The sun had dipped above the horizon, but local artist Yolande Harris wouldn’t have seen it amidst the chilly July haze encircling the end of the Santa Cruz Wharf. She lowered her hydroscope into the water and watched as a shoal of anchovies swirled around it. She listened to and recorded the happenings of another world just beneath the surface, and amidst the white noise of hissing and snapping, she could hear sea lions bark and perhaps a dolphin click.
“It’s a very magical sound,” she says of her recordings. “Watching the surface and motions and swirling, I get totally taken away. It’s hypnotizing.”
Harris is a woman of the sea. She has always been, in retrospect, having grown up sailing and swimming with her family in the Atlantic before eventually moving to Santa Cruz a couple of years ago.
The same is true for her art, a collection of marine sounds aimed at deepening our understanding of the ocean. Harris’s latest work is part of a larger series presented by local chamber and experimental music group Indexical. The performance, titled “Melt Me Into the Ocean,” is a one-time evening event that uses sound to connect participants to this sense of place and community.
“The experimental scene in Santa Cruz is really growing, and there are a lot of people that are interested in it that just don’t know it yet,” says Madison Heying, the event’s curator, and a teaching fellow and Ph.D candidate in cultural musicology at UCSC. “There are a lot of people here who are open to experiencing new things, and that really want to experience art that challenges their senses and how they look at the world. This challenges how they listen and what they think of as music.”
Harris’ contribution has two parts. The first is a walk to the Walton Lighthouse along the West Jetty Walkway with headsets, and the second is a sunset performance featuring a dreaming sea lion dancing to her oceanic recordings. Harris will be joined by Maidens of Delos, who will be playing ancient Celtic battle trumpets that look like monsters to accompany their piece on ancient Greek sea monsters Scylla and Charybdis. Casey Anderson will also be using radio transmitters and receivers together to explore sound and Ann Alstatt and Kyle Lane-McKinley will be contributing a more visual composition of surreal collage and conversation around the history and future of Santa Cruz landscapes and scenery.
“There are a couple of misconceptions about experimental music. One is that it looks haphazard, that people are just making crazy sounds or anyone could do it, when actually a lot of discipline goes into making experimental music,” Heying says. “The other misconception is that it’s not approachable, and it definitely can be. That’s one of our goals with this event in particular and Indexical in general—we really don’t want anyone to feel like there is a barrier to entry.”
In “Melt Me Into the Ocean,” Harris will use her wharf and harbor recordings, along with some deepwater recordings borrowed from the Monterey Bay Research Institute (MBARI). MBARI records and streams the sounds from 900 meters below the surface, compared to the Monterey Bay Canyon’s depth of nearly 4,000 meters—which is far deeper than the Grand Canyon. On the particular segments Harris has used, there are whales and a deep hissing echo radiating from within the canyon walls.
“What I asked [MBARI] for was not the most perfect Humpback whale song. What I wanted to hear was the mass of sound that is under there,” Harris says. “There are many different things going on, and I wanted to try and understand what the environment of that space is, and try to listen to the context of the environment.”
Harris’ main performance will be reliant on the evening light. She says instead of having an arc of a beginning, middle and end like most performances, her work is a trance-like space that doesn’t revolve on time, but rather sunlight. The diminishing light will provide a transition as it fades and her sea lion projections become clearer.
“It’s about standing on the edge of the land and looking out at the surface. How do you know the huge depth and environment that’s beneath there?” Harris says. “There are many ways, and I thought sound is a way that can ease you into that, give you a different kind of information and sensation of immersion in it.”
She says that, above all, it’s about people’s ability to stand at the edge of the ocean and imagine—and in listening to the recordings and seeing the projections, her work allows them to do that.
“It’s largely about taking time to imagine. I hope there will be more serious attention given to it if people can imagine,” Harris says. “In terms of conservation, it’s too easy and convenient to ignore the ocean, and use it just for pleasure and entertainment.”
Harris isn’t interested in the surface itself; she wants to dip below it. For her, identity is not visual or limited to the surface—it’s beyond what the eye can see. So she uses sound in an embodied experience that extends beyond visual or tangible aspects.
“If you give something a real presence,” Harris says, “then you can’t ignore it anymore.”
‘Melt Me Into The Ocean’ takes places at 3 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 11. Ocean View Park, 102 Ocean View Ave., Santa Cruz. indexical.org. Free.