Sink or Sing

Sink or Sing
Published: Mar 26, 2017
Merlyn Driver speaks to musician and performance artist Sara Zaltash about swimming the Solent to Bestival, whilst singing a 100-verse ballad about fate.

MERLYN DRIVER: At what point did you come up with the specific idea of swimming whilst singing to Bestival?

SARA ZALTASH: A couple of years ago I was in a band and we needed a way to raise money to buy a van, so we tried to think of something ridiculous that we could do to raise some money. I suggested that we all swim to Bestival. And then, erm…well I’m not in the band anymore ... it’s fine now - more than fine - but it was a bit of a messy break-up. Earlier this year I was talking with a friend who’s done some outdoor swimming. I suddenly remembered my old idea and said, “I want to swim to Bestival!” Further down the road, around April, I was working as a dancer in a friend’s show in London, and it was okay, but then I got kicked out of the aftershow party for being too drunk. Shit like that happens to me. I called up my friend the next morning - and he is also my ex-boyfriend who was in the band — and I was just fucking miserable, I wasn’t enjoying London and I’d been kicked out of this afterparty. I was just thinking “what am I doing with my life?” His advice was to just do one positive thing; just pick one thing that seems outside of your capacity and aim for it. So I was like, “Right, I’m going to swim to Bestival!” I don’t generally do anything in life if I can’t make it a performance, so I obviously had to make a performance out of it. Since all of my work is song-based, that was it. It was going to be a show, and if it was going to be a show then I was always going to sing.

MD: The writer and philosopher Allan Watts once said that having faith is like trusting yourself in water. He pointed out that when you swim “you don't grab hold of the water, because if you do you will sink and drown. Instead you relax, and float”. Singing while swimming would seem to me to make this job of ‘trusting yourself to the water’ even harder. Was sink or swim about testing your own limits?

SZ: Yeah absolutely. The major driving force behind it was the idea of trying to do something impossible to prove that it was possible! Most of my work is about transgression, and trying to do things that are supposedly wrong, or supposedly impossible; something that you either shouldn’t or can’t do. After I’d made the decision to do it, I was talking to a friend in the Navy and they were telling me “you can’t swim and sing at the same time, it’s physically impossible!” And I was like, “of course you can!”, but he was sure I couldn’t. After I actually said that I was going to do it, that’s when all of the impossibility started flooding in! But by that point I was fairly committed to it. Even if it seemed impossible, I was still going to try.

MD: So having now done it, how difficult is it to sing and swim at the same time?

SZ: It’s really fucking hard! But it’s a bit like juggling on a unicycle or something; once you get into a rhythm you can do it ‘till the cows come home. The only difference is that you’re very wet. And you get lots of water going in your mouth. Early on I used to swallow lots of it and get it up my nose. Quite quickly though, your body learns not to do that. The hardest thing was keeping momentum. You can do it for, like, a verse or two, but then you naturally want to stop singing, or just stand up in the pool and sing!

MD: Did you have to practice in a public pool?

SZ: No, thankfully not! I practiced in a lake in the Cotswolds. There were occasionally a few people there but they were triathlon types and I explained to them what it was about. They all thought I was insane. Which was insane itself coming from these ‘iron man’ guys, you know, thinking that you’re nuts! And then at the artist residency that I moved to in Gloucestershire there’s a private pool.

MD: Were you ever tempted to wear a wetsuit?

SZ: No! In fact I really wanted to do it naked, because as an art piece it seemed more fitting. But the thing is, the first thing I did when I had the idea was order a swimming costume. I tried it on in the toilets of the law firm I was working for at the time. After a while, I started wearing it even when I wasn’t swimming. So that swimming costume kind of became a part of me.

MD: On your website, you say that Sink or Sing is about “a girl who thinks too much trying to become a metaphysical Goddess”. Can you explain?

SZ: Hmm, which part?

MD: Well I’m guessing that your desire to become a metaphysical Goddess might be somehow related to your thinking too much?

SZ: Haha, yeah, I guess it reads like that! But no, it’s about something else. I’ve done a lot of studying (I’m on my fourth degree at the moment), and I’ve studied a lot about digital performance and the way that digital technology is affecting collective consciousness. I’ve also done research and practiced certain kinds of divination, like tarot reading. Something that I’ve been really interested in is how we can adapt and draw in old divination practices whilst using digital media.

MD: Are you guided by any particular religion?

SZ: Well anyone who knows me knows that I’m ‘omni-religious’. My parents are Muslim but I went to a Catholic primary school and then I spent quite a lot of time in California with a whole bunch of hippies. My aunt, who I’m very close to, is a practicing Buddhist in Tehran.

I imagine it's like rowing a slave ship: it’s not pleasurable, but it is soothing.      

MD:  We’ve already established that singing whilst swimming is really hard. But I was also thinking about things like old Gaelic worksongs where people sing to comfort themselves as they work.  Was there any point at which the singing, combined with the sound of the water, became strangely relaxing?

SZ: Yes, sort of. Much like I imagine rowing a slave ship [can be relaxing]. It’s not pleasurable but it is soothing. It’s like a balm on top of something that is already unpleasant. There were points when I got quite lost in it, especially in the practice swims that I did. It was possible to forget where I was and what I was doing and end up in quite a strange head space. It’s a bit scary when you come to and realise that you’re in the water! During the swim itself, it was quite cold. As long as I could keep singing I could keep swimming, and as long as I could keep swimming I could keep singing.

MD: I noticed that not all of the song is in English.

SZ: Well I’m Iranian. I have dual citizenship. When I was practicing I used to instinctively sing a verse in Farsi. That’s just something I do. I do a really mean Persian version of 'Wonderwall'. Just because I can. It also worked because I was raising money for cancer research; one of my aunts passed away from cancer and all of my family are Iranian. It seemed really fitting to not just have the song in English. For me, singing in different languages is normal, but for others it’s like “oooh! she’s gone foreign!”

Sarah Zaltash in a performance work, The Growing Act, February 20, 21, 2013.

MD: How much is Sink or Sing about the process of coming to terms with the limited control that we have over our lives?

SZ: Well, I wasn’t trying to present an answer about fate. The only thing that I was trying to say was that, as a concept, there’s this notion that you can’t change it. But on the other hand, people do talk about writing their own destiny. The narrative of the song, the hundred verses, is about a girl who is either trying to run towards, or away from, what she believes to be her fate. The more she tries to run towards it, the more it evades her, and the more she tries to run away from it, the more it seems to catch her up. It’s also my own narrative.

All of my work is rooted in the idea of transgression — basically an academic word for ‘being naughty’.

MD: When you finished your swim and actually reached the shore, did that represent anything for you?

SZ: Yeah, it definitely did. Half way across, I realised that I wasn’t going to finish the song. Even if I had swam really slowly, I knew that I wasn’t going to finish. So I decided about half-way across that the verse that I landed on was going to be my fate. I decided this mid-swim. There was going to be a certain mechanics to it … The performance itself finished on the Sunday of Bestival, and this was only the Thursday, so I still had these three days of re-integration after the ritual swim. I got back to the shore, and was like, “it fucking works!!! You can’t change your fate but you can read it!”

Photo of Sarah Zaltash performance by Aleks Slota.

MD: What was the verse that you came ashore on?

SZ: It was, “She sat facing forward, and she looked far, the bright wind resisting what her past was missing. The sun on the horizon seemed to sing and make her wiser but she looked away, she looked away, and she swam, she swam alone”.

MD: And how did you interpret it?

SZ: Especially during the one hundred days [of preparation], but probably during my whole life, I just spend my time saying “everything’s amazing! But I’m actually fucking busy, and I’ve got stuff to do on my computer, and I’m kind of stressed-out because I don’t have enough food”. The sun is singing, and making you wiser but you look away. I took that lesson with me for the rest of the festival and beyond.

MD: I know that most of your work is based on singing — is that simply because you like singing, or is it because singing offers you a particular set of possibilities?

SV: Well, both. All of my work is rooted in the idea of transgression. And transgression is basically an academic word for ‘being naughty’. I’m really interested in naughtiness, but not, you know, twee English naughtiness like cherries on nipples and shit like that. I mean ‘trouble’. Like Judith Butler’s idea; people say that you are ‘trouble’, and they put you ‘in trouble’, and they say that you ‘make trouble’, and it’s like, what is this ‘trouble’? Why is this happening? When I was young, I went to a Catholic school but I was Muslim, and so by the very fact of existing I was naughty. And the naughty corner — the art corner — was where I had to sit when everyone else was having holy communion and stuff. Being in all of the school shows and singing was actually one of the ways I could get the school to like me, but at home it was different. My dad never wanted me to follow a creative path and I wasn’t allowed to sing in the house — and I’m still not. So singing, again, was something that was really naughty but something that I loved. When I was three or four, stood in front of the mirror, singing to tell stories to myself and to an imaginary audience, I was probably doing just the same thing as I’m doing now. And now, in a wider, critical, academic context, I’m bringing singing into a live performance art space to radicalise singing and re-radicalise the art space. People can poo ketchup and no one cares; there are so few taboos. But to drop in a few folk songs and that to be a taboo, it just highlights the naughtiness of singing, Poo-ing ketchup isn’t naughty, but singing is!

MD: For some reason, Sink or Sing also reminds me of the sport “extreme ironing”, where people attempt to iron shirts in river rapids or upside-down in trains. Do you have any intentions to sing in even more difficult situations? I'm thinking that if you could master circular breathing then that could open up all sorts of possibilities!

SZ: Yes, I do. In the past I’ve been covered in crickets and strung up in a net which was another weird one. The next big thing which I’m planning right now, is something to do with Arch to Arc, which is a triathlon from Marble Arch, in London, to Paris. It’s called Enduroman. Basically you run to Dover, and then you swim or run across the channel, and then you cycle from Calais to Paris. A group of us are planning on doing that, but as a composition. We’re going to drum and run from London to Dover, sing and run across the channel, then sing and drum and cycle from Calleigh to Paris. When I realised that stuff like this was 1: possible, and 2: welcome, I was like, “let’s go!” So that’s the next one.

This interview was first published in The Journal of Wild Culture on October 10, 2013.


MERLYN DRIVER is a musician and writer from Orkney, a small group of islands in the north of Scotland. Trained in ethnomusicology, he makes music that reflects his exposure to Celtic folk as well as his passion for nature and different musical traditions from around the world. Merlyn lives in London.


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