Music, Classical and opera
4 out of 5 stars
AquaSonic - Sydney Festival 2018
Photograph: Daniel Boud

This project from Danish ensemble Between Music is part concert, part art installation – and entirely under water

Centre stage and surrounded by darkness, a violinist submerged in a tank of water glides his bow in hauntingly slow motion. The screeches and scratches of the strings are muffled by the body of water around him, vibrating through the microphone in melancholy melody. It’s an absurd setting – and a ripple of laughter journeys through the middle rows of the audience, not knowing whether to find humour or solemnity in the truly unusual set up.

As the five musicians gracefully sink into their individual tanks, filled with special subaquatic instruments – sort of Steampunk meets Nordic Noir in design – it becomes clear that Aquasonic is unlike any musical performance we’ve experienced before, and not only because the musicians are underwater.

The project by Danish ensemble Between Music is altogether very serious; the musicians spent the best part of a decade researching and developing instruments to be played in water including a ‘rotacorda’, which performer Nanna Bech operates, slowly turning the handle of what looks like an elongated trumpet of a gramophone. The result is unsettling, claustrophobic even, and reminiscent of the soundtrack of a Scandinavian TV thriller.

When all five tanks glow in aqua-green and the women’s formal dresses float in the cloudy water it’s like we’re watching a ghostly orchestra rising from the depths of an icy lake. The lighting helps to show where the surreal sounds are coming from, especially when Laila Skovmand powers the ‘hydraulophone’ – an organ that pumps water instead of air. Or as we’re watching Morten Poulsen’s arms drift up and down from the drum set between his knees. It’s an extraordinary feat of physical endurance that looks as ethereal as it sounds.

But the experience isn’t necessarily a crowd-pleaser. There were divisive moments in under-an-hour performance; at one point musicians drag their hands along the glass tanks, which produced an intense and high-pitched squeaking sound and some audience members chose to leave the theatre at the opening performance. There was also an unusual diversion away from the the tanks to five illuminated cylinders of water that the musicians played by blowing into long tubes. It was one of the more light-hearted moments in the show and the shift in tone was abrupt and didn’t sit entirely comfortably with other segments.

What is highly commendable for both Between Music and Sydney Festival’s programming is that Aquasonic is delightfully experimental. It summons another level of awe and appreciation for the artists and musicians who are challenged physically (rising to catch breath after long periods of time) but also artistically (how do you convey the technical difficulty of playing instruments an audience has never seen before?). A deliberate decision by the composer and performer Skovmand was to work between genres and to challenge human experience – and in that she has been entirely successful, whether you found the experience unnerving or a thrilling journey into the unknown.

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