On Hearing Water

By Fritz Horstman

Wave Organ, Peter Richards in collaboration with George Gonzalez, 1986, photograph by Peter Richards.

The psychologist James J. Gibson developed the theory of affordances in the 1970s and 1980s. The properties of a material, substance, or contraption that might encourage certain actions to be made upon or with it are its affordances. The affordance of a chair is that it might be sat upon. The affordances of a piece of string include binding, mending, and suspending. The idea of affordances is related to, but different than, the “truth to materials” concept upheld by early Modern designers. A material’s affordances draw ideas out of the practitioner, whereas a designer searching for the truth in material may have an idea in mind and go looking for a material which best suits the idea. Informed by the concept of affordances, I have selected thirteen audio tracks and videos that reflect a variety of ways that ideas have been drawn out by the sonic properties of water.

 

Water is a common source of inspiration in the histories of art and music. In compiling this group of recordings, I was faced with an immensely engaging, but daunting body of work. My selections are by no means authoritative. I have not attempted to summarize the myriad approaches to this ubiquitous topic. I will instead highlight the sound of water as it has been evoked, isolated and imitated in a few specific artistic and musical projects. I focus on ways in which people have let the sounds of water infuse, compel, and perhaps even dominate their work.

 

A thorough exploration of one’s material is a common starting point in many artistic processes. Before a potter throws a pot, he or she has a good idea of the viscosity of the clay, its propensity to slump, dry out, or crack. More is learned in the process of working the clay. When a composer sets out to write a score, the range of the instruments is known. Parameters to the genre are noted. In both pottery and musical composition, understanding the limits of the material can both encourage a practitioner to push against those very limits or, more frequently, to stay within the established bounds of the genre.

 

Water has some presence in most sounds we hear, through direct or indirect means. If we are to understand the full breadth of it, we must consider the effect of the moisture on the bow of the violin, the saliva smacking in the vocalist’s mouth, the ripples lapping the side of the canoe in a bird documentary, the muffled quality of car traffic on a foggy day, a roaring river, a calving glacier, the difference in radio static on a humid day versus a dry day, the small sound my fingers make when I take them off the kitchen counter, and much, much more. It spans, infuses, and is essential to the entirety of what we hear. Even in the driest places, we note the absence of water in the sound of our footsteps and breathing.

 

The sound of water is hardly a genre, being far too broad. I have selected instances that loosely fit into a few sub-genres, which are themselves still very broad. There is a meandering logic to the order in which I’ve placed them. Music performed on traditional western instruments leads into recordings of instruments intended to make specific sounds from the natural properties of water. Manipulated natural sounds of water are followed by recordings of oft-unheard underwater sounds, including whales. Music made with whales transitions to water as a storytelling device. The final selection is a silent film.

Gavin Bryars 

The Sinking of the Titanic 

 

According to at least one survivor of the tragedy, the band aboard the RMS Titanic continued to perform even as the ship sank. British composer Gavin Bryars imagined that the music would continue even after the musicians had sunk below the surface. As the piece develops, the higher frequencies are gradually eliminated, suggesting the low reverberations of the depths of the ocean.

David Andree

Land Harp

Using piano wire, tuning knobs and electric pickups, Andree’s Land Harp makes sound as water creates subtle vibrations as it flows across the partially submerged strings.

Celeste Boursier-Mougenot

Clinamen

French artist Celeste Boursier-Mougenot’s sculpture comprises porcelain bowls floating in pools of water. A small current is induced within the pools, setting the bowls on their collusion courses.

David Rothenberg

Whale Music

David Rothenberg plays music with whales. By placing a microphone and a speaker in the water, he hears what sounds any attendant whales are making and then projects his own sounds back to them. At various points in the recording, we hear the whales respond to the clarinet, though it’s impossible to know if they think it’s music.

National Geographic

Songs of the Humpback Whale

In 1979, National Geographic included this 33 1/3 flexi disc record in its magazine. It was the first time most people had heard the sounds of whale song. The public response initiated the save-the-whales movement. The record’s primary purpose was documentary, but the undeniable beauty of the subject has inspired many artistic efforts and remains an important field recording. 

Jana Winderen

Freeze to Melt

Jana Winderen is a London-based artist with a background in fish ecology. In Freeze to Melt, we hear her recordings of the smallest water creatures from the Dominican Republic, Belize, and Greenland. There is a documentary element to the work, though it remains primarily a poetic celebration of unheard sounds.

Hugh Le Caine

Dripsody

Experiments with a tape recorder led to Hugh Le Caine’s pioneering 1955 musique concrète recording of Dripsody. A single drop of water falling into a pail of water was recorded, looped, and manipulated using various techniques, primarily changing the speed of the tape, which in turn changed the duration of the drop sound, as well as its pitch.

Peter Richards

Wave Organ 

Peter Richards conceived Wave Organ as a wave-activated sound sculpture and created it on a pier in San Francisco in collaboration with stone mason George Gonzalez.

Hermeto Pascoal

Música da Lagoa

Parts 1 and 2

Where Bryars created a very precise score in The Sinking of the Titanic, Brazilian multi-instrumentalist Hermeto Pascoal and his fellow musicians have a much freer approach. They explore water itself as an instrument. Even in these short clips, you can hear the musicians finding new affordances of the material.

Falling Tree Productions

Short Cuts: Wild Water

Though this entire podcast is worth listening to, I draw your attention to the final ten minutes, in which we hear a recounting of the terrifying story of two Syrian refugees who swam from Turkey to a Greek island seeking asylum. 

Soundwalk Collective

Medea

The nomadic Soundwalk Collective made this vaguely narrative composition based on field recordings and intercepted radio transmissions during a two-month journey along the coastline of the Black Sea from Turkey to Ukraine.

Fritz Horstman has exhibited his photos, sculptures and installations in recent exhibitions in Norway, Japan, France, Massachusetts, California and Brooklyn. He is artist residency and education coordinator at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, CT. He has developed and presented lectures and workshops for institutions such as MoMA New York, the Bauhaus Dessau, Yale University, DIA Center for the Arts, The Drawing Center, Princeton University, Bennington College, The New School, Exploratorium San Francisco, Lebanese American University Beirut and the École des Beaux-Arts Paris, as well as numerous elementary, middle and high schools and community centers.

Fritz Horstman;

photographed in Svalbard

by George Philip LeBourdais 2016

Peter Hutton

Study of a River

After listening to the range of aquatic sounds in the previous selections, I find it impossible to not hear the water in Hutton’s 1997 study of the Hudson River in winter, even though it has no audio track.

Editor's note: Sorry this video is no longer available