Review: Aquasonic at Sydney Festival
Attending the aquatic-inspired musical performance of the world’s first underwater band – Danish ensemble Aquasonic – is a unique affair both visually and audibly whereby each musician and vocalist is completely submerged in one of five large aqua-filled tanks, singing and playing on custom-made instruments. This ambitious pursuit, created by performance innovators Between Music and produced by FuturePerfect Productions, is driven by a curiosity for instrument experimentation and inspiration sparked by water. A lot of the fascination lies in how they are able to sing and play as they do, however it is a result of extensive research, experimentation and advice from deep-water divers. The outcome is a soundscape of eerie rattles, bangs, rumbles and squeaks accompanied by soothing strings, singing bowls and whale-like vocal tones, echoing around the glass chambers, each of which are carefully illuminated on stage to create a dream-like void, which is surprisingly coherent and moving melodically in its orchestral beauty.
On the opening night of the 2018 Sydney Festival, the full-room at Carriageworks was abuzz with chatter in eager anticipation before the lights dimmed, immersing the audience in pitch blackness, bringing the room to a quiet stillness apart from some nervous giggles. Loud atmospheric rumblings immerse the room, creating the sense of being underwater. After intensifying, the noise fades as one smaller tank is illuminated in golden light at centre stage, presenting violinist and glass-like bowl crystallophone instrumentalist Robert Karlsson, submerged fully as he plays his violin strings solo. On completion, he gently raises his head out of the tank to inhale the open air, with an emphasis on the breath. As the show progresses, this act of inhaling air becomes an integral part of the performance, carefully incorporated in sync with the mood and timing and occasionally louder. As the light over his head fades, percussionist Dea Marie Kjeldsen is illuminated to his right, playing her singing bowls solo, then similarly the neighbour on the left of the violinist, drummer Morten Poulsen takes the solo spotlight before finally all three are illuminated to play in unison a meditative, calming melody.
Following this piece, the two vocalists are introduced to us gradually on opposite ends of the stage. Nanna Bech, on the left is first, performing with her instrument, the rotacorda, which incorporates strings, a spinning wheel and a gramophone horn. After the four play the final member, and artistic director to the group, Laila Skovmand, is introduced as a small highlighted circle on the right of the stage standing alongside a round cylinder, outside of her tank, filled with water. She is using the bubbles and her voice to blow on the surface of the water to create a musical sound of her own. She wears a vibrant red dress that contrasts perfectly with the aqua greens and golden-yellow light.
Following this, all of the musicians play the rest of the show from their tanks, and it becomes more apparent the level of thought applied to capturing the theme of water, while also maintaining engagement from the audience in what could have been a repetitive performance. This is done successfully by breaking the performance up with different moods, pace, different focal points, lighting and added stage elements.
Midway through the show an interesting element to break the show up is presented with five clear cylinders illuminated at the front of the stage, while the musician’s tanks are faded back to darkness. Different levels of air pressure are released into the tubes to create different tones, similar to that of a drum beat. Gradually the intensity of the tones are sped up and made heavier before crescendoing into the peak performance of the night. The performers tanks are lit up and the percussionist Dea Marie Kjeldsen and drummer Morten Poulson are high-lighted as they abruptly emerge from the water, standing with their heads above the tanks and their sticks in the air ready to play in tight-unison. They inhale deeply before submerging quickly back into the water to play with more vigour and intensity then they have all night, coming up for air more frequently. This is a highly energetic and engaging piece and clearly marks the midpoint of the show before the music calms down again to the softer melodies dominant throughout.
The transition that follows is an eerie atmosphere as the tanks are backlit with golden light to illuminate shadowy figures in the tanks while the two vocalists, Laila and Nanna, are highlighted in the forefront singing with mermaid-like vocals accompanying a gentler instrumentation. This leads up to the highlight completion of the show where a fine film of water sprays from the roof evenly across the front of stage, and a ripple-like pattern of lights is reflected off the surface, while also mirroring off the walls of the room as the artists continue to perform.
The room then fades to complete blackness again, informing the audience that the show is close to the end. The atmospheric rumbles return followed by squeaks which intensify before the stage is bathed in a sci-fi green light and the performers’ hands are shown to be rubbing on the glass creating the squealing-sound. As the music returns, the vocalists momentarily come out of the water so we can hear their beautiful operatic voices in the open air before going back underneath. Finally, as the performance closes each of the musicians move to the front to be greeted with loud applause and cheers as they bow to the audience still drenched in water.
The Aquasonic team, both on and off the stage, have created a highly engaging show that left the audience enthralled. Overall, as a performance piece created through intensive aquatic research, musical invention and experimentation, Aquasonic has cultivated a performance that in contrast presents itself with an element of ease, while also displaying intense dedication and concentration. It is a show that is haunting while also soothing and stunning to experience. It is an inspiring production that shows what is possible creatively when a unique idea is paired with passion, ambitious pursuit and a multi-layered dedicated team of mixed disciplines.
Aquasonic is showing once more at Sydney Festival, tonight the 9th of January at Carriageworks. Details here: https://www.sydneyfestival.org.au/2018/aquasonic
Review by Heather Vousden. Photo by Charlotta de Miranda.