It’s one thing to experience the wrap around sensation of a good home surround sound system, or the sonic luxury of an IMAX presentation. It’s a completely different and exhilarating experience to be immersed in sound at the centre of an acoustic chamber – like listening from the inside of a guitar.  

That’s what people experienced at one of the “Sound of Air” performances by acoustic audio pioneer Jen Reimer at the Humboldt and District Water Tower. The tower has long had a place in history and Saskatchewan architecture. Now add a performance place, most likely providing a singularly unique set of acoustic properties. 

It’s been a labour of love, said Reimer during her meet and greet on Wednesday night at the Humboldt and District Gallery. With the support of Museum and Gallery staff, volunteers and Executive Director Jennifer Fitzpatrick, Reimer set up an extensive network of microphones and inputs to record ambient noise in the tower. Those sounds were affected by wind, weather conditions, trains and a host of other sources. Reimer talked about the process of building a digital instrument to reproduce the sounds and returning to Humboldt to perform a work based on the recordings. 

“It’s totally different now that I have the composition – it was just about mixing it for the space. Placing the speakers and transducing and listening is a totally different experience. Since the last time I was in Humboldt, I’ve built this digital instrument, and now I’m here amplifying in the space, so it’s exciting to be here at this stage.” 

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While Reimer has been the engineer, composer, editor and performer helming the project, she admits she’s had support along the way. Her family travelled from Winnipeg to Humboldt to surprise her for the inaugural performance. They joined her at the Gallery opening and at the performances at the tower on Thursday. 

“This whole process has been collaborative, working with Jennifer and the team. Nobody has heard it yet, so this will be interesting.” 

The experience of the performance transcends interesting and pretty much defies description. The audience inside the tower experiences the resonant bass and low frequencies at first. As the sound washes over the listener in successive waves, the entire body, not just the ears, is drawn into the myriad upper register sounds. They variously howl and moan while they reach a crescendo and subside, occasionally punctuated by staccato ticks and knock as branches came into contact with the outer surface of the tower during the recording.   

More interesting, listeners will experience the sonic movement differently as they ascend or descend the steps of the tower. The tower is strung with 900-1000 feet of cable, seven speakers, ten transducers and a subwoofer. Controlled with a laptop through the instrument she’d designed, Reimer triggered and intensified the elements of her work. The true star of the show was the tower, which acted as the instrument itself.  

Listeners described the experience as the sound of waves from beneath the water’s surface. Others described it as a spiritual experience as the waves of sound interacted with every surface, including the bodies of the listeners. 

Much in the way Keith Emerson or Jean Michel Jarre were pioneers in innovative electronic scores, Reimer is making similar strides in adapting acoustic properties of spaces into wondrous new music. She’s not opposed to the idea of an album, or possibly a return to Humboldt for future performances.  

Jen Reimer’s auditory vision has injected a new way of experiencing an old and hallowed prairie treasure.