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Concerns For The Sea Mix With Music In ‘Ocean Voices’

Editor’s Note, June 3, 2011: In celebration of World Oceans Day on Sunday, the Harborwalk will be the site of a free, Dr. Seuss-themed event. Last year, we covered a Museum of Science performance that combined music with reflections of the sea:

The Gulf oil spill has led many people to reflect on the fragility of our oceans and waterways. But long before the disaster happened, a Massachusetts sound artist dove into an experiment that explores humans’ emotional relationship to the sea.

It’s called “Ocean Voices,” and it’s being performed at the Museum of Science Friday afternoon and evening.

The work, which combines music with individuals’ unscripted reflections on the sea, celebrates the legacy of legendary ocean advocate Jacques Cousteau, who would have turned 100 this year.

Like a lot of us, sound artist Halsey Burgund first learned about life under the waves by watching the French explorer’s documentaries and TV shows in the 1960s and 1970s.

“I am a musician, and a sound artist, and I think I can affect some small change in the ways that I know how.”

– Halsey Burgund

“You know, Jacques Cousteau would always say people protect what they love,” Burgund recalled, “He’s somebody who brought the ocean to the masses.”

Cousteau used film to do that. Burgund is using music and voices of people he collected through website and an iPhone application he designed with marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols, which allows anyone to record their own voices and upload them to the project.

Burgund explains that “Ocean Voices” is an experiment in ocean advocacy.

“I am not a scientist at this point, I’m not a politician, there are a lot of things that I’m not but I am a musician, and a sound artist, and I think I can affect some small change in the ways that I know how. And ‘Ocean Voices’ is really a way for me to do that,” Burgund said.

Burgund rehearses in his home studio in Bedford. It’s something of an audio laboratory, filled with instruments, microphones and computers.

Burgund plays the voices by manipulating a unique electronic device called a malletKat. It looks like a high-tech Xylophone. When he presses a pad, a little girl’s voice comes out of the speakers, “no water.”

Another button turns it into a Marimba. “Or it can become a piano,” Halsey explained, “but the voices are the primary thing that I’m playing when we’re performing and I think of the voices as another instrument.”

Sound artist Halsey Burgund plays the malletKat he uses to infuse his music with human voices. (Andrea Shea/WBUR)

Next comes a young, male voice saying, “I like the ocean when it’s raining, and it’s warm, cause you can’t tell the difference between the rain and the ocean.”

But how did Burgund get these voices? With the help of marine biologist Nichols — and the Internet. The scientist and the artist created a website, and an iPhone app, so anyone — even you — can record their own thoughts about the oceans and add them to the project.

“And we just started collecting voices from people all over the world,” Nichols explained, “in response to a set of questions about how they feel about the ocean, how they interact with the ocean, what they know about the ocean.”

The website has a map of the world, and you can click on little flags to hear recordings from a bunch of countries — even from out on the open water.

“With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you’re connected to the sea, no matter where on earth you live,” said one woman at sea in the North Pacific.

“I don’t want to imagine a world without oceans. Our world without oceans can simply not exist,” said another contributor from a landlocked region in India.

Burgund and Nichols have collected more than 1,000 voices of all ages and ethnicities so far. Three of Cousteau’s now-grown grandchildren gave their blessing to the project, and even pitched in their own voices — including filmmaker Celine Cousteau.

“There’s always something going on underneath the waves, there’s always something going on underneath the waves,” Celine Cousteau intones.

With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you’re connected to the sea, no matter where on earth you live.

– The Ocean Voices Project

Nichols, a life-long ocean advocate and sea turtle expert, knows how deeply people feel about the ocean. But he says mixing our thoughts with dream-like music — performed by a Halsey and a live band — hits us in a universal but intimate way.

“People describe it afterwards, and they say, ‘Wow, I feel like I was just tapped into a lot of people’s private thoughts about the ocean all at the same time,’ ” he said. “And that’s what Jacques Cousteau was all about. He was about getting under your skin, into your brain, and showing you something that would literally blow your mind.”

“Ocean Voices” premiered at the California Academy of Science earlier this year to celebrate Cousteau’s 100th birthday. And Celine Cousteau has programmed it for another centennial in October. The performance piece will ultimately continue its tour, and the Web project is ongoing.

And the artist and the scientist who created Ocean Voices continue to collect people’s words. They recently they added a new question to their website: How do oceanic spills make you feel?

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