There’s a photo I love of the French documentary filmmaker Jean Painlevé on the coast of western France. The year is 1935. Painlevé wears a classic oval-shaped dive mask which completely covers his face—nose, mouth, and all. There’s an oxygen tank slung over his shoulder, a relatively new and novel invention for the time. But it’s his arms that draw your focus. The muscles in his forearm ripple as he grips a massive metal box, leaning backwards to counterbalance the contraption’s immense weight. The box is half as long as Painlevé is tall and contains a crudely waterproofed camera.
When people think of underwater documentaries, if they think of such things at all, they probably think of the legendary subaquatic explorer Jacques Cousteau. But Painlevé came first. He was one of the first filmmakers to use underwater footage in a film, and he wanted to depict the minutiae of undersea life as naturally and authentically as possible—right down to his choice of music.
Painlevé’s films prompted a simple question: What should the sea sound like? What should a viewer hear when watching kelp forests sway or seahorses fight? It wasn’t something anyone had to consider before, not seriously. Songs about the sea tended to focus on distance, adventure, danger, and longing—on human concerns happening on the surface, not life beneath the waves. But Painlevé wanted his audience to see the ocean as a world like our own; a world of dignified seahorses, stylish crabs, and seductive octopuses, the human condition rendered bubbling and bulbous. He wanted emotion, movement and vibe. Much to the chagrin of scientists, who did not want such things, Painlevé chose jazz.
I hadn’t given the question of what the sea should sound like much thought until about a decade ago when I first heard The Sounds of the Sounds of Science, a 2002 album from the indie rock band Yo La Tengo. I learned that to celebrate the dawn of a new millennium, organizers of the San Francisco International Film Festival thought it would be clever to connect past and present. They wanted to have modern-day musicians score old silent films with new, original work. The musicians would be free to interpret the films however they saw fit. In 2000, Television guitarist Tom Verlaine was tasked with scoring a collection of avant-garde shorts from filmmakers such as Man Ray and Fernand Léger. It went well enough that the festival’s organizers wanted to do it again the following year. They asked Yo La Tengo to score a handful of Painlevé’s early films. The Sounds of the Sounds of Science captures the result.
In Yo La Tengo’s interpretation, synthesizers whoosh like water being filtered through mouths and gills. Brushes dance on drums as delicately as fins, while Rhodes piano shimmers like refracted light. Guitars noodle in the distance, drenched in tremolo and reverb on long, looping delays, while creatures jerk, thrust, jitter, flop, flap, wiggle, pulse, and convulse on-screen. The constant thumping of the bass drum evokes the distant churn of the tide as heard from the seafloor, sending seaweed into a slow dance, shuffling side-to-side. At times, notes slide and linger while sonar pings skip like pebbles across a placid surface. At others, there is discord, danger, chaos—the crunch of crustaceans in combat, the crash of cresting waves, a flurry of fuzz, and deep, urgent toms.
The whole thing is sublime. It is music for floating, drifting, writing, thinking. But in the depths of my mind lies a dark, terrifying thought: that, increasingly, this is also the soundtrack to a threatened world, a sonic snapshot of a place that no longer exists.
The sea, of course, is far from silent. In fact, the fathoms are full of sound: the clicks and whines of dolphins and whales, the low rumble of distant earthquakes, the scrape of tsunamis on the seafloor. There’s the belch of volcanic vents, the breath of glaciers through freeze and thaw, or the mechanical salsa of passing ships. But just because the sounds are there doesn’t mean they’re easy to hear; you can’t stroll the seafloor like you would a forest, and what’s audible from shore isn’t a proxy for life below. The problem has always been accessibility. So, for decades, it’s often fallen to musicians to bring the soundscape of the sea—both real and imagined—to life.
In the 1960s, surf rockers ran their jangly guitars through reverb units to create sonic textures that washed over listeners like waves, paired with dark, propulsive picking that spoke to the danger that lurked below. Dub went further, chaining reverb, delays, equalizers, and other effects to "displace time, shift the beat, heighten a mood, [and] suspend a moment,” writes musician and author David Toop in his book Ocean of Sound. As per Toop, the music evokes “the sonar transmit pulses, reverberations and echoes of underwater echo ranging and bioacoustics.” Synthesizers proved especially versatile, with alien tones both eerie and fantastical, equally fit for space and sea, separate sides of the same tape. By this point, even Painlevé and Geneviève Hamon—his longtime collaborator and wife—had abandoned traditional jazz, scoring their 1965 film The Love Life of the Octopus with a soundtrack of experimental electronic sounds.
Around the same time, popular music had started replacing more traditional orchestral arrangements in film and TV. Underwater documentary was rising in popularity, too—thanks, in no small part, to The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. Before long, the trajectories of musical experimentation and ocean exploration converged, the ocean as both subject and vibe.
One of my favourite artifacts from this era is Sven Libaek’s Inner Space. Libaek composed the music between 1965 and 1974 for a long-running Australian television documentary of the same name that followed the adventures of shark-diving couple Ron and Valerie Taylor. The reissue record label Light in the Attic calls the compilation one of the key entries in the underwater music genre. Another label, Trunk, described Inner Space as “where jazz meets the great white shark, where waltzes meet wildfowl and longboard surfers meet a lively sea of cool flutes and groovy, spacey, moody vibes.” Votary Records calls it “a whirlpool of sublime aquatic jazz exotica.” I can confirm all of those descriptions are apt. But what I love most about Inner Space is the sense of depth and movement infused in some of my favourite arrangements—the soft yet propulsive patter of brushes on the hi-hats, the shimmering tones of reverb-drenched vibraphone, the gurgle of electric organ chords. It’s the slippery sway of the wah-wah and the tremble of a tremolo guitar, fingers flitting across the fretboard like frantic fish, and, best of all, the low, mysterious reediness of the bass flute—urgent and undulating and undeniably cool.
I first encountered Libaek’s music on the soundtrack to Wes Anderson’s 2004 film The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou—both a spoof of and homage to Cousteau’s televised adventures. But whereas the music used by Cousteau feels relatively staid and predictably orchestral, Libaek’s music is stylish and electric; a perfect sonic match for Anderson’s whimsical, impressionist vision of the sea. What I’ve since learned is that Libaek was not operating in a vacuum. By the 1970s, an entire genre of underwater music—or aquatic jazz exotica—had emerged, fuelled by the growing demand for television soundtracks and film scores that might evoke the sea. There’s Italian composer Egisto Macchi’s Fauna Marina, “a set of eleven compositions intended to accompany the images of a hypothetical fish fauna documentary.” There is also Alessandro Alessandroni’s electronic Biologia Marina, Daniele Patucchi’s Men Of The Sea, and Armando Sciascia’s Sea Fantasy. The Sonor Music Editions catalogue has more. The Italians are so well represented in the genre that I recently discovered a sprawling Spotify playlist devoted solely to Italian library music, with no shortage of underwater-themed tracks. Much of it is deeply weird, atmospheric, and experimental; it’s what you might expect from jazz and rock musicians working in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the boundaries between genres collapsing beneath the sonic weight of new technologies and their new sounds. Cousteau famously called the sea “the silent world”—but here were visions of the sea so lush and sonically rich they were practically not of this planet.
This was no accident. From Lovecraft to Libaek, there is a rich tradition of alien allusion in our descriptions of the sea. Libaek had already gestured to the similarities between sea and cosmos with the term Inner Space, but he made the connection explicit with his next collection: Solar Flares. Considered a spiritual companion to his ocean work, Solar Flares uses a similar sonic palette, reinforcing the notion of sea as space and space as sea—remote, inhospitable, mysterious, and largely unexplored, but also alive with wonder and the promise of life. Wes Anderson scored much of The Life Aquatic with gentle acoustic covers of Starman-era Bowie by Brazilian guitarist Seu Jorge—who appears throughout the film as a bemused, Cousteau-like deckhand, looking out across the endless surface, asking “is there life on Mars?” But of course, we know the sea is not space. It is here, and it is a part of us. And the connection between what happens on land and sea has never been more urgent, more clear.
In Painlevé’s early days, underwater documentary filmmaking was no easy feat. Sometimes it meant spending hours wading in the shallow coastal waters of Saint Raphaël, gripping his heavy waterproof camera, or draped over the rocks on his stomach, arms half submerged like a diver, frozen mid-entry, camera held fast beneath the waves. And, as recounted in the book Science Is Fiction, this was an improvement on his prior films.
Before the invention of the Fernez-Le Prieur breathing apparatus, Painlevé had to be tethered to a boat and fed air through a hose. He resurfaced often—to replace the camera’s film, which could only capture a few seconds at a time, and to curse the boat’s crew for pumping either too much air or not enough. When it wasn’t feasible to record his critters underwater, Painlevé would instead try to recreate their natural environments in a tank—with oft-disastrous results. While attempting to film male seahorses giving birth in tanks in his Paris studio, their enormous glass aquariums shattered twice under the intense heat of the lights needed for high-speed filming. The sudden gush of seawater sent crew members flying and corroded spare camera parts. Another time, an octopus escaped its tank, fled the studio, and made it to an embankment next door, startling hapless bathers. During a trip to Brittany, the most northwestern point of France, Painlevé and crew lugged an incredible amount of gear in the back of a truck: two generators, myriad lamps, a microscope, and of course, containers to hold his actors. It was a disaster. Glassware smashed. Equipment melted. The truck broke down. They overloaded their lights with electrical current, broke one of the generators, and even set fire to a fireproof screen. Sand blew everywhere, into everything, wreaking havoc on animals and instruments alike.
But the Fernez-Le Prieur was so freeing that Painlevé imagined one day building an underwater studio—a place where he might float with ease in perfect conditions, able to visit his subjects at home at last. Though he died in 1989, I wonder what he might have made of something like the BBC’s Blue Planet II. To me, it feels closest to the vision Painlevé had in mind. Filmmakers for the 2017 series spent more than six thousand hours capturing underwater footage, going to depths and extremes Painlevé could have only dreamed. They piloted submersibles, used remotely operated vehicles, shot with cutting-edge cameras designed to capture the most exquisite of details in ultra-low light. The quality is remarkable, resplendent, a hallucinogenic smear of texture and colour. Viewed like this, I tend to think of the sea as an alien place; all those tentacles, those ghostly pools of brine. It hardly seems real.
And then there’s the music: grand, sweeping, orchestral, dramatic. It has all the style and substance of a big-budget film score—not bad per se, but comfortable and familiar—which made sense once I realized prolific Hollywood composer Hans Zimmer was involved. It reminded me, at least conceptually, of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau, which also paired seascapes with orchestral scores—soundtracks for the sea, but not exactly of it. Which brings me back to Painlevé’s early question: what should the sea sound like, then? The sounds I find the most compelling in Blue Planet II are also the most fleeting; they don’t come from horns or strings, but from dolphins and shrimp. The truth, I think, is as radical as it is simple: the sea should sound exactly as it sounds.
If you asked me to describe the sound of shrimp, I would say: like raindrops in a puddle, the crackling of a log fire, like branches snapping, or the electromagnetic morse code of cellphone data passing through a speaker. This, to me, is how shrimp sound on Jana Winderen’s 2009 composition “The Noisiest Guys on the Planet.” Winderen is a Norwegian artist who mainly works with field recordings of underwater sound. Over more than a decade, Winderen has captured the sounds of fish, melting ice, whales, shrimp, and the inescapable noises of human activity that seep into even our deepest underwater soundscapes. What I love about Winderen’s work is that it doesn’t merely evoke the ocean; it is the ocean. In the right place, with the right equipment, it’s startling just how much you can hear.
Winderen’s main tool is the hydrophone—an extremely sensitive underwater microphone that converts pressure changes into sounds we can hear—and she often deploys three or four at once, dangling them from cables at different depths. The resulting works are both a reminder and a provocation—that the sea is not silent, that there is so much for us to hear, and that what we can hear is not necessarily healthy. Speaking on the BBC podcast Between the Ears in an episode about her practice, Winderen says there is almost always engine noise present in her recordings. Shipping traffic, seismic testing, even vibrations from land—“from the first moment where I put a hydrophone in the water, you immediately start to hear human-created sounds,” she says. The types of creatures she can hear, the sounds they make, the sounds we make—all of it reflects how the thrum of human activity has irreparably changed our planet, and how the consequences of our actions ripple out over time.
Winderen is part of a long lineage of scientists, artists, composers, and musicians who have used hydrophone recordings for decades to surface rarely heard sounds of the sea. The 1970 album Songs of the Humpback Whale was such a revelation upon its release that it became one of the most popular nature recordings of all time, with more than 125,000 copies sold. Contrary to Cousteau’s The Silent World, advances in hydrophone technology have made field recordings an integral part of underwater documentary film. But Winderen, I think, is in a league of her own. Her recordings are inherently, unmistakably, the sound of climate change, and for Winderen, sound is a way to reorient our relationship to the crisis. “Sound is a more direct, physical presence,” said Winderen on Between the Ears. “An image of an iceberg melting—it is looking very beautiful and will always be at a distance from you, while a sound comes very close and all around you.”
Over the years, Winderen has presented many of her works as large-scale sound installations—the kind where sound can wash over listeners like the sea. But thankfully, with a good pair of headphones, you can also listen to many of them at home. Depending on the composition, whales can sound like an orchestra tuning up, haunted bows sliding across a ghostly violin. Evaporation is a cavernous, expansive account of disappearing ice—nearly 20 minutes of deep background rumble and industrial-sounding drone against the foreground’s drips, bubbles and squeals. Energy Field is like a slithering wall of sound, layering wind, waves, and wildlife. Spring Bloom in the Marginal Ice Zone often sounds like the endless descent of a malevolent elevator—stopping only for clicks, whines, and creaks that punctuate distant, glassy whispers. The sounds in these recordings are utterly, overwhelmingly alive, but it’s impossible not to wonder: for how long?
“What Winderen is creating, then, is not just music but—in the idiom of sound art—documents as well,” wrote MIT anthropologist Stefan Helmreich. “If earlier generations of composers sought simply to replicate a submarine sublime, today’s sound artists hope not just to soak in sound but also to broker ear-opening accounts of human relations with the water around us.” To Helmreich, Winderen’s field recordings are like listening to the vital signs of our oceans—of “soundscapes that harbor evidence of global warming, of sea creatures under stress.”
In that sense, I’ve also started to think of the works of Sven Libaek and Yo La Tengo as documents in their own way—important records of how we used to think about the ocean, creativity caught in amber, reminders of what we stand to lose. To me, listening to the work of Libaek and Yo La Tengo is like listening to the platonic ideal of a healthy ocean, an imagined ocean, the polar opposite of what you can hear in Winderen’s work. As much as I enjoy these albums, I’ve come to the uncomfortable realization they do more than merely evoke an exaggerated vision of an uncharted and mysterious sea; they exist as soundtracks to a worldview, an era, an innocence that can no longer exist today. The ocean environments that inspired these works are increasingly threatened. Before long, they may not look so redolent with life. And when that happens, what kind of music will we make instead? Perhaps the sea may start to inspire sounds a lot like the surface—those of shipping and mining and warming and death. “Dialing [into] deployments of sound deleterious to dolphins and whales might reveal a genre of underwater music no one has yet considered: cetacean death metal,” Helmreich writes.
Ironically, I think it’s the surreality of that submarine sublime that keeps me coming back to the music of Libaek and Yo La Tengo. It’s not how the sea actually sounds, but how I hope it would, and maybe again could—healthy, hopeful. The ocean as both subject and vibe.
Listen to Matthew's Sea Sounds playlist on Apple Music or Spotify.