Submarine Symphony
Another idea from the Seventies newly fleshed out. An complete symphony composed to be played entirely underwater— this, Sam's eighth adventure.

THE COMPOSER excitedly told Sam about his latest project, the world premier of his Submarine Symphony, “...the first major musical composition that would be more visual than audio.”

“How’s that?”

“Well the whole orchestra will be performing in water, completely submerged, so you won’t hear as much as you see.”

“How do you plan on pulling that off? How will anyone hear or see anything?” Sam asked.

“You know the aquarium’s large lighted viewing tank? Well I’ve arranged to rent it for a day— the afternoon for setup, the evening for the hour-long performance. In the atrium facing the tank there’s room for at least two hundred folding chairs. We’ll be playing amongst the fishes.”

“Okay I guess we’ll be able to see you, how will we hear you?”

“By connecting two underwater mikes to speakers on either side of the viewing window. There will be a lot of prep work though even before this— obtaining used and expendable instruments, disassembling many of them to waterproof the wood and glued sections, and then reassembling them. Also laminating every sheet of the score in plastic, one set for every participant. We’ll be using metal folding chairs underwater and of course metal music stands.”

How will you breathe down there? Scuba gear sounds too cumbersome.”

“It’s not that deep, so we can use air hoses. Wind players will wear a small mask that covers eyes and nose only, the rest of us will wear full face masks.”

“Sounds absolutely crazy. How do you expect to make any money with this? You’d have to charge a thousand bucks a seat.”

“Doubt we’ll make much,” said the composer, “but I have a little bit tucked away. It’s my gift to the world, and we’ll be making a video too. Sales of that will help.”

“Well how much are tickets then?” asked Sam.

“A hundred a pop.”


“They’re almost sold out already.”

“Well alright then reserve one for me. I won’t eat out this week.”

A few days later the composer asked Sam if he wanted to see how preparations were going. In a warehouse near the aquarium, parts of musical instruments, mostly strings but some woodwinds, were laid out on long rows of mess tables set up end to end. Teams of workers were carefully applying various waterproofing materials to both sides of each piece, in layers. A few others were beginning to reassemble and restring some of the violins and violas.

“We’re pretty much on schedule,” said the composer. “The piano is a bear though.”

At one end of the large room pieces of a concert grand occupied a space about half the size of a basketball court, a crew of a dozen or so dipping paintbrushes into brackish bowls. Nearby a harp was already being reassembled. “That went better than we thought, but the piano still might not happen. Be a pain getting it in the tank too.”

“Gonna have time to practice?”

“Won’t need to practice much. About all you’ll be able to hear will be gurgling sounds, maybe a little extra noise from the brass and percussion.”

“Why even bother with a score then?”

“Having something for the musicians to work from will help to make the visual effect more realistic, different sections coming in at different times. Beyond that the individual notes are pretty much just random. Tuning down there will be impossible, we’ll just make a show of it.”

“I’m starting to see where your going with this. People will see the various musicians play against the more or less random noise of the water, and each member of the audience will hear something different— music of the mind, so to speak. All will leave having been composers themselves and not really realizing it. Crafty.”

“Thank you. I try. Not sure some of these glue jobs will even survive the concert, but that could only make things interesting. Musicians will be instructed to just keep on playing mime if they lose their instruments.”

“Looking forward to it. See you at the concert.”

On the appointed night Sam arrived at the aquarium a good twenty minutes early, but already three-quarters of the seats were filled. He found a spot near the back, which was what he wanted since watching the audience might be half the fun.

The big tank was lit, and looked like it usually did with porpoises, fish of all shapes and sizes, turtles, and other creatures swimming through a seaweed paradise. Only now through the wide viewing window the audience could also see chairs arranged in a semicircle, each with a music stand in front, facing a small podium for the composer, who would be conducting. There were no instruments yet visible save the heavier ones— piano, harp, and kettledrums.

At quarter till the hour to start a master of ceremonies entered the atrium and spoke a few introductory words about the composer and his new symphony. He then announced a surprise gift for the audience— all you can eat from the dollar menu; burgers, fries, and soft drinks. Assistants rolled in carts loaded with food and beverages; everyone passed them along and chowed down eagerly.

As people were stuffing wrappers into empty cups the show started. The musicians floated down to the sandy bottom holding their instruments and seated themselves. From the speakers came the sound of bubbles being exhaled. The audience applauded, though most knew the musicians could only see not hear it.

Then the composer floated down facing the audience to his applause and took his place on the podium. He reversed himself to face the orchestra, the atrium lights dimmed, and the symphony started.

At first no change could be heard in the sound of the bubbles, but as the musicians played minute differentiations could be discerned through the speakers, especially when the tubas sounded or the percussionist was summoned to duty. Fish swam between the players as though they were house pets, and seaweed undulated to an unknown rhythm.

Less than midway through the performance a cello came unglued, its bridge letting loose to relax the strings as the body panels began to peel apart. Before another fifteen minutes had elapsed both bass players were without instruments and violins were warping like stamps getting steamed off envelopes. As scraps of wood and wire settled to the sand players simply reverted to mime, bowing invisible strings.

The wind sections seemed to be holding up fine until without warning a clarinet burst, scattering wood fragments in all directions. Out of the entire string section, there were only a handful of violins and two violas still intact. Other than the strings, most of the rest of the orchestra seemed to be holding up fairly well though. A large sea turtle managed to lodge itself in the piano, and at one point a porpoise gleefully swooped down and nabbed a piccolo as though it were a pool toy.

Some in the audience had already started getting restless. A few were quietly slipping out the side aisles toward the exit. A couple even tossed wrappers toward the viewing window, especially as so little sound differentiation could be heard. Most though sat attentive, waiting for more to happen, trying to appreciate the new experience.

By now the instruments that were going to fail had, and the orchestra settled into what was increasing a play of a symphony rather than a real symphony. By the forty-five minute mark only half the audience were still seated, and at the end but a third remained to offer applause. The orchestra stood, bowed, and ascended to the surface.

At a reception afterward the composer seemed dejected— worse, he had only a couple hours to get the piano, the harp, and all the other instruments and debris out of the tank or he would owe a penalty to the aquarium.

“Hey, at least you had a full house,” Sam consoled.

“Far from full at the end.”

“I think you’ll be a YouTube superstar.”

“Maybe.” WF
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© 2011 Warren Farr, revised 8/27