Water Music

“When the well is dry, we know the worth of water.”

-Benjamin Franklin

Conversely, Mr. Franklin, the worth of water becomes apparent when you use it to make music. We recently began working on a new project with our friend Victoria Prizzia, of Habitheque, Inc. Vic is working closely with The Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, here in Philadelphia, to help revitalize the historic attraction. In the early 1800’s this remarkable structure was the first urban water management facility supplying drinking water to the entire city, and served as a model for more than 30 other water delivery systems nationwide. It’s a pretty incredible building drenched with history. http://www.fairmountwaterworks.org/ Phase one of this long-term project involves an installation of audio and lighting in the building’s adjacent indoor pool. The pool room, now referred to as The New Mill House has been out of use for decades and has weathered beautifully. Ambient sunlight reflects off the Schuylkill river, climbs through large arched windows and bounces around the concrete ceiling, marrying with the very generous reverb which trailed each sound we made.Diptic

As far as audio was concerned, we seemed to be offered a blank slate. We’ve often imposed limits to instrumentation, in order to focus the workflow. It’s a way not to narrow the approach to producing a piece of music, but it actually opens up more possibilities. By having a restricted pallete of sounds to pick from, we’re forced to generate desired sounds in a non-traditional way. For example, pianos and banjos can quickly become drums, drums become hums, and so on.

With the theme of the building and space in mind we naturally chose water as our go to source. We decided to exclusively use only instruments that rely on the resonance of water to create sound, or any recording of water we could manipulate into something musical to create what has now become a 14 minute (ambient, for lack of a better, or wetter word) piece of music. We thought we were limited in our approach, but the number of ways in which water creates musical noise is as vast as, well, the ocean.

We started with hours of field recordings; the Pacific, the Atlantic, a leaky shower, wine glasses, a gurgling snorkel, puddles, splashes and an underwater recording of the Wissahickon creek. We recorded a glass of bourbon and considering the Gaelic translation of whiskey is “Water of Life”,  we felt it had sonic ingredients we agreed upon. We then found extensive sample libraries of the Glass Armonica (coincidentally invented by Mr. Benjamin Franklin), the Baschet Crystal and Glassharps (water-filled wine glasses.) Each of these instruments generate sound by using water to lubricate, and therefore vibrate glass. We stretched and edited, layered and tweaked every sound and patch until their aquatic origins were no longer apparent, or at least not as obvious. Below is a before-and-after example of a struck wine glass and a flowing fountain, altered and layered to create a mid-range “synth”: Another water-bell pitched and filtered through an AM Radio Receiver: The Atlantic Ocean (which we learned has to be recorded in the middle of the night unless you want gulls and the chit-chat of children competing with your sample.) The more “musical” frequencies of the waves were isolated and we built a lead “synth” patch: And a very percussive leaky shower seemed to mimic a marching snare drum as drops landed on the fiberglass floor. After pitching down and detuning quite a bit, we felt we had found our “drum set”: And finally our “bass”, or low end which started as a significantly detuned Glass Armonica: The piece itself, entitled “The New Mill House” was then composed with 4 “zones” or corners in mind. Essentially, each corner of the large concrete room, approximately 50 feet apart will house an independent mono speaker. Different stems of instruments are fed into each zone. Some of the more high-end, shimmering tones will be placed near the sunny windows, and deeper low end in the shadowy corners, breaking every soundman’s rule of “no bass in the corner”. Percussive elements are randomly bouncing between all 4 zones. The idea is that the listener, the guest will “mix” their own experience of the piece of music based on where they are walking or standing. Essentially, if you were to stand directly in the middle of the room, a full quadrophonic mix of the song would surround you. As you move about, you are introduced to different elements exclusive to that zone, and unless you’re piggy back riding, it will never sound quite the same for any two guests. Here’s a short clip of the finished piece: Final mixing is underway, and installation begins next week. Lighting designer Traci Palimeni at Luce Group is generating a synchronized, water-inspired lighting installation to accompany. We are leaking excitement in every step of this project! Stay Tuned! -BBM


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