underwater is as much a technical challenge as it is a creative one. Since no one has set a precedent for submerged performances, AquaSonic consistently runs into complications: How do you amplify sound underwater? How do you ensure instruments can both withstand the conditions and be heard? How do you hear your fellow band members if you’re each in a different tank? How do you pull off a performance in a public pool full of revellers (as the band did in the Danish city of Aarhus in early 2013)?
These aren’t the kinds of questions most musicians grapple with. Instead of merely using existing tools in an attempt to create something original (or, in many cases, catchy seems to suffice), AquaSonic is reinventing the entire toolset. The group just completed its instrumentarium (one can only imagine what sort of sounds a contraption with that name might produce) and will begin work on new music for next year.
But the group feeds off unsolved conundrums and uncharted waters (pardon the pun). It seems only to propel them to experiment further, develop new instruments, and continue to challenge listeners’ fundamental understanding of music. After all, who knows what sounds lurk in the water, like unknown worlds at the deepest depths of the ocean, just waiting to be discovered?