One of the things about music that most aspiring musicians quickly discover is that it’s a field where book knowledge and theory can only take you so far. All the mathematical knowledge of music, notes, and scales need to be connected with creativity, ingenuity, and – it must be said – a certain disrespect for “the rules.”
Amsterdam-native Performer Joel Cahen is one of those musicians who has little time for the orthodox ideas of music. One of his latest projects, Wet Sounds, takes everything we know about music and concerts and throws it right out the window. For instance, he wonders, who says that music has to be played in a concert hall? And who says that music needs to be played in a wimpy medium like air anyway?
There’s a world of difference between air and water. Both of them exist in entirely different states of matter – while we can move through both, the physiology of our bodies means that we long ago stopped being able to extract the oxygen from water. But liquids and gasses have more in common with each other than they do with other forms of matter like solids – especially when it comes to conducting sound.
As you might remember from your high school science class, the sounds we perceive are little more than a series of vibrations. These minute air disturbances – soundwaves – move through matter at different rates and speeds depending on the nature of the matter they are conducting. When a soundwave bounces into an ear, it vibrates against the sensitive tissue and bones of our ear, leaving our brain to “decode” what the vibrations mean and translate them into intelligible noises.
This process occurs very, very rapidly, as anyone who’s ever attended a heavy duty rock concert can attest. But what most people aren’t aware of is that air is one of the poorer conductors of sound. Sound travels much more efficiently through water than air, boasting higher density and amplitude. This poor medium is the reason why thunder comes after the lightning in the air.
Even so, human ears are naturally attuned to the interaction of sound against air molecules. It’s why youre average concert sounds like… well, a concert, but underwater noises sound more like glub glub glub. Aquatic creatures that rely on sound, like dolphins, suffer the opposite problem – their sonar hardware is cut out for ultra-dense mediums like water.
Cahen’s art installation takes all this and turns it into a light-and-sound concert that spans two mediums. Located in a public pool, the travelling art show pumps sound both above and below water. Floating loudspeakers bob around the pool as concert-goers dive underwater. Eerie, synthy music fills the underwater parts of the pool as swimmers move up and down, hearing the music of two worlds.
Sometimes the best part of music is seeing what someone creative can do with the bare-bones rules of the medium, and Cahen’s innovation is no exception.