Percussionist Jesse Stewart, seen here at a previous performance, brought his unique sound to Champagne Bath, Ottawa’s very first municipal pool.

Eyes closed and body submerged below the water, I strained to catch the heavy beat reverberating above my head.

When I opened my eyes and resurfaced, I started to do a lazy breaststroke to where my friend was treading water. Scanning the pool, he was clustered with a group of swimmers treading water and frowning in concentration, ears attuned to the drumbeats echoing throughout the pool.

We were just two of the 60 people at the first performance of Swimming in Sound, a collaboration between percussionist Jesse Stewart and media artist Rob Cruickshank.

The performance was part of Electric Fields, a week-long electronic music and media arts festival presented by Art Engine. It was held at the Champagne Bath on King Edward Avenue, Nov. 25.

Stewart sat in front of a drum set on a platform within the pool.

Barefoot, he wore a white dress shirt that soon became streaked with water droplets streaming off the clear plastic drums.

He and Cruickshank melded together the sounds of water with drums and gongs, but also tried incorporating distortion into the cacophony of noise.

“Rob and I just worked together and came up with the concept for the piece,” Stewart said. “And then [he was recording] the sounds with an underwater microphone…and then playing them back above water but also manipulating the signal in different ways.”

Stewart added he also used a special instrument called a “waterphone” to further change the acoustics. It made eerily dissonant notes reminiscent of a sci-fi soundtrack.

The instrument, crafted out of steel with bronze rods jutting out from the top, has water inside to further bend and amplify the notes it creates.

“It creates quite a haunting glissando or pitch bend kind of sound . . . it creates this sense of otherworldliness,” Stewart said.

The night also marked the first time Stewart and Cruickshank had ever played together, and their performance relied mostly on improvisation.

“We were kind of making it up as we went along,” Stewart said. “It’s a nice way to get to know somebody.”

Though the performance was cut short to make way for another showing later that night, most of the people attending seemed to enjoy the experience.

One of them was James MacAulay, who came prepared with an underwater camera.

“I figured I might take photos of the music and the instruments, going underwater,” he said. “I like going to shows like these and figured I might as well try this.”

Megan Bocking, also said she was glad she came to the performance.

“Being underwater and hearing the mixing of the noises of people swimming with the music [Stewart] was doing, it’s an interesting mix,” she said.

Stewart said since the concept has been gaining attention, it’s something he and Cruickshank might do again in the future, with a few improvements.

He said visuals are important in the performance and he would like to try something with more dramatic lighting. He and Cruickshank originally wanted to play in the dark, but as the venue was a public pool, it wasn’t really possible.

”I’d like to revisit it,” Stewart said. “There’s room to develop it even further, I think.”

— Photo courtesy of Rainer Soegtrop