Literature Inspires New Underwater Art Experience

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The Essex Book Festival has become a place where you can float between two different worlds. No, it’s not a cliché take on how it feels to start reading a life-changing novel. The festival’s newest event, “The Drowned World,” promises festival goers an aquatic ordeal unlike anything else.

Inspired by J.G. Ballard’s postapocalyptic book of the same title, “The Drowned World” is a collaboration between the underwater music company Wet Sounds and local sound artists. Audience members swim in a 25-meter pool with light projections and music orchestration both above and below the water’s surface. Senses are altered depending on a person’s location, and since water conducts vibrations more than four times faster than air, the sounds change in an instant as participants immerse beneath the surface and again as they come back up to breathe.

“We are literally taking the composition underwater,” says Sound Artist Frazer Merrick. “The audience will get the chance to really be in the music and experience it in its entirety.”

Beyond music, the event seems to cast the audience into an unexpected performance. In accordance with the book’s setting of a flooded dystopia, the experience appropriately confronts everyone with primal sounds of nature, a flooded cityscape in ruins and the ability to choose multiple levels of intensity as they journey through the submerged aftermath. Some participants will decide to float above the water’s surface for the entirety of the event, and the curators assure that this is a perfectly fine way to enjoy it. Others will reach various depths underwater and find that the deeper they dive, the fuller the music becomes and the more intimate their surroundings begin to feel.

“It involves transforming a swimming pool into an art space,” says Wet Sounds Founder Joel Cahen. “Your experience will be completely different from the person next to you.”

Though the event is driven through the novel’s plot, it’s the water that holds everything together. The music — an ambient adaptation of nature told through synthesizer — is felt mostly in the bones as a result of the vibrations moving through the pool, a feeling that Cahen hopes will be “pleasantly disorienting.”

On the first night, many people unfamiliar with Ballard’s writing left with the urge to read some of his work. And if nothing else, almost every pool owner in attendance certainly left with the same thought — I’ve just GOT to get some underwater speakers.

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