The Marriage of Surfing and Classical Music

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New Film Combines Images of Surfing with Live Musical Performances

It is important to remember that all music comes from nature. Our instruments are raw materials transformed into works of art; musical harmony is derived from the naturally occurring overtone series that we hear when birds sing. When we go to performances of classical music, however, this connection between art and nature is sometimes lost. In the grand concert halls of urban arts districts, music is removed from its natural source. Instead, some see music as a product of a metropolitan elite, a symbol of money and sophistication. Certainly not the type of social function you would ever see a surfer attend.

A concert last week in Darwin, Australia, however, tried to remind its audience of the connection between music and the natural world. “The Reef” is a concert with film put together by Richard Tognetti, in which he attempts to marry surfing with classical music. The film shows surfers Derek Hynd and Ryan Burch—two exponents of an extreme form of surfing known as finless surfing—riding huge waves in a virtuosic display of agility and grace. Scenes of ocean and desert cinematography are interwoven with the surfing scenes. Below the screen, musicians from the Australian Chamber Orchestra provided a live soundtrack that ranges from early baroque to brand new compositions. The surfers shred to Bach and Rameau; the camera pans over cars in an abandoned desert to Ligeti’s Ramifications; a minimalist piece by Polish composer Wojciech Kilar provides a hypnotic accompaniment to quick-edited sequences of a turning windmill.

The Reef is not a film that uses music as a mere background effect. Rather, it is a rare instance of film and music working together on the same level: the images enhance the listener’s experience of the music and the scenes on screen are brought to life by the vivid live music below. It might be easy to dismiss surfing as simply a sport for guys with long hair living in warm climates, but this film helps its audience discover how, in Tognetti’s words, “surfing transforms itself into art.” The idea is not as strange as it might sound. Think about what musicians do. They transform raw materials and naturally occurring sound into an organized art that we call music. Surfers, by manipulation of waves through a set of learned movements, create a physical performance akin to dancing. If ballet has existed for hundreds of years with musical accompaniment, it doesn’t seem too ridiculous to accompany a film of surfers with music as well. Music and surfing are a form of human interaction with nature, and the marriage of the two provides striking results.

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