Sound & Vision

Tags: Quentin Cooper

The sound just isn’t right. Despite the undoubted talents of all involved, what’s coming out of the speakers is a meaningless din. A lot of noise without even a clear base line. And, no, it’s not just that I’m getting older and this isn’t for me – everyone agrees that something is badly, possibly terminally, awry. The venue is the prime candidate for blame – an echoey acoustic nightmare which drowns everyone’s efforts in its own throbbing. But my travelling companions aren’t just creative, they’re determined. They adjust amps, tweak pitch, even change the tempo…. until finally the instruments and their surroundings are in harmony – and the steady beats coming out of the boom-box build up into a sweeping epic track: one which takes hours to record and reveals the layout and geology of miles of sea-floor beneath our ship.

This is science. This is art. This is music. Or at least it’s music to the ears of Carol Cotterill and Dave Smith from the British Geological Survey once they eventually manage to get their hydrophone to pick up pulses of sound bounced off the sea floor and the underlying rocks. These explosive pulses have been generated by another of their devices, known imaginatively as a bang box. Together with the hydrophone – a series of underwater microphones – they enable the underwater terrain to be mapped, provided they can be dragged steadily behind the back of the ship* in a straight line… as straight as you can get while dodging the big-hunk-o’-love icebergs that dominate these waters.

That’s the theory, but unfortunately the back of the ship is also where the propellers are, and this particular ship, a 66-metre former Russian science research vessel called the Grigoriy Mikheev – has propellers which together with the engine cook up a cacophony that initially swamped the pulses coming from the bang box. So much so that even the base-line, the sea-floor, was hard to make out in the processed data track. It took a lot of time and effort from the scientists and a lot of fine-tuning of their equipment and the engines to get the ship’s noises way down in the mix so that their data came through loud and clear. But the results show it’s been worth the effort. And they also show that for all the better known and gifted artistes on board, this may well be the most impressive piece of musical creativity we get on the entire voyage. Even if it’s less likely than some of the other stuff to end up on my i-Pod.

* Or stern as we old sea-dogs say…

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