Turquoise Coast 2: Underwater Concert

I’ve seen hundreds of concerts in my life, some of them rather unusual, but the most unusual of all definitely was Michel Redolfi’s underwater concert that we had the pleasure to visit on a hot afternoon in May, in a modern indoor pool of a little town called Martigues, just west of Marseille.

Redolfi, born 1951, is an electronic avantgarde composer. Unlike many of his colleagues, he manages to create soundworlds that are utterly beautiful, adventurous, and fantastic, while never using any of the kitschy clichés that are often used by popular music composers. He has always created something that is entirely his own – a visionary, and one of my great musical heroes since I heard his first album back in the eighties.

He was also (as far as I know) the first composer who performed music underwater, starting this in California in the early eighties. Since then, he has conducted underwater concerts in pools, lakes, ocean shores, coral reefs. Real instruments (mostly metallophones) have been used but due to the physical properties of water, very few instruments can be used successfully under water, so most of Redolfi’s underwater concerts consist of electronic music transmitted via underwater speakers.

In Martigues, Redolfi was sitting beside the pool in front of his laptops, creating an ad-hoc mix of his own sounds for the 30-40 people floating in the warm water for an hour (foam tubes under feet and back helped us to float lying on our backs, with our ears in the water). A very relaxing experience!

All sounds could only be heard under water. The vibrations weren’t transmitted through the air into our ears, but somehow materialized directly in our bodies, heads, brains, minds – a very peculiar and unreal feeling, especially with this kind of dreamy and floating music.

I had the privilege to talk with Redolfi, asking questions about various aspects of his work, for half an hour after the evening concert. (I hope I’ll be able to use the interview for a radio feature later this year.) It was very heartwarming to talk to him, we have so much in common (because he influenced me so much, not the other way around) and we feel similar about so many things. We had met and talked before once during a concert in 1999 but we did not really know each other well. When we hugged after the interview though it felt like we were old friends.

A thorougly enjoyable event, and one of the highlights of our vacation in Southern France!

What My Feet Hear Barefoot On The Beach

After many attempts to find a sunny weekend where both of us had time for a few days of vacation, we finally made it to Holland and had a wonderful long weekend. The hotel room in Camperduin-an-Zee was great and we had an amazing view of the landscape behind the embankment.

The end-of-August weather was hot enough to lie on the beach and take a swim or two in the cool North Sea! In the evening when most people had gone home the beach looked like this.

Here are the sounds of the gentle surf, recorded underwater:

And here’s the sound of sand, recorded by my hydrophone which was plugged a few centimeters into the beach sand. I was surprised at how far the sand transports sound. I moved it around, squeezed and threw it, and there are also some steps of people passing by. This is the sound that my feet hear when I walk the beach barefoot:

After swimming and sunbathing at the beach, a coffee and an apple pie in one of the typical wooden beach restaurants is usually the next destination.

The next day was a little cooler and perfect for a visit in the nearby town of Alkmaar which is famous for its cheese museum and the historic cheese market staged there every Friday. We weren’t entirely sure if they actually still traded cheese there or if it was just a tourism event. Anyway here’s what it sounded like, accompanied by the carillon of a nearby church.

Sabine spent a while in a pearl shop, choosing a number of little black/white beauties for a necklace. While we marvelled at the multitude of designs, I noticed that they also sounded different, and interesting, so I recorded a few minutes of the shop atmosphere, and the various sounds of the different materials. Maybe they will eventually end up in some kind of composition.

A typical Dutch item is the windmill, and Alkmaar has several of them. A large windmill near the city center has been off duty for a few years now, and can be visited. Looking at such a windmill in a postcard landscape is pastoral – climbing into it and being very close to the wheels and rotating wings is something else altogether – the feeling of power and speed is quite awe inspiring. Here’s a little video I made – one has to see this in motion to get a feel of it.

At home, we live in a hilly area which is too steep to ride a bike for fun so we hadn’t been on a bicycle for years. What fun we had doing it again! Biking through the colorful dune landscape was like a dream. What a great invention a bicycle is!

Of course I had to videotape a minute or two while riding … which was a little dangerous on the sandy ground, but I managed not to crash-land.

After the bicycle ride, highest on our priority list was the giant ginger pancake at the Duinvermaak restaurant in Bergen. And a coffee. Good thing that we don’t have this at home – once a year is enough.

Crane Sunday

People do strange things. Many people (including my wife) think the things that I do are quite strange too. Last Sunday afternoon, I found myself sitting alone at the waterside in a small harbour in Cologne, recording underwater sounds. Luckily, nobody was around who wondered what I was doing. This activity would probably have looked quite boring from the outside, but whenever I do this kind of thing, I feel like a boy inside – an adventurer, a discoverer, hunting for the unknown – excitement.

The underwater sounds in this place turned out to be not very interesting, but I know that one has to be patient and record for a while just in case. Eventually, all I got were distant boat motors, and yes, there was a shoal of small fish but they didn’t talk (sometimes you find places where fish make all sorts of strange and interesting noises, but you have to be very lucky). Instead, they inspected the hydrophone which resulted in loud bumps on the recording.

While recording this, I found that the reflections of various cranes, towers, and ships in the water looked quite beautiful. I took a number of photos and they looked so nice together that I turned them into this video, very slowly fading one into each other.

The video soundtrack should have featured the underwater recording but since this turned out to be disappointing, it fell through. Instead I created several layers of treated sounds from these sources:

  • underwater insects of a nearby lake that I had recorded a week ago
  • a propeller plane that flew above
  • a contact microphone recording from the same day of the nearby Rhine bridge
  • a wonderful pump organ that I had played and recorded in the Stockholm music museum

The slowed down bridge sounds creates a beautiful drone of howling traffic and wind vibrated metal, and of course now that I hear it, it reminds me of Eno’s White Cube recordings. It still amazes me how he has influenced my musical thinking and often when I find some interesting new way to paint with sounds … he has already been there.

The pump organ with its wild pitch changes lets me think of Györgi Ligeti’s 1967 organ piece „Harmonies“ (not that I would compare myself with this master of course). I found that pump organ in the Stockholm Musikmuseet – here is a short video. I played and recorded just a few minutes and this is the material that is used for the Crane Sunday video – pitched down and equalized a little. Oh how I loved this instrument, it had such a charming breathing sound – and not even keys to play! I would have stolen it but it was too heavy 😉