A hydrophone synthesiser by Tomoko Sauvage

hydrophone synthesiser by Tomoko Sauvage
Tomoko Sauvage performing at during OOR Salon at Kunstraum Walcheturm, 2018, with bowls, water, hydrophones and speakers. © Tomoko Sauvage. Picture by Lorenzo Pusterla.

Surrounded by 5 bowls filled with water Tomoko Sauvage’s right hand is carefully moving the water in one of the bowls, while the left hand is on the mixer. This is the position she keeps during most of her performance, slowly developing a calm and intriguing fading in and out of fragile tones. Sometimes the sounds of the dropping of water is added to these tones by Tomoko’s hand leaving one of the bowls and diving into another, or pouring water into one of the bowls. A smooth blending between these different sounds is achieved with the use of hydrophones. A hydrophone is a microphone built for picking up underwater sound. In each of Tomoko’s bowls a hydrophone is placed. Evidently, drops of water from Tomoko’s hands, falling in the bowl, are amplified. Less evidently, it is also possible to create a feedback through this set-up between the speakers in the hall and the hydrophones in the water, resulting in the fragile tones heard during her performance. As Tomoko states, this instrument is the starting point for her music: “I never tried to create a certain atmosphere in music. The instrument came first and I tried to make the most out of it.” (Tomoko Sauvage in an interview for Shape).

hydrophone synthesiser by Tomoko Sauvage
Typical position during a performance by Tomoko Sauvage: right hand in the water, left hand controlling the sound on the mixing desk to tune the feedback. © Tomoko Sauvage. Picture by Lorenzo Pusterla.

Playing this instrument more than 10 years now, she has become a virtuoso on an instrument which sounds differently according to many factors such as air humidity, resonating characteristics of the space, and the amount of water filled in the bowls. But Tomoko found a very precise and balanced way to deal with the accidental nature of her self-developed instrument. The origins for the idea for her instrument can be found in the instrument Jalatharangam, consisting of many different bowls. Originally being a jazz pianist, by studying the music by Alice Coltrane and Terry Riley, Tomoko got interested in Indian music. It was through a concert by Anayampatti S. Ganesan in 2006 she got to know the Jalatharangam:

Short fragment of a concert in 2009: Jalatarangam Lecture-Concert, Anayampatti S. Ganesan – Jalatarangam, Anayampatti G. Venkatasubramaniam – Violin, Madrimangalam Swaminathan – Mrdangam, and Trichy Murali – Ghatam.

Trying out sounds the next day after this with porcelain bowls and chopsticks in her kitchen the next day was the first step (see again interview with Shape). But the most important part, which turned the bowls into an electro-aquatic instrument, was still missing: the hydrophones. The hydrophones are the addition which in my view make Tomoko’s instrument particular, because they bring different kinds of sounds into focus. They amplify water sounds, but also the sounds of the bowls themselves, and the feedback. I asked Tomoko how she had the idea of adding them: “I often get good ideas while I’m sleeping and I guess it was something like that, too. I was attracted to the special sound quality created by water movements and I somehow felt like focusing on it by immersing myself in the water. I remember I searched on the internet and found the hydrophone model I bought after listening to the recordings of aquatic insects in a river.” She is still using the first hydrophone model she bought.

Porcelain bowls filled with water and hydrophones. © Tomoko Sauvage
Porcelain bowls filled with water and hydrophones. © Tomoko Sauvage (picture source)

Most of the time she uses the same set-up nowadays. The bowls she uses are composed of five porcelain bowls, four of which were made specially for her at the CRAFT, the ceramic research center in Limoges, the French city known for white porcelain in collaboration with the residency La Pommerie. She also uses 1 transparent glass bowl (mainly for its visual property but also for sound). She likes to perform in very resonant spaces, such as in old factories or churches, because these acoustics make the feedback very responsive. Setting up the instrument in a new performance space takes a long time and the room acoustics changes drastically when audience fills the space. “So getting to know the acoustic space and improvising with the situation I have are part of my performance,” she told me. The position of the loudspeaker in the hall is also important. When she is the only performer she sometimes changes the placement of the speakers. At the place where I heard her perform, Walcheturm in Zurich, the speakers hang from the ceiling, and as Tomoko explained me, that is often good for her instrument because the relationship between my microphones and speakers is less affected by the audience filling up the room. Another good thing to control the feedback is a use of a monitor that is set close to the bowls.

Tomoko Sauvage at PRESENCES électronique 2013, Ina GRM, Paris. © Tomoko Sauvage

Although using some effect pedals, Tomoko does not use any limiters or compressors for controlling the feedback volume. All this is done by a precise coordination of her right hand in the water, calming down the feedback frequencies by moving the water (and thus making it more difficult for frequencies ro resonate) and the left on the mixing desk changing volume and equalising the sound with filters. So her ears and hands are her limiters and modulators. I asked her about how she decides where to go during e performance: “I have a simple score in my mind, which is just the order of the techniques I use. Recently I always start from feedback play as this is the most delicate and needs lots of concentration and tuning.” Asking about her latest discoveries playing the water bowls, she told me: “Very recently my new obsession is using sympathetic resonance to play with harmonics in my waterbowls feedback play. Each frequency produced by each bowl interacts with each other and that makes a beautiful (for me) and surprising web of harmonics.”

The track Fortune Biscuit is from Tomoko Sauvage’s album Musique Hydromantique. Tomoko explained me the meaning of the title: “the singing bubbles emitted from the pieces of ‘biscuit’ (porous terra-cotta). Depending on the texture of the surface, each biscuit makes different sounds: insect and animal voices in a forest, motors, crying babies changing pitches and rhythms while absorbing the water…” Tomoko carefully combines the different sonic elements of water and the bowls, deciding what is amplified right now, and especially in which way. She composes the fragility of each of her performances.

Tomoko Sauvage performs on the 5th and the 6th of July at Roskilde Festival, and she has many other concerts with the water bowls coming up in the near future.

Thank you, Tomoko, for answering my questions!