Sunday, June 21, 2015

Sonic Waters and Fantastic Caverns

I have written here before about composers who have sought to impress the environment into their music by burying instruments in the earth (Richard Skelton) or immersing recordings in river water (Rob St. John).  A desire to enter into the landscape may also lie behind music that has been created underwater or in caves beneath the ground.  I have mentioned a few examples of the latter before, but there is now a relatively long history to these genres of landscape music and so I thought I would highlight here some examples from over thirty years ago, beginning with the work of Michel Redolfi, whose Pacific Tubular Waves / Immersion was recently reissued by Editions MegoPacific Tubular Waves (1979) is not an underwater piece - it was 'inspired by the oceanic horizons of San Diego' - but it became the raw material for Immersion (1980).  For this, Redolfi played his earlier piece through a sonar loudspeaker underwater, so that it was 'shuffled by the waves and unexpected filtering effects resulted from its passing through clouds of foam.  Its dispersion at sea by currents would send back incredibly smooth harmonic echoes.'  If he had left a recording of Immersion in the sea it might have been brought up years later, scoured by the underwater currents but still usable as the basis for a third version of this composition.

In 1981 Redolfi's Sonic Waters concert was broadcast underwater in the Pacific for an audience who could experience it floating on the surface or submerged in diving suits.  However, as Stefan Helmreich has pointed out, this concert was 'accompanied by campy sea creaturey devices, such as the giant colorful “jellyfish” that kept a low-frequency speaker afloat in La Jolla Cove. Such playfulness is a reminder that Redolfi does not imagine crustaceans, fish, or marine mammals as audiences ... Redolfi’s approach looks similar to that of the Florida Keys underwater music festival. Celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary in 2009, the festival offers to scuba divers music played over Lubell Laboratory speakers attached to boats floating near the reef.  Attendees dress up as fish.'  There is an ocean of difference between that festival's 'reef rockstars, "Paul McCarpney" and "Ringo Starfish"' performing sea-themed pop songs and the experimental underwater investigations of modern sound artists like Jana Winderen.  I can't help feeling there must be potential between these extremes for new forms of site-specific undersea composition and performance in the future. 

Over the last few decades most of Redolfi's concerts (see clip above) have taken place in swimming pools, where the emphasis is on the unusual auditory experience rather than the character of the sea. However, the ambience and special qualities of these locations will never be irrelevant.  The pools chosen by Redolfi and others like the Wetsounds organisation or Max Neuhaus, the pioneer in this field, will have had their own acoustic properties and historical associations.  Similarly, performances in cave-like spaces in cities or industrial locations can be as atmospheric as concerts in natural caverns.  As with the underwater composers, much of the motivation for seeking out resonant underground spaces has been to make use of their unique sound properties - the Deep Listening Band, for example, have played in the giant Fort Worden Cistern which has a 45 second reverberation time.  But caves have a deeper significance, having been the sites for music making since prehistoric times, a point brought home to me recently by the discovery of an ancient lyre in a cave on Skye.  Here there is no direct parallel with performing underwater, although if there is an atavistic urge to make subterranean music, there may be an even more profound source for subaquatic music, since all of us begin life experiencing sound and music immersed in amniotic fluid.

Back in the late 1950s (when the real Paul McCartney was making his first appearances at the Cavern club with The Quarrymen), the Great Stalacpipe Organ, designed by Leland W. Sprinkle, was under construction at the Luray Caverns in Virginia.  Although described as ‘the largest natural musical instrument in the world’ its design involved altering the shape of some of the stalactites.  Music had actually been performed in this sonorous cave (as the postcard above from 1906 below shows) almost since its discovery in 1878.  A delegation from the Smithsonian Institution were surprised on an 1880 tour when co-discoverer Andrew Campbell picked out a tune on the rock formation that was later used for the Organ.  There are no other Stalacpipe Organs, but many other American caves have been settings for concerts: Bristow Cave, Tennessee, the Great Saltpeter Cave, Kentucky, Longhorn Cavern, Texas.  Worth mentioning here if only for its cover is a live recording from 1968, The Fantastic Thrashers at Fantastic Caverns.  According to its sleeve notes, 'the underground auditorium was packed and jammed. The dripping water, the underground river in the background, the weird effect of the lights off moist stalagmites were all made to come alive by the sparkling sound of the Thrashers.'

Then, in a very different vein, there was Don Cherry, who recorded two improvisations at the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky in 1978.   Here is Anna Mayo's description (from the useful Caveinspiredmusic site)
“On a morning in early October I watched the great free jazzman Don Cherry as he scaled a ledge high on the sheer wall of the Longest Cave in the World and played the rocks like a xylophone. Far below, our guide had fired up two kerosene lanterns so that we were able to doff our miners’ hats. Cherry, on the ledge, gave off vibes of the leopard-spirit of the Ngbe tribe as he improvised a roller-coaster of sound. Throughout Cherry’s performance, producer Verna Gillis sat on the cave floor, at one with her Stellavox tape recorder, earphones like a ceremonial headdress... Adjusting the AKG microphone... was sculptor Bradford Graves. Cherry darted from one rock to another, striking them with two hickory branches he’d brought along at the guide’s suggestion.”
Perhaps improvisers are best suited to exploring the musical possibilities of cave systems.  The Summartónar festival has brought jazz musicians like John Tchicai to perform to an audience in small boats in the sea caves of the Faroe Islands.  However, it is more usual to find show caves used as natural halls for the staging of more traditional concerts.  There are several such venues in Germany, including the cavern at Hohler Fels where, some 35,000 years ago, Palaeolithic musicians left behind bone and ivory flutes.  In Lebanon the Jeïta caves were opened for concerts in 1969 and closed a decade later during the Civil War, its passages converted into a munitions store.  Thus the distinction between caves and buildings becomes blurred - 'natural' spaces cease to become natural when they are discovered.  My last example below below combines natural and electronic sounds.  It is part of Jeïta ou Murmure des eaux (1970), a composition by François Bayle, who performed the inaugural concert at the the Jeïta caves.  When he found back in Paris that some of the field recordings he made in the cave were not good enough for his purposes he decided to replace them with 'beautiful water sounds' recorded in the bathroom of the studio.

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