Joel Cahen is the founder of Wet Sounds, a series of underwater concerts. He has held performances in swimming pools all over the world, from Kentish Town Leisure Centre in London to a spa in Oslo.
How did you come to found ‘Wet Sounds’?
As a kid in Israel I was always collecting music from different cultures, and I drew a lot. But I didn’t plan on being an artist. I did military service and after that, like many Israelis, I went travelling. While living in London, I did a BA in Sound Art at the London College of Communication, and for the last fifteen years I have been putting on sound events in London. I have no particular affection for water – I’ve never been a huge swimmer – but the swimming pool intrigued me: it’s such a quiet, womb-like space. And sound is one of the first things that you perceive in the womb, at around the age of three months. So I decided to experiment by putting speakers in there.
What does the music sound like underwater?
It doesn’t sound muffled at all, as you might expect. It’s super clear. What’s more, you hear it through the skeleton, not through the ear. That’s because sound waves travel faster in water than in air, vibrating the skull bones and bypassing the ear drum. This means that some people who are hard of hearing can hear better underwater.
What kind of music do you compose?
There are two layers of sound: one above the water and another under the water. The surface of the water acts like a barrier between them. They are meant to fit together, to create a complete piece, and sometimes what you hear above is similar to what you hear below. If you float on the surface you can listen to both simultaneously, but they work independently as well.
Are there melodies and harmonies?
My music is mostly abstract. That’s partly down to the fact that you can only listen for the duration of a breath: you don’t miss anything if you go up for air and you don’t need to stay there long in order to ‘get it’ as you would with a song. But I have also used existing pieces of music from other composers. One time we performed parts of an opera – Teffradot – which is only the second opera ever written to a Welsh libretto. We had three performers walking around the pool. One of them was a Death Metal singer.
Is there a philosophy behind your work?
I’m interested in the way sound affects space, the way it can completely change the context and purpose of that space. In Wet Sounds, a swimming pool effectively becomes an art gallery. And a lot of my music works on similar lines. We’ve created an app called Interzone Theatre, which takes you on various sound tours: three in London, one in Zurich, one in Belfast. Each one involves a narrative about the location, and responds, via GPS, to that location. So you might be in a mall in Belfast, but in your head you’re in a totally different space, because that is where the narrative has placed you. A lot of people don’t realise how much of an impact sound can have on space.
What are your future plans?
I’d like to develop my underwater performances to include underwater dancers. I am hoping to create a whole immersive underwater world with different characters and a narrative. I think it could be done. You would just need to put snorkels on the audience.