My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
Ears can be thirsty. Humans are drawn to the sound of water—its organic character and emotional nuances. Musicians often emulate water sounds or sample them directly. Take Hugh Le Caine’s Dripsody: An Étude for Variable Speed Recorder (1955): a majestic cascade of musique-concrète patterning made from the multiplied and manipulated sound of a single drop in a bucket. Or even Missy Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (1997), adorned with field recordings of thunder and drizzle.
Water can also be channeled into a musical instrument. Ctesibius of Alexandria is said to have invented the hydraulis, a water-driven precursor to the pipe organ, in the third century BCE. More recently, in 2005, architect Nikola Bašić fashioned two hundred feet of shoreline at Zadar, Croatia, into a huge “sea organ,” in the form of marble steps descending into the Adriatic. Incoming waves push air into subterraneous tubes and out through exhaust gills tuned to the major diatonic scale.
When I first saw the Paris-based musician Tomoko Sauvage, her unique performance took this shared fascination with water to another place, using it both as an instrument and as a site of live field recording. She sat cross-legged within a semicircle of porcelain bowls arranged small to large, each filled with water and amplified with submerged microphones. Dipping, pouring, and striking, she lulled listeners into an envelope of soft focus, as if casting a spell. Washes of feedback rolled over and intersected with percussive patter. There was a drift to these sounds that felt like a tide, natural but quite alien—a sea on another planet. As her set developed, the room seemed to fill up and what might have seemed diffuse and incidental felt precise. It was less a typical concert and more like hypnosis.
Britton Powell So let’s begin with your medium—water. I can’t help but ask: Sparkling or still? (laughter)
Tomoko Sauvage That’s funny, but I’ve actually used carbonated water before for its bubbling sound.
BP I’m sure all that effervescence would create some very unpredictable little sizzles and rhythms.
TS Exactly, and the bubbles gather on the water’s surface, which can be manipulated to produce a sound almost like surf. Another great thing to put into play with water is porous terracotta.
BP What’s that exactly, and where did you come upon it?
TS I first found this material while at a residency in the ceramics department of the École Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Le Mans. I dunked a small piece of unglazed ceramic and wow—such strange sounds, like insects singing. It absorbs water and releases air, but in an aleatory way. So I incorporated it into my concerts, and friends in the audience thought I’d put a small motor into the water. I call this ceramic piece “Fortune Biscuit” since each unique piece of terracotta creates a different and totally unpredictable soundscape, and because biscuit is a French name for porous terracotta. Working this way is almost like making a field recording, and it keeps surprising me. I also found out that my rice sings.
BP How does your rice sing?
TS I’m Japanese, so I always soak my rice before cooking it, but occasionally it seemed that I could hear the grains absorbing water, making a tiny popping sound—again, like many small insects chirping. So I put the hydrophone down into the water to amplify things, but in this instance, the effect was far better out in the air.
BP I recently discovered there’s a whole tradition of Carnatic music that involves using an array of water-filled bowls for playing various classical Indian styles. I know you studied this music and instrumentation, but how did you go from that sort of thing to your current arrangement, with underwater amplification and such?
TS Well, I was studying Indian improvisational music in Paris around 2004 and came upon a concert—a nice evening that opened with Terry Riley playing “In C” on organ with the Belgian Ictus Ensemble. Later, Anayampatti Ganesan played jal tarang—which is basically a set of porcelain bowls, each containing water and hit with sticks, like a percussion instrument. When I saw and heard this, I was struck.
BP It’s fascinating that there are so many instruments like this in raga—almost hidden ones. Typically when people think of this tradition, the sitar and tablas pop right into mind, but there’s a whole alternate world in there too, especially in Carnatic practices. In fact, I once heard a gentleman play a forty-five-minute raga in a temple in northern India on a tiny jaw harp—which blew my mind, since it sounded as if there was a whole synthesizer inside the simple plucking of that single strip of metal!TS Jal tarang is also simple. Its sound is so fragile, very touching. I became curious about the effect of the water’s motion, how it produces a little glissando [a sliding between pitches]. So I immediately just started hitting and listening to ordinary bowls I had at home.
BP But how did you go from seeing this performance and banging around in the kitchen, emulating the jal tarang to some extent, to making the highly varied sounds and textures that we hear on Musique Hydromantique? It seems you’ve developed a sonic language all your own with some of these same elements.
TS I developed gradually, slowly, buying more bowls and playing them along with other instruments. But one important moment was buying a hydrophone to get inside the water, to hear all its liquid motion. I was excited to find that these fluctuating pitches could also be modified by adding or removing water. And I was experimenting with the percussive rhythm of dripping too.
When I started to play live with this setup I had to adjust to the room’s acoustics and sound system. There was a lot of feedback, and initially I kept trying to avoid it or correct for it. One day I thought the feedback was too beautiful to cut out, and that was another pivotal moment. From there, little by little, I developed my hydrophonic feedback technique.
BP It’s nice sometimes, and maybe even important, when I perform, that everything might fall apart at any moment. Dealing with feedback as you do, that sort of risk seems to be on the table.
TS Feedback has become a part of my usual set, so today I feel quite confident about it—that is, as long as the audio technician properly fulfills my technical rider. I’ve developed techniques for stabilizing things, like using electronics to add long delay. But this wasn’t the case some years ago, when I was attached to the purity of the feedback tones themselves as phenomena. Rather than searching for their musicality, I was obsessed with the technical challenge that such tones presented. I would, for instance, open up to seven faders to ring several feedback frequencies at the same time, which can be difficult to control and even deafening. In a nicely resonant space, this sounds so beautiful, but I also had lots of boring moments at my concerts back then, even some harmful ones.
BP Do you use any specific tuning systems to achieve this control now, or is it more of an improvisational approach?
TS At first I attempted to tune the bowls quite specifically, trying to be precise, but I abandoned that idea many years ago. It would be a very loose tuning anyway, due to water constantly sloshing around and evaporating. And each bowl has its unique overtones, of course, which then connect or interfere with one another. The room itself affects their resonance.
Very recently, I started to see more possibilities with tunings. The bowls resonate by themselves, without being touched—just by getting amplified one of the overtones will start to ring naturally according to the frequencies already sounding out in the room. It’s difficult to explain, as I’m experimenting only by ear. But it’s close to something I was doing rather randomly while recording Musique Hydromantique, something hard to reproduce in a normal concert setting. I’m trying to find new ways to make this precise and feasible for live performance.
BP So you really have to be flexible with the instrument and the givens of the space, as its acoustics might differ from night to night. I saw the composer Ellen Fullman perform in France earlier this year, and apparently it takes her two whole days just to tune the room.
TS I was there, too! Such a beautiful concert…. Luckily, it only takes me an hour to set up and another hour to soundcheck, if all goes well. In live situations even the number and placement of human bodies in a room affect the frequencies. There are many elements at play. Since I started to use a monitor to provoke feedback, things have stabilized more or less.
BP How long have you been working with this particular set of bowls?
TS The set of porcelain bowls I’m using today was produced around 2011 or 2012 at the European Ceramic Center in Limoges, a city well known for its white porcelain. I don’t do pottery myself, but I had a residency there, and they made me this custom set in various sizes and thicknesses, to vary the pitch. The thicker ones produce higher notes. My largest is about fifty centimeters in diameter. I use these on special occasions, like recordings in the studio, but I stopped traveling with the biggest ones that don’t fit into regular cabin luggage. I’ve also been using a glass bowl that sounds less interesting than porcelain but adds a certain visual appeal to performances.
BP The cover and inner sleeve of this new album feature photos of ice blocks, irregularly shaped as if glacierettes, all bound up in twine and suspended over your bowls. How does this sculptural imagery tie into your sound work?
TS That’s my installation work, which uses melting ice to create random percussion with droplets. I created this piece back in 2010 for an exhibition at the Grimmuseum in Berlin as part of Whistle, Minotaure!—a sound-art series curated by my friends Francesco Cavaliere and Marcel Türkowsky. It traveled around quite a bit after that and yielded drip music based on the ever-changing tonalities and rhythms of droplets affected by room temperature.
The first track from Musique Hydromantique, “Clepsydra” [water clock], also makes use of random droplet patterns, but I used a different setup to avoid the risk of a block melting away, slipping free, falling, and breaking my best porcelain bowls!
BP It would be very rock ‘n’ roll to smash them after a performance!
TS (laughter) There have been accidents.
BP I understand that the track “Calligraphy” was recorded in a former textile factory, and that the reverb in the space was tremendous. There are no digital effects on these recordings, correct?
TS No. I recorded this music without any effects—only with bowls, water, and hydrophones that go through a mixer to four speakers. I did a small bit of equalizing while mixing to reduce some pick-attack noise, but that’s all.
BP Your label [Shelter Press] has somehow managed to synthesize and foster a global community of future-forward artists, composers, and sound makers. Their catalog is always changing my ears. How did your involvement come into play?
TS I met Félicia Atkinson and Bartolomé Sanson in 2009, and we became friends. Right from the beginning, they invited me to do something, though I was quite slow to finish. Their solid concepts for curating releases might come in part from Félicia’s work as a visual and musical artist herself. And Bartolomé has such a fine touch with the language of graphic design. I’ve seen Félicia’s live shows and exhibitions over the years, and they’ve been a strong influence. It’s not the typical label-musician relationship.
BP This is perhaps a weird question, but I can’t resist: Are you a water sign, like astrologically?
TS Yes, Pisces!
BP Of course, it’s the most mutable and musical of the signs. Does that disposition connect to your practice?
TS Hmm, the word mutable might suit me well. I certainly have a sort of flexibility, and that’s surely connected to my practice. In Chinese astrology I’m a dragon, but in Japan the sign of the dragon is the seahorse, so again I go right back into the water.
BP Waterways and bodies of water have such special significance from culture to culture—especially in India, for example, at Varanasi on the banks of the Ganges, where the river is a major pilgrimage site. Hindus perform their ablutions there to be spiritually purified, despite concerns about pollution. Are there specific water sites in Japan that have a special meaning for you?
TS In Japan, there’s a history of natural disasters caused by water, so that influences the whole cultural viewpoint. Water gods are worshiped or referenced everywhere and asked to keep the sea calm: Give us a bit of rain please, but not too much. And then there are the traditions around tea, which have been part of my inspiration—not just because of the water involved, but also the ceramics, as well as the garden and ceremony. That’s a profound topic.
BP Do you look at these specific traditions and practices as a direct parallel to your musical hydromancy?
TS Not so much, but playing my instrument does involve a kind of ritual or magic…
BP What is this magic conjuring up?
TS Musique Hydromantique was made during a very difficult time personally. I was in a situation where I had to believe in a miracle. For over a year, I spent most of my days at a hospital, and the only time I had for myself was when I was playing concerts. I was exploring hydrophonic feedback and challenging aspects of the technique; it had become some sort of prayer, monastic training, or wish making. When the feedback was ringing beautifully, I somehow interpreted it as a miracle. I felt taken to somewhere else, and this gave me strength.
Also, going back to the bubbling sound of biscuit, it’s like omikuji—the Japanese paper fortunes we used to draw at Shinto shrines in childhood. The gesture of a hand that determines the future. The techniques I explored around that time are closely related to the intensity of my personal wishes.
BP I must mention this documentation I saw from the 2018 WOS Festival in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where you performed in a baroque Jesuit chapel. The photos look like something straight out of an Alejandro Jodorowsky film—so haunting! An amazing setting, surely, and indeed it looked like your ritual was underway. The decor seemed almost Tibetan to me, so ornate, somehow Buddhist inflected.
TS Yes, very dramatic. Many festivals today use sacred spaces for staging concerts. It overlays something old with a new spirit.
BP How did you end up living in Paris?
TS I grew up in Yokohama, did university in Tokyo, and went to New York City in 1998. I met a Frenchman while studying at the New School, had a long-distance relationship, then finally decided to come live here. Paris was a good place to discover Indian music and dance. Early in my career, I would play in the Parisian underground music scene and was involved in the huge squat, La Générale, where so much was happening from 2005 to 2007. But I’m actually much more connected to the music scene in Berlin and other parts of Europe. My musician friends are most often performing in Italy, Belgium, or Finland.
BPAre there any particular artists, music or otherwise, that inspire you?
TSI tend to listen to old music, but lately more to the work of today’s experimental musicians, some of whom have become friends, which is really inspiring. As an artist, I need to share ideas, attitudes, and practical concerns with these colleagues. I was impressed with Andrew Pekler’s “Interspecies Crosstalk” and his album Tristes Tropiques; Nicolas Perret and Silvia Ploner’s YNK radio series for documenta 14; Tsembla’s new album The Hole in the Landscape; and Felicity Mangan’s Native Instrument project. The other day I saw Lucrecia Dalt’s live set. And speaking of performances, Lee Patterson is great. He plays with burning chestnuts, which sound like wind in a forest and smell so good. And of course I’ve been learning a lot from collaborating with Francesco Cavaliere over the years.
BPWhat’s Francesco’s work like?
TSQuite unique, as he tends to work with his voice—that is, with words spoken aloud in Italian. He writes these crazy science fiction stories, mixing them with manipulated acoustic objects, synths, and computers. He uses cassette tape like an instrument too. I love how everything is put together; somehow all the elements make one world.
BPYou’ve found yourself in many such collaborations, so I’m curious if you might be keeping a wish list of other artists to work with.
TSHonestly, collaborating with the water bowls is difficult. It’s already challenging enough to dialogue with my own instrument and its context. It requires listening to all these subtle frequencies, and I have to recognize exactly which bowl is producing which. Even the hum of a fan or an air conditioner can disturb things or point them in another direction, so it’s quite delicate in this respect.
BPIt really does sound sensitive and responsive, like how little eddies and dynamics pulse through a pond from a breeze or skipping stones. So you wouldn’t be interested in, say, A$AP Rocky dropping a verse on one of your tracks?
TS(laughter) I’m not too sure about that. I’m a jazz musician, so I love playing music with other people, reacting to what they do—but these water bowls are special. They have their own character and demands.
I’m not particularly interested in one-off collaborations, but this side-project with Francesco allows me the freedom to try different things out, like keyboard, voice, field recording, and found sound. It’s been fun, but it works because we spend a long time on a single project together, dealing deeply with the subject matter, learning from one another, and becoming close friends in the process.
Meanwhile, I keep the water bowl project isolated and clean—as we say in French, pur et dur [pure and hard]. And it evolves on its own, very slowly. The next level is always far off.
Britton Powell is a composer and sound artist based in Brooklyn. His work has been performed internationally, including performances at Unsound Festival (Krakow), Ultima Festival (Oslo), Barbican Centre (London), Centre Pompidou (Paris), and a residency at the Guggenheim House in Japan. Powell has collaborated with Jon Hassell, Matmos, Lucy Railton, and many others.
Originally published in
Our winter issue is dedicated to this planet’s greatest resource: water. With contributions from Saskatchewan and the American Southwest to Iceland and Northern Europe, an array of voices are brought together here—artists and writers investigating water as site, sustenance, and symbol, along with those expressing alarm and calling for intervention.
Featuring interviews with Lauren Bon, Oscar Tuazon, Jaque Fragua, Brad Kahlhamer, Ruth Cuthand, Janaina Tschäpe, Jessica Grindstaff, Tomoko Sauvage, Cecilia Vicuña, and Alicia Kopf, as well as writing by Laura van den Berg, Natalie Diaz, Stefan Helmreich, and more.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.