Danish musicians in aquariums make sounds in a silent world

Danish musicians in aquariums make sounds in a silent world
Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP
Talk about fluid tunes: A group of innovative Danish musicians submerged like fish in an aquarium have created an underwater concerto with instruments specially adapted to resonate in a silent world.

In Aarhus, a concert hall at the Godsbanen culture hub looks more like a fish farm than a music set, with its jumble of water tanks, canisters, tubes, pipes and retrofuturistic objects.

One after the other, the five members of the Between Music band — Laila, Robert, Morten, Dea Maria and Nanna — descend into their own individual glass-paned water tanks for their latest project AquaSonic, where they play the violin, cymbals, bells, a crystallophone with a pedal, and a kind of hurdy gurdy with a long neck.

Hydrophones, or special microphones that pick up the sound of the music in the water, amplify the soundwaves, producing music that resembles the sounds whales make.

A pioneer in the field of aquatic music, Laila Skovmand wears several hats with the ensemble: she is artistic director, music and lyrics writer, and vocalist. She sings both underwater and at the water's surface.

Like a siren, her lips at water level, Skovmand releases a captivating chant.

“I'm an educated singer and I wanted to explore new songs. I got the idea that if I sang into the surface of the water I might get some other timbre, some delays, so I tried that,” she explains.

The group collaborates with engineers and makers of musical instruments to develop water-resistant instruments whose sounds respect the harmonies composed by Skovmand.

“There are a lot of musical limitations. There are so many things we can't play because of the struggle with the water, the struggle with the sound, but I think that what the water gives is that special kind of timbre that you can't get in air,” she says.


Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

The resulting effect is a sound closer to an accompaniment for Tibetan meditation than it is to chamber music. And it's far from other well-known tributes to water such as Maurice Ravel's “Fountains” or Luciano Berio's “Water Piano”.

While the water transports the sound, it also stifles it and slows it down considerably: the effect is a bit like playing Pink Floyd or Jean-Michel Jarre in slow motion.

Musician and producer Robert Karlsson plays the violin — made of carbon fibre — and the crystallophone, a distant relative of the glass harmonica invented by Benjamin Franklin.

Nanna Bech performs the rotacorda, an instrument inspired by a traditional Byzantine hurdy gurdy. It has six stainless steel strings which can make sound either with a sustained pulling of the string or when fingered.

“It's the only one in the world so I don't even have a teacher. And that's a shame!,” she jokes.

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Skovmand also plays the hydraulophone, a type of underwater organ.

“We want to show that the impossible is possible, to discover a new element with live music,” says Karlsson.

The band spends the entire performance under water, surfacing regularly as part of the choreography to take breaths of air.

Photo: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

Ahead of the recent Aarhus concert, the ensemble spent almost six hours in the tanks in one afternoon to prepare for that night's 50-minute performance.

The water is kept at 37°C (99°F).

“We do some diving training, practicing to hold our breath under water,” Bech explains.

And she has developed a special technique to sing under water.

“I can't let the air bubbles get out of my mouth, because they will become bubbles (in the water) and that makes a lot of noise under water. So I can only make short notes.”

For Karlsson, making music in water has a magical effect on him.

“I'm actually not very fond of water personally. I can feel claustrophobic in a bathtub. But somehow when I get into this tank and am playing an instrument, I get calm and really secure,” he says.

Between Music is currently performing AquaSonic across Europe. After a world premiere in Rotterdam last year, the band is now touring Denmark, and will take part in the International Diaghilev Festival in Perm, Russia in May.