Environmentalist and musician Joshua Sam Miller grew up scuba diving around the world with his family. He remembers his father likening the experience to what it might feel like to float freely in outer space, an analogy Miller related to—it still resonates with him today, at 36 years old.
“I was totally at peace underwater, and the experience of feeling that way stuck with me. I wanted to bring people a direct connection to those same feelings. As a musician I saw the best way to do it was through sound,” he says.
And so, Sounds of the Ocean was born in 2019, which began as a music/sound-only concert tour through several continents, intended to connect people with life underwater through an immersive experience—basically a virtual scuba dive. The performance has since evolved to include a multisensory mix of sound and imagery created to deepen the experience.
As Miller guides the audience into the depths of the ocean, he plays wind instruments, accompanied by underwater recordings of what he calls his music partners, whales and dolphins, with breaking waves and other ocean sounds in the background.
He hopes by the time attendees come back to the surface they will have a new appreciation of the ocean and the creatures that live there. But the aim is to do more than take people on a peaceful journey and introduce them to the beauty of nature along the way. The experience comes with a message, and a clear, but gently-presented call to action.
The message: the ocean’s health is declining, hit hard by a deluge of plastics and other pollution pouring into it, impacting the animals who live there who are dwindling in number and play critical roles in protecting the marine ecosystem.
“In my travels to coastal waters in the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Ocean, I have seen plastic pollution, coral reef deterioration from land-based activity, and fishing nets floating in the sea. Some of the dive sites I visited as a child are no longer as vibrant or accessible because of our impact,” Miller says.
His invited call to action: we can help change that destructive course and begin to restore these natural resources.
“Through music, we believe we are offering a space for people to relax and feel okay. This will allow space for them to care more about issues like ocean pollution; reducing single-use plastic we are putting into the sea; and coming up with ways to stop it,” he says.
He introduces audiences to the work of non-governmental organizations (NGO) he partners with that raise awareness about ocean pollution and work to clean it up. Some proceeds from concert ticket sales, as well as proceeds from downloadable, ocean-themed albums Miller released, go directly to these NGOs, mainly Oceanic Global.
Sounds of the Ocean is expanding, both in geographical scope and in format, to reach more people and in more ways. The creative team has also added content for more impact.
The shows now incorporate imagery sourced from filmmakers and visual artists around the world to include a mix of live action footage, soft animations, and moving oil paintings. Sometimes startling, less-beautiful imagery is woven in.
“We want people to feel what it’s like to be underwater and experience what whales experience when those ships come by, and when they encounter microplastics that wind up in almost everything we can think of, including the inside of these beloved whales and dolphins, the food we consume, and on our beaches. It’s a felt experience to help people understand the impact,” Miller says.
He launched Sounds of the Ocean after meeting John Ryan, a researcher at Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).
“He introduced me to recordings taken from an offshore lab 4,000 feet underwater of different whale species and other ocean sounds, and it blew me away. It’s literally a giant underwater amphitheater in Monterey Bay Canyon, and the acoustics are excellent.
It was then that I realized the potential to bring visceral experiences to people, where they could listen without having to travel around the world themselves."
Miller and his production team are working to extend the project beyond live performances with several prerecorded formats: a FullDome film for large-format theaters and a 360-degree immersive art installation with content projected on walls and floors in open galleries. By this fall people will also be able to listen and watch at home by downloading a Virtual Reality version.
Miller has been getting the message out elsewhere—performing live at international conferences, including at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland (the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference) in 2021. More recently, he did a show at the United Nations Ocean Conference in Portugal and hosted a panel discussion presented by several NGOs before the concert as an introduction to the topic of the ocean and wellness.
Oceanic Global, which does community education and outreach around the ocean’s health, has also featured Miller’s work at events, most recently presenting a recorded performance at World Oceans Day at the United Nations headquarters.
“One of the core ways that Oceanic Global engages individuals and communities is by tapping into universal passions, such as the arts and music, to weave in key educational messages and calls to action,” says Lea d’Auriol, founder and executive director, Oceanic Global.
“Sounds of the Ocean’s beautiful, multi-sensory experience deeply connects guests with the elements of water and the ocean, which is so important as people protect what they love,” she says.
Most of the recorded instrumentation is soft percussion, primarily from the ocean, like Conch shells. Miller amplifies an African water drum with a hydrophone, meant to sooth and allow people to feel the music all around them.
He plays the clarinet as his own creative expression to take people through the journey, but he also sees it as a joyful way to converse with the mammals.
“I am trying to create a bridge between marine life and human life, and to be supportive of whales and dolphins as the lead singers. I am listening to them and responding with the clarinet, so the audience hears all of us together as a cohesive experience,” Miller says.
Attendees are guided through different depths of the sea, starting close to the surface, where they hear an ocean drum intended to mimic the sounds of waves at the surface. As they descend, they hear Tibetan sounds, like crystal bowls and gongs that are deep and grounding. On their way back up come more shallow musical pitches as in the beginning.
Miller’s performing partner and now fiancé, Elise Lein, dances at the end to welcome people back and prepare them to leave the venue.
“The audience went into the journey from the surface of the ocean to its depth - and also deep inside themselves into a meditative experience. By bringing a moving body to this scene, we tell an intimate story and guide attendees back to our world in a very gentle but strong way,” she says.
Her intention is to get people to wake up, reflect, and reconnect with their day-to-day world.
“What I personally loved is one guest’s feedback who told me, ‘It felt like a mother who tells you tenderly to wake up before the alarm clock goes off.’”
Miller too is gratified by what he hears and observes from others, especially moved by the realization that people from everywhere and with different backgrounds see the ocean’s health as a priority.
“The ocean unites us all in a neutral way. It’s nondenominational. It’s just the sea, and people all over the world care about protecting it.”
The performances carry that same spirit of unity, he surmises.
“Music has been building community since the beginning of time, and I believe that it will continue to remove obstacles and build bridges between cultures, governments, religions, and ethnicities, to overcome challenges, cultivate hope, and foster more understanding for this shared blue planet that we call home.”