The Sonic Kayaks were successfully completed and launched at the British Science Festival, Swansea, Wales on September 5th 2016. The practical experiences are documented HERE, and the tech details on how to build your own Sonic Kayak(SK) are HERE. What follows below are reflections on the SK as a musical instrument after their launch into the Swansea Bay and two days play with the public.
So, we arrive with all our kit plus backups at the 360º Watersports Centre, Swansea where we are given space and 2 kayaks to transform into the sonic kind. [Check the horns attached for each speaker below. Yes we had agreed to make them – audio questions pt1- on all 4]. Meanwhile it’s also time to make the map score to cover the area the kayaks will be paddled through. This means making strips of zones with enough space between them to give paddlers sample free moments, zones large enough to ensure sounds are triggered but running not too far down the beach as how far can anyone paddle on the sea with winds and tides and lack of experience anyway?
It’s not the sonic bike approach here therefore, where zones can be mapped to street corners and size and content and distances are endlessly reworked before handing over to the public. The reality anyway, of getting out of the coding lab and into the field with a new interactive project is always an effort, but having to dress for the Welsh sea with kayaks and a long beach to cross and ah public health and safety requirements adds to the lack of practical experimentation time. Instead, day 1, we walk up and down the beach at low tide carrying the kit with our new map to check. It works, so strap box and speakers onto the kayaks and we’re off.
There’s also been collective decision making on the audio content which has concluded in the mapped yellow strip for poems/texts, blue for pulses and red for information on effects of climate change in the oceans read by machine voices.(see map above) The second audio source is rising and falling tones which only play when the temperature changes. Dave’s work to fine tune them, to sonify these micro-changes in surface temperature, seems just right as the tones’ play is delightful and only occasional, plus the temperature data (more importantly from other considerations) is being successfully gathered during each trip. (Yes, the paddler also becomes citizen scientist). And the third audio source is a hydrophone (underwater microphone) which is especially interesting in fairly still estuaries/rivers with varied underwater topography and marine life.
Day two and the public arrive. Its grey but mild and calm, the rain has stopped and there’s not a breath of wind. I lengthen the strips of zones – the tide goes out further than we thought on our map – and record Kirsty reading an AGF poem she had by chance sent me the previous day which was somehow beautifully relevant and added further variety to the content. Even though one of our July SK experiments was broadcast on Radio 6 with Cerys Matthews and Dave a few days ago, it’s all still very early days. 32 paddlers go out and return wet but enthusiastic, delighting at how it worked, what they heard and thought.
Day three and oh the reality of electronics on the sea. It’s hot and sunny but the wind is quietly whipping up. We launch our first set of paddlers and in come a couple of waves that simply roll the kayaks and the kit and speakers are totally submerged. Shock. Nothing is lost but this puts an immediate stop to any further kayak outings. We cant risk any rolls with the public. Unperturbed, we regather and spend the rest of the day introducing and discussing the project with our participants, instead doing Sonic Kayak Beach Walking.
This is not an altogether bad thing. It means that visitors can fully comprehend and explore with the system whilst most importantly being able to just listen. At sea, there are many other distractions like not falling in and just being overcome by the magic of it all. A boat that suddenly plays you a poem out at sea?
Demystifying something is not always a good idea but many of our participants are marine biologists so as well as fascinating discussions, we also gather local knowledge such as where the city’s and aquaculture centre’s effluents enter the Bay so where there are significant alterations to the thermocline.