Monday, September 14, 2009

The Science of Fairy Tales (Series) - The Little Mermaid's Voice

Ever wondered just how the Little Mermaid would have sounded, if you'd had the chance to hear her before she lost her voice? Well, there's a new underwater opera that may give us a good idea, beyond scientific sound experiments and singing whales.

The opera, which debuted and performed in May at the Queer Up North festival in Manchester, starred LA Soprano Juliana Snapper. She played a post-human creature surviving in a largely aquatic post-apocalyptic landscape, singing underwater, literally, using a technique she's perfected, for much of the performance.

How, you ask?

Here's her answer, quoted from TimesOnline:
“It’s not that different from singing operatically on land,” claims Snapper... “It uses the same basic process of compressing the air, creating a stream of soundwaves and allowing that to go into the water, with a little bit more care because at the end of the phrase you don’t want to pull any water in.” And how do you not do that? “You monkey with your throat a little bit. Underwater you really want to be able to shut that door.”
The pressure changes are the worst, “especially within the first 30ft or so. The oxygen in your lungs has compressed, so you can be down at the bottom and taking in air, but if I don’t sing on the way up with a lungful of air, then the lungs will burst because as the air decompresses, it gets bigger, so it will pop the balloon.”
OK, so I'm sure there's a whole slew of anatomical differences that would change the way this works for a mermaid. I'm guessing whales would have a better understanding of how to compress and decompress your lungs without damaging them as you sink and rise, yet even aquatic mammals require air to live while, traditionally, mermaids don't so either way we're not getting the whole story on how this would work.

But how about the sound? What would the singing really sound like?

Those of you in my generation would have grown up hearing the news from National Geographic that whale songs had been recorded for the very first time. I still remember the floppy little record my father got as part of the magazine. We played it over and over, marveling at how eerily beautiful these underwater songs were. You can hear some for yourself HERE.

But a mermaid is no whale. They're traditionally much closer to humans in size and vocal capacity. So do we have any idea of how a mermaid would sound underwater?

Again from Juliana's interview with TimesOnline:

Sound behaves quite differently in water than in air — Snapper describes the “airless” sound of a voice filtered through water as “like a humming and mewling”. The bubbles she produces have their own character. “The vocal melody is complicated by the percussive sound of the bubbles. If the bubbles are smaller or larger, then the percussive sounds will come more or less rapidly and they all have pitches attached to them. Sometimes you have a kind of second melody over the voice.” But does it sound like singing? “It does. I think it sounds like singing.”

You can read the whole article about the opera and Juliana's process HERE.

We'll return to The Little Mermaid in a future Science of Fairy Tales post, to discuss scientific possibilities behind another part of the story.

NOTE: Illustrations are by Jeannie Harbour and Gennady Spirin. Click on the images to be taken to more information and works. Photos are of Juliana Snapper in underwater vocal performance. To be taken to her website, click on the images.

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