Delighted by last year’s Oscar-winner The Shape of Water I went with an open mind to meet the creator of the next aquatic-based love story coming to Sheffield. Me & My Whale integrates innovative audio technology with analogue water-based visuals (read: lots of bowls of water) to tell the story of a misanthropic submarine captain who, while wandering alone in the deep ocean, falls “head over fins” in love with a whale after hearing its song.
Sound artist Xavier Velastin’s show – a mix of experimental music, sound installation and contemporary theatre – has been transformed with the help of writer and performer, Hannah Mook, from a “super dark, complex and weird” master’s dissertation into a fully flourished show supported by Arts Council England funding.
The idea came Velastin when he borrowed a hydrophone – an underwater microphone – from a friend: “I was just playing with singing into a bowl of water and recording it, and then thought ‘what else sings underwater?’” he says. So naturally, he looked into whale song.
What he found was a surplus of recordings created specifically for mindfulness practice: “I realised on YouTube that all the whale songs have stupid Einaudi played over the top of it.” Velastin wanted to strip the songs back so he could look into the whale vocalisation scientifically. He discovered that the recordings on YouTube are not even real whale vocalisation – but rather a sped up version of the small frequency range audible to humans.
“I found it interesting how we have this image of whales as mythical, ancient, peaceful creatures and we project all of these things onto them, but the voice that we take from them we’ve manipulated and edited.
“We’re actively changing it to fit our conception of whales, particularly given the way we’re destroying their environment chemically and acoustically.”
As a twist on this, the whale’s voice in the show is made of human voices slowed down to the level that whale’s voices have been pitched up.
Sound is a core part of Me & My Whale – from the rich oceanic soundscapes to the glitchy vocal manipulations, it is nearly all created, sampled and manipulated live on stage.
“Everything is made in the moment and is part of a process. It’s really important to me to make everything in the show transparent, because I find a lot of sound art can be like a dude with a beard hiding behind an Apple logo which means nothing to me.
“I may be coming from a more academic approach in terms of technique but the actual show is playful and quite silly,” he says.
Not least in the sexual dynamic of the relationship, with lines like “would you like to come back to mine for some krill?” peppering the show.
Yet, while the performance is undoubtedly absurd, Velastin has endeavoured to make it accessible. At the beginning, he and Mook come on as “weird sentient ocean droplets” to outline the story so, he says, the audience have “one thing to hang onto because, when they can do that, they can let their imaginations go.
“I think it’s important that people can make whatever they want out of it.
There have been quite a lot of weird reactions to it, but I think it’s nice if you can create an environment that people can imagine what they like.”
Image credit: Xavier Velastin