Review by Ruby Mendoza-Willcocks XVelastín: [whalesong]
Sound designer, Xavier Velastín, otherwise known as ‘XVelastín’, takes centre stage as a solo performer with multiple sounds in his most recent musical endeavour with the Camden Fringe Festival: ‘[whalesong].’
The performance is described as “myths from the ocean” through “a light massage of sound touching the skin.” From gurgling water in his mouth, to the sound of his heartbeat, and to enhancing sound digitally, XVelastín creates the most beautiful sounds from the simplest of actions.
This sound play involves a mixture of vocals, ie. talking, singing, and forms of non-verbal utterances such as: whistling, technologically enhanced sounds, and noises made from interacting with inanimate objects that become so much more than simply noises. Some of the vocals heard consist of a Baleen whale’s moan and more specifically a male Baleen’s song, which XVelastín brings to life from his own voice enhanced by digital sound effects which echos to represent the whale’s echo location. The bass is used to represent the lower frequencies whales hear compared to a human’s shorter hearing range.
There is visual communication which complements the sounds heard; for instance the projection of a clear glass bowl resting on top of the water in a bigger bowl. XVelastín spins the floating bowl around, and later adds blue dye and squirting water droplets onto the skin of the water, producing a calming tunnel-like pattern that resembles the ocean on the back wall. At one point, he mimes swimming in front of what appears to be a round speaker when still, synonymous to a whale’s blowhole -a clear reference to what the performance is all about: ‘noise in the oceans.’
Other sounds such as XVelastín tapping on metal and the “unintentional crackling” from what he calls his “Magic Gloves” were in my opinion mimicking a toothed whale’s clicks. I say my opinion because the performance is all about how the audience interprets the show. I talked with XVelastín after the show and he said that his “Magic Gloves” were a spatially aware bass player, meaning the sound of the bass changes depending on the design of the room, and where the audience are seated. All I heard as an audience member sitting in the front row to the right was static popping, but I am sure that another audience member sitting on the second row to the left may have heard the low rumble of a bass note. Because of this, ‘[whalesong]’ is a perfect example of art being rooted in subjective reality. In this case the bio-acoustics of whales, as portrayed through fantasy, allows the audience to interpret what they hear -both consciously and sub-consciously.
There is an eerie atmosphere throughout the whole performance: a beautifully haunting and unnerving element in the way XVelastín performs. There is a moment when he crouches down close to the audience and starts to gently hum about how he longs to be with the whales, seeming to call them “sisters” in his song and claiming that he can hear their call; or perhaps wishing that he could. I suppose it is up to the audience to decide which one it is, because ‘[whalesong]’ is a ‘sound piece on choice.’ What the audience experiences tonight and on subsequent nights will most likely be completely different to what I experienced on the opening night. XVelastín seemed to be experimenting on the spot with his sounds, improvisation and trying out new things.
Speaking of ‘choice,’ during the performance I chose to close my eyes at certain points to really listen to the music rather than just hearing it. I wanted to experience the full effect of the sounds played, which felt multi-sensory as if they were coming from all directions. I allowed all the different noises to carry me away into a ‘submersive’ world of peace and tranquillity.
XVelastín layers sound upon sound and records over original recordings to add depth to his piece. He increases and decreases volume and pitch, constantly adding new instruments and sounds to the mix. He also blends chaos and panic with silence and harmony – taking you on a rollercoaster of emotions.
Inspite of the brochure stating that ‘[whalesong]’ is ‘a sound piece on/our impending doom,’ XVelastín does throw in a hotchpotch of planned and spontaneous comedy, which on the first night was both intentional and unintentional due to some minor mishaps – making his performance just as light- hearted and endearing as it is heavy. An example of his humour was when XVelastín held up a toy balloon of a cartoon blue whale and nervously asked it out on a date. He said that ‘[he’s] got some krill back at [his],’ implying that he was pretending to be a whale too, and that he would return to the sea with his lover once the performance had ended. In appearance, XVelastín is one with the sea: he was barefooted, wearing a see-through rain jacket and blue chequered swim shorts. He also had two lights hanging from his neck which reminded me of an anglerfish.
The performance was littered with playful comedy intertwined with sarcasm and satire -in particular how society views whales and their purpose as a species. As humans, we listen to whale songs to “relax” but XVelastín reminds us that “listening is not a one-sided thing.” For him, “listening is cause and consequence;” “listening is action and reaction.” A whale singing is about the “environment listening to its own voice,” which the human race does not do enough of. We tend to ignore our surroundings, forever buried in the comfort of our screens. Implicit in ‘[whalesong]’ XVelastín is asking the following questions: What does communication mean to us? Is it nothing but conversing about how our days have been? Where has all the meaning gone? Perhaps we have lost our own whale song, for we forget that we are “aquatic apes” just like whales are aquatic mammals, and that we also “move in a sea of sound” just like whales do.
But despite all we know about whales and their songs, their noises will remain mysterious, just like the ocean since we are yet to discover the full variety of sounds they create and what they truly mean.
XVelastín performs ‘[whalesong]’ from 1st August to 4th August at 9pm at: The Monkey House, 97-101, Seven Sisters Road, London N7 9QP.
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