Lost City: A Dive into the World of Oceanography

| May 19, 2017

USC Visions and Voices concert initiated by a civil and environmental engineering professor dives deep into the wonders and tribulations of the ocean through music

Hosted by Visions & Voices, “Lost City” performed live at Tommy’s Place on April 21. Photo by Valentina Suarez

“Lost City: Songs from a Changing Sea” electrified the night on Friday April 21 with a concert that swept across music genres and opened up perspectives about the life and miracles of the ocean.

The project was initiated by George Ban-Weiss, Assistant Professor of the Sonny Astani Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a passionate musician. After years of searching for a way to join his love of science and the arts, Visions and Voices gave him a platform to bring together music and “stories of the environment” with songwriter-composers Carla Kihlstedt, Matthias Bossi and Jeremy Flower. The music was performed by Kihlstedt on vocals and violin; Bossi on vocals and drums; Flower on vocals and keyboard; Ban-Weiss himself — he plays the upright and electric bass — guitarist Michael Abraham; and singer-instrumentalists Kristin Slipp and Ariel Parkington.

The songwriting duo Kihlstedt and Bossi from Woods Hole, Massachusetts, along with Flower, developed the concert’s unique structure of an entire album centered around the story of a single explorative journey. Living in a small town that carries a deep interest in oceanography, they looked to the world and resources around them to delve into a part of the environment not typically seen by the common eye.

“My mother sent me this story about a record-breaking female free-diver, Natalia Molchanova, who had, just a few weeks earlier, disappeared,” Kihlstedt said. “That never happens because free-diving is highly monitored. But in this one casual dive, she didn’t have that. They never found her body. And that story just really stuck with me. So I started looking into her and found her personal collection of poetry on diving. She spoke really eloquently and beautifully about what diving meant to her on a spiritual and philosophical level.”

This story soon became the premise of an explorative journey through song. The first song of the album introduces us to the diver as she is choosing not to return to the surface. In subsequent songs she leads us deeper into the ocean, showing us all she finds, such as whale-falls, coral, pollution and more.

Listen to: “Water is My Blood” featuring Carla Kihlstedt and Matthias Bossi on vocals

Musicians from multiple genre backgrounds added their unique sound to the “Lost City” concert, April 21. Featured here is Michael Abraham, George Ban-Weiss and Matthias Bossi. Photo by Valentina Suarez

That story came together in a blend of atmospheric and was a masterpiece of varying layers. Kihlstedt, Bossi, and Flower played on both dissonance and harmony reminiscent of the muffled distortions of sound underwater. Parkington and Slipp support Kihlstedt’s soulful, gritty alto with soft, light sopranos to create a full sound that shifts from eerie to beautiful in an instant, depending on the subject of the song.

“I never think about style or genre when I’m writing.” said Kihlstedt, who instead explains her process as an explorational and sensory mix of music and lyric writing. The style is simply something that comes as a result.

These songs weren’t a straight narration either. Each is its own deep dissection of the ocean, with inspiration from other researchers and their work, including Tim Shank and Taylor Heyl at Woods Hole Institution of Oceanography and scientist Margaret Wertheim, among others. Each song contains heavily researched information that expresses the miracles and problems of the oceans surrounding us.

“Even though it’s not a documentary piece, it has the ability to take pieces and information about the ocean and convey it in a passionate and visceral way.” said Kihlstedt.

With minimalist lyrics, the multifaceted performance pulls you into these audiovisual worlds with the same sort of introspection and wonder as an explorer venturing through uncharted territory. At one moment, it is a peaceful, soft lull that escalates in intensity as you experience the subject of each song, whether it is the Nanomia cara bioluminescent creatures or the circulation of the ocean currents or sonars of giant ships that cross the dark seas. Certainly, it was a performance and experience that can only be attributed to a group of this caliber.

Now having premiered the piece, the group hopes to continue performing under the name Black Inscription at other venues, including New York City in January, with additions in sound design and video projection to augment the immersive experience.

“I hope that people left having had an amazing concert-going experience, and feeling more innately connected to the environment than they were before the show.” Ban-Weiss said. “And perhaps the feeling of connection will help inspire people to take steps towards making their actions friendlier to the environment, even if just a little bit.”