How do you verbalise human experiences? Think about how you might describe standing up and walking to open a door. You start off by saying something like, “well, I stood up, and I opened the door”. But if you’re prodded to give more detail about it, you might say “OK so I was sitting down, then I stood up, walked over to the door, and opened it.” And then you go deeper: “Well, I was sitting down. Then I heard the doorbell ring. And I thought about who was there. So my brain sent a signal to my legs to stand up. I stood up in my usual motion. I began to put one foot in front of the other as I crossed the sitting room floor. As I continued to travel across the floor, I began to raise my arm in anticipation of reaching the door…” and so on. So you are trying to verbalise what is happening to you, as all of your senses and awareness and consciousness of how all your parts come together to perform a fairly mundane action. But as you break down each part of the process, there are parts that you may not necessarily be able to describe, because you don’t tend to think about how you do these things in that way. Like, how does my brain send a signal to my legs to move in a certain way? Is there is a flow of neurons or electrons from my brain to my legs? What speed does that signal travel at? You can end up down this enormous rabbit hole if you attempt to capture everything that is happening to you in words, breaking down each action into smaller time-based chunks. And even then, you are not necessarily documenting everything that is happening to you.
I was thinking about epiphanies and how rare they become as you age. Are the most exciting parts of life all about “first time” experiences? You can only ever have a single “first time” for losing a tooth, breaking a bone, sex, buying a record, a bungee jump, taking ecstasy, and so on. Once you have done it once – that’s it, you won’t be able to taste the novelty of it again. You may have a better experience later on, but you are still always going to be comparing to previous iterations. Is every subsequent iteration chasing the high of the first time? You can’t erase the past and start afresh, barring any memory loss. Actually that takes me back to a documentary I saw more than a decade ago called Unknown White Male, about a man who wakes up on a train in New York with no idea who he is (edit: here’s a link to the whole film on YouTube). Obviously this is very traumatic for him and he has lost all memory of his family and friends. But the joyous parts of the film are of him doing things for the first time, again, as an adult. There’s a beautiful scene at around the halfway mark where his girlfriend brings him to the beach. He has no memory of experiencing the sand or the sea. He talks about how the whole sensation of it, the noise, the wash of the surf, the water on his feet, completely overwhelms him and he starts to cry. He says that he finds it difficult to describe what he felt at that moment.
And admittedly when watching that film I felt pangs of jealousy. How revelatory would it be to experience something like that, fully grown, your senses of awe and excitement being raw, and untempered by your weary cynicism of age and regret? How often do you experience something as an adult, that is completely fresh to you, and you find it difficult to express through words what exactly it is you are going through at that moment?
In late October 2019, I rode all the way up to Walthamstow (“it’s just past Stoke Newington, right?”) (disclaimer: it is not “just past Stoke Newington”, in case you are making the trip) in the dark, finding my way to the Waltham Forest Feel Good Centre (i.e. a gym) via a hundred identikit towers sprouting up around Tottenham Hale. The cold from the reservoirs seemed to be seeping directly into my bones, and I was pretty glad to get indoors and warm up before the main event. I’d heard about Wet Sounds before from a friend, whose only interest in electronic music is when it is ambient. Anything vaguely approaching a bass or kick drum and he turns it off. But I had never made it to one of their events, despite it being held annually in London since 2008.
As attendees got ready in the changing rooms it was blatantly clear to the Centre’s staff that this wasn’t your standard swim session. Lots of artistic tattoos, assymmetrical haircuts, age range far narrower than the usual spectrum range between screaming kids and leathery OAPs (note to self: don’t mock it, you’re next). I was slightly giddy and nervous before the start to be honest. Wasn’t sure what to expect. I guess it was excitement too, but I had purposely not read any reviews of previous outings, so I would come into it with zero expectations. In the back of my head the words “pool” and “party” mixed together with garish results like this. The staff made us wait a bit, and then the door opened up to a dimly-lit pool, with coloured ambient lighting and some projections on the back wall. I counted five speakers arranged around the pool. I slipped on my goggles and nose clips, and eased myself into the water.
How to put it into words? Like any human experience, trying to document it in its totality is difficult. Bottom line: it was the first “new” experience I had in many years. The goggles and noise clips allowed me more freedom and underwater time, having never quite mastered holding my breath unaided. The sounds were warm and soothing, ambient, and indistinct at times, with a voice or multiple voices floating through the water. There were two large shell-shaped objects in the pool which I’m guessing were some sort of waterproof containers for the speakers. If you swam close to these, the music resonated inside your head clearer and stronger. I felt as if I were hearing through my skull or teeth at times, rather than through my ears. The music was more of a sensation than just a sound.
The soundtracks above and below the water line diverged, so you could hear two completely different sounds if you had your head half in/out of the water. Twenty minutes into the session, I felt this sense of tranquility seep in, as I acclimatised to the surroundings and how to interact with others in the pool. I became less concerned with trying to focus on the sounds, and instead just serenely floated or gently pushed myself down, absorbing the audio and the surroundings of my fellow fish-humans. I stopped conversing with my friend about the novelty of it, and my only focus from then on was staying under the water. I found a rhythym with this, so I could come up for air less often, and stay below with less vigorous swimming.
I can’t do it full justice with trying to document it with words. Like any typical modern human, my brain gets yanked in a hundred different tangets at once as a result of the piece of 4G metal surgically attached to my person. I do switch off when running, but it is still there. Being without its distracting presence, in this water cocoon of music and light, with other people around me in a similar blissful state, was very calming, and I felt like I had dropped my pace of thinking and actions a considerable degree.
And then it was over. Dragged back into harsh reality by the raising of the house lights (definitely not a brand new experience, many the rave’s bitter end) we were asked to clear out. I was half consumed with sadness at having to finish. And when cycling home, I realised that I was completely exhausted from all of the breath holding. But no matter, the experience had been scorched into my neurons. With the converted zeal of a Deadhead I am already planning how to get to Chelmsford in March with no trains running between Newbury Park and Ingatestone. As you may have gathered from the title of this blog, I am reasonably assured of the potential liberatory powers of communal swimming, and Wet Sounds is part of that continuum.