What we hear is mostly noise

If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing twice.  Actually, in the case of Fathom, I wish I could do it hundreds of times.

Anyone with the dogged determination to look at my website more than once a year will possibly have seen a previous article on an intriguiging sonic art piece called Fathom, the brainchild of Jane Grant and John Matthias.  Fathom uses Martin Audio's benchmark loudspeaker system MLA to create a sonic boundary at one fathom above the ground.  Visitors to the installation enter a world of underwater soundscapes - ferries, fish, machines, animals, things that nobody has any idea of what they might be - all relayed via live hydrophones in the water at Devil's Point and a series of recorded loops from Plymouth Sound and the Tamar estuary.  These are relayed through 8 stacks of MLA, in this case arranged in a 20m circle around a diamond-shaped stepped stage.  Walking up the staging brings your head out of the water into a soundscape generated by live microphones positioned above the water where the hydrophones were placed (using an anchor and 40m of continuous rope loop).

Anybody interested in the technology used should read the previous blog from 2014.

Avant-garde composer John Cage once said 'What we hear is mostly noise.  When we ignore it, it disturbs us.  When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.'  

Fathom is the embodiment of this statement.  Anyone passing the empty reservoir on Devil's Point where Fathom was installed would most likely have thought there was something wrong with the imposing soundhenge, such was the strangeness of the soundscape.  Dog owners, walkers and passing fishermen would peer briefly over the fence and then rapidly disappear with a look of quizzical disdain.

But on descending the ramp into the unique space that could almost have been built for the piece, it becomes apparent that there is something both alien and familiar with what is being heard.  The alien sounds drew in the curious to discover more; the familiar tempted people to linger, listen and submerge themselves.  A group of fine art students chose to lie down on the stage and let the sounds wash over them - they remained there for about 20 minutes.  Lovers leant against a stack of MLA in a lingering embrace, allowing the sounds of the deep pass through them.  Some spent time walking up and down the steps through the fathom, amazed at what they were hearing and likening it to the very sensation of coming up out of the water, others just stood in the centre, allowing the sonic atmosphere to surround them.  One cynic asked 'what's the point?', but having had the piece explained to him then spent 10 minutes walking around and then left, small dog in tow, with the statement 'this is brilliant!'.

Of all the things that Fathom achieved, for me the most significant was the way that it engaged people with sound.  We are surrounded by it, yet we take it for granted, visual stimuli taking precedence at every opportunity.  Here was sound being presented on a scale not normally accessible to most - huge speakers that you can lean against without being deafened.  The sounds being emitted were deeply fascinating and engaging, familiar and yet not.  We are all surrounded by water, but nobody ever thinks about what it sounds like.  Here it was for all to experience, mermaids and all, and people loved it.  This was sound for sound's sake, which for a cynical old engineer was supremely refreshing.  The norm in the pro-audio industry involves rushing to get an unacceptable acoustic space to sound good and relaying music to an audience that usually only comment when it doesn't go quite right (hey, we've all been there...) - either that or it's outside in a gale and surrounded by rivers of mud.  In the minds of many, sound is defined by music.

Fathom defines sound, and that can only ever be a good thing.


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