The line between novel and novelty could have been easily crossed last night at Andrew (Boy) Charlton Pool at Woolloomooloo Bay. Floors Of Heaven: Submersive Study is a 45 minute dip in a 50m outdoor saltwater pool as an ambient composition by British electronic producer Leon Vynehall is broadcast on a “specialised underwater sound system”.
The ambient part is a relief: an excitable early report had described Floors of Heaven as “a rave in one of the city’s most iconic pools”, while Sydney festival described Vynehall as a “certified master of the dance floor”. Listening to his club-inflected back catalogue, I did wonder if my fellow mellow night-swimmers might end up being party-starved groups of 10, standing around the shallow end with their hands in the air. And how do you rave in a pool anyway? Sounds like a lot of splashing. Should I Google goggles?
These fears are allayed at the door where the absent DJ is quoted on a placard: “I hope to construct something close to a meditative state for the audience.”
Woolloomooloo Bay has given him a good headstart. How have I not been to this pool before, I marvel? Sydney festival is already ticking a box by introducing its residents to spots they can come to any old day.
About 100 people drift in to sit on the bleachers in their swimsuits and take in the view on this cool, yet humid night. A grey navy ship hulks a stone’s throw away and the lights of Woolloomooloo’s jungle of enviable apartments begin to flicker on.
Even the loud people’s voices modulate down to a murmur, probably because the festival isn’t bringing the buzz. There is no pre-show DJ playing some “beats” – more relief. It’s like going to a restaurant worried the food will have too much sauce, only to discover the chef has let the quality of the ingredients carry the dish. No one needs a themed cocktail in a glass they have to remember to return to get their deposit back, not when they’ve got all this. I peel a sticky mangrove fig leaf off my thong as a bat flaps across the bay. A fingernail moon peeps out from a shroud of clouds.
And, ah, those clouds. In the water on our backs, the sky is mottled peach and navy blue. The sole festival flourish are purple and pink lights that do magical shimmery things to air, sky and water. There is enough elemental eye candy to ingest that you barely need Vynehall’s submarine sounds.
Then there are the pool noodles, which are allocated on entry. Some swimmers clearly grew up wrangling these goofy-ass things and array them elegantly and with ease. One couple swiftly erects a kind of romantic crisscrossed platform.
Others make an easy job hard – though, in my defence, the task is complicated because one’s ears must be beneath the water to hear Vynehall’s tunes. Luckily, an old friend instructs me to put one beneath my neck and one beneath my knees.
Perfect! I locomote as such for most of the gig. The music is, well, ambient. Nice. Calming. It swells and retreats; it rustles and crackles. It ends in voices which bring to mind the last line of TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock: “Till human voices wake us, and we drown.” Only no one drowns. There are too many life-savers prowling the pool for that.
Eliot also wrote in Prufrock: “When the wind blows the water white and black” – also relevant. The thing is: it’s cold. And the body talks. Some are taken early, a trickle exiting the pool for a warm shower. One woman powers through a lap regime in a cap and goggles; her industry irritates me out of my trance until I realise she is probably just trying to stay warm. Eventually I ditch the noodles for a full immersion because the water is warmer than wind on flesh.
Unanimously, those I speak to afterwards say the same two things. First, they got a bit cold. Second, they could imagine the experience being more blissful on a balmier night. No one seems bummed. In the aftermath, weighing-up whether we are content or left wanting as we drip and shiver, it isn’t reality and all of its eternal shortcomings that wins. It is the hopeful little hop into imagining how this experience could have been better and choosing to be there instead.
I won’t remember Vynehall’s soundscape; in fact, it’s already gone. But I will remember his gentle Trojan horse that smuggled back to us our appreciation of these simple, sensory and so-very Sydney things in the frangipani-scented air.