What is a musical instrument? Is it a self-contained object that produces noise solely according to its own inner constitution and logic (at least when operated by a musician)? Or is it a borderless, fluid medium between its surroundings and the ears of its receiver, simply one of many channels through which a particular environment manifests itself aurally?
Well, regardless of the “true” answer to this question, it seems that Tomoko Sauvage would be inclined to give a response leaning more toward the second possibility. The Paris-based composer and sound artist is known for the exploitation of a “sole” instrument, water, yet her music employs H20 via the help of a whole range of objects: porcelain bowls, suspended blocks of ice, plastic cups, and strategically placed hydrophones. Together, these various elements were combined into a single meta-instrument on her trance-inducing debut solo album, Ombrophilia, and now they’ve been brought together once again for the no-less absorbing follow-up, Musique Hydromantique, which proves to be not only a vivid deconstruction of the concept of the musical instrument, but also a meditation on the limits of artistic control and agency.
What’s most immediately striking about the scattered, balmy notes of Hydromantique is that they simultaneously do and do not sound like water. Opening piece “Clepsydra” is nearly 11 minutes of melted droplets of ice plunging randomly into the aforementioned watered bowls, yet what the underwater hydrophones pick up is often more akin to a metallophone than that characteristic “plop” of a leaky tap or a rain-sodden leaf. The effect is an unsettling or hypnotic one (depending on your mood), suggesting that the water isn’t so much being faithfully recorded as mutated, rendered into something unfamiliar and alien. It takes on a high-pitched, chiming resonance that reverberates portentously through the space in which it was “captured,” and it’s precisely because it’s transmogrified in this way, blended almost seamlessly with the tonalities of its ceramic receptacle and the capabilities of Sauvage’s microphones, that the listener is liable to suspect that what’s being heard is a kind of composite, system-instrument, rather than something more discrete such as a guitar or piano.
In other words, tracks such as “Clepsydra” raise the thorny question of where a musical instrument begins and ends, of what exactly is being expressed when someone uses an instrument to make sounds. This is brought up even more clearly on “Fortune Biscuit,” in which the air bubbles emitted into water are heard more as a fast succession of percussive, hard-edged “pops” or “taps,” or as mechanical chirruping, than as a gentle bubbling. That they sound so different to what might be expected underlines how it’s not simply water that’s doing the talking here, but also the properties of Sauvage’s recording equipment, as well as the flow of air, the atmospheric quality of the room involved, the shape of the bowls, the size and materials of the room involved, and the regularity with which she may be topping off these bowls with fresh glasses of water.
As a whole, these components result in a cascade of vaguely watery rattling and crackling, yet it’s difficult to pinpoint which of them is being represented “more” by the unnerving effervescence on display. In fact, it’s difficult to pinpoint just what exactly is being represented, seeing as how so many subtle determinants and effects could have influenced how the water (and bubbles) ultimately behaved. Could air pressure be a factor? Could we be indirectly listening to a high or low temperature? Who knows, but because “Fortune Biscuit” makes it so difficult to isolate individual elements, the piece ends up raising doubts over the notion that when we hear any kind of musician perform, we’re hearing only what they intended us to hear.
And it’s this mention of what a musician may or may not intend that brings up Musique Hydromantique’s other central motif, that of the limits of artistic (or even human) control and agency. By filling a number of bowls with water, placing them in certain spaces, and recording the proceedings, Sauvage surely had at least a general vision in mind when she made the album. Yet in choosing to work with such natural materials as water and ice, it’s clear that she was opening her work up to chance and contingency, to factors that at best can only be channeled rather than fully orchestrated.
As such, a piece like “Calligraphy” becomes a confession of her own limitations and vulnerabilities, its oscillating feedback acting as an unknowable quantity she could never entirely predict, even if she were the one who voluntarily walked into a bona fide echo chamber in France to set up all her gear. Over the course of its 20 minutes, the droning reverb she helps set off undulates slowly and pregnantly, creating the discomfiting sense of an epiphany gradually coming into focus but waning just before it gains enough clarity and treble. Each of its numinous peaks and troughs, as well as its more mundane drips and drops, are foreseeable enough in the abstract, but calculating exactly when and where they’ll fall is impossible, to the point where it becomes obvious that Sauvage’s control of them is much less than complete. Indeed, by the end of the piece, they’ve taken on a life of their own, with Sauvage becoming less a composer and more a facilitator and documenter of their meditative unwinding.
Hence the title of the album, Musique Hydromantique, which alludes to the practice of divination via water, of harnessing water as a medium through which God — or at least all that which humanity can’t control and understand — might speak. Hydromancy is exactly what Sauvage performs on the album, insofar as she foregrounds the role of the non-manmade in the playing and recording of music, and shows how it’s often those things beyond our mastery and authorship that we give voice to in our very own art, rather than to any neat-and-tidy message we might want to transmit directly to our audience. Yet in highlighting this gulf between intention and execution, in demonstrating how more than human volition and action creeps into an artwork, Sauvage has made her own work only more profound and revelatory.