Frozen sounds

On my old blog I wrote a longish article looking at how climate change was changing the Arctic, and the new strategic importance of the newly uncovered fossil fuels and shipping lanes in places once covered with ice to the countries surrounding the North Pole.

Now two different sound art/music projects have caught my attention for highlighting the ways that the role of the Arctic and the Antarctic are changing in our collective imaginations. The polar regions have always held a strong fascination, especially in Britain. Many writers have highlighted the ways that they provided a “white space” on which countless explorers, artists and writers could project their own ideas about masculine heroism and nation building. The races to the poles embody the idea of the national importance of conquering this environment, which for nineteenth century British imperialism provided one of the few limits on the reach of their global power.

Indeed, near where I grew up a whole city has attempted to brand itself in reference to a proud Arctic past. Dundee dubs itself “The City of Discovery” after the ship used in a pioneering Antarctic exploration mission led by the ill-fated Captain Scott, and the ship itself forms the basis for one of the city’s main tourist attractions, in whose visitor centre I briefly worked. The ship was built in Dundee, with the expertise that came from building ships capable of penetrating ever further North, the better to slaughter whales.

The desire to tame the Arctic, to make it useful and part of the imperial world system can perhaps be demonstrated by the centuries long quest for the North West Passage. Ironically, this legendary path may in the near future become a major shipping lane, as climate change opens up a faster route between Chinese near-slaves and Atlantic consumers through the once-frozen North.

The massive impact of human activity represented by the melting ice was not always so evident. In the face of one of the few remaining environments that resisted human control, many responded with horror. From Frankenstein to H. P. Lovecraft to The Thing, the ice has often been the hidden home of monsters and horrors.

But now the Arctic and the Antarctic demonstrate a very real horror, a palpable threat that many can’t bear to face. Ice which represents millenia long eras of freezing is disappearing at an unbelievable rate, melting which is worse than many climate change predictions had warned. One of the greatest causes of polar exploration in recent decades has in fact been the drilling of ice cores, cross sections of ice that are the hidden history of the world’s climate over huge stretches of time. The process of fossilisation that gave us the fuel to do i

t took millions of years, and now we have burnt a significant proportion of that accumulated time in about 200. Looking at the expanses of time recorded in the ice gives us an insight into just how rapidly we’re unmaking the conditions on Earth that allowed the evolution of civilisation.

As has been pointed out by the Arctic’s indigenous inhabitants, the first place we can see the changes which are going to affect all of our lives is in the Arctic. The immense quantities of water, if not locked up in ice, are going somewhere else. Contemplating the destruction we’ve brought to the ice and its consequences for any length of time is pretty terrifying, and it’s something that many people, including apparently the heads of government of the world’s powerful countries, would really rather not confront.

Terra Nova: Sinfonia Antarctica is a new work by turntablist, artist and academic DJ Spooky. He travelled to Antarctica and set up a mobile studio to make sound recordings of the changing ice-forms, put under stress by global changes. These sounds were then incorporated into a seventy minute multimedia performance featuring the sampled sounds coupled with a special score, alongside visual information conveying scientific and geographical information about the frozen continent. Below is a pretty amazing short film showing some of the sounds and sights presented in the performance:

From DJ Spooky’s site:

“In 1949 the British composer Ralph Vaughn Williams created a metaphorical portrait of Antarctica entitled Sinfonia Antarctica that he began with a poem adapted from the poet Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound:

To suffer woes which hope thinks infinite.
To forgive wrongs darker than death or night,
To defy power which seems omnipotent,
Neither to change, nor falter, nor repent:
This… is to be
Good, great and joyous, beautiful and free,
This is alone life, joy, empire and victory.

As the only uninhabited continent, Antarctica has no government and belongs to no country. Various countries claim areas of the landmass, but essentially, the area between 90°W and 150°W is the only part of Antarctica, indeed the only solid land on Earth, not claimed by any country. In the era of satellites, wireless networks, and fiber optic cables, its ever harder to see the vision that Vaughn described for his orchestral work. What DJ Spooky’s Antarctic Suite: Ice Loops portrays is a land made of complex ecological interactions. Instead of a metaphor, the composition aims to go to Antarctica and record the sound of the continent. More than 170 million years ago, Antarctica was part of the supercontinent Gondwanaland. Over time Godwin broke apart and Antarctica as we know it today was formed around 25 million years ago. Using digital media, video, and high tech recording equipment, DJ Spooky will go to Antarctica and paint an acoustic portrait of this rapidly transforming environment. . .He aims to bring Antarctica to the contemporary imagination by digitally reconstructing it: historical maps, travelers journals over the last several centuries, crystalline ice’s resonant frequencies, and the Earth’s magnet poles – will all be paints for the audio palette he will work with. Essentially, he will go to the continent and create a recording studio that will be portable enough to move all over the territory. Think of it as sampling the environment with sound – something that Vaughn could only do with metaphor in 1949. The difference Is that Miller approaches the task with a technological background that fosters a direct interaction with the territory that inspires the composition. . .

For most people, thoughts of exploration in Antarctica typically center on dogs, skis, snowshoes, and people in fur, not paintbrushes or sketch pads. Actually, art has always had a prominent place in the exploration of Antarctica. Photography began in the 1830’s and only in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was it possible to take photographs in cold environments. Therefore, it was common for explorers of polar regions to be accompanied by artists to visually record the sights and phenomena for research and for popular distribution in books and articles. In the modern era, artists continue to venture to Antarctica. Their intent is not simply to record but to provide visual interpretations of the continent, based on direct observations combined with artistic talent. . .

Miller creates a separate scenario from those envisioned by these artists by focusing on the acoustic qualities of ice and its relationship to geography.

In another film showing the project, DJ Spooky emphasises the idea of music as information, implying that his Sinfonia Antarctica communicates essential, but hidden, knowledge about the processes at work on our planet:

On the project’s page on DJ Spooky’s site there’s also a lot of Antarctic images, including posters he made to represent an imaginary Antarctic revolution.

But another project, by artist Katie Peterson, puts an even stronger focus on the melting ice. In 2007 she laid a microphone in the ever-expanding Jokulsarlon lagoon, which has been created by meltwater from Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland, and one of the largest in the Northern Hemisphere. During the time it was there the sound input from it went through to a telephone line, so that people could call a number and literally listen to the sound of the Arctic melting.

But after this process of recording she then took the process a step further. The sounds made from recordings at three other Icelandic glaciers were pressed into records that were made from frozen water from the lagoons. These records were then played continuously on a trio of turntables, creating a new sound, combined from the original recordings of a melting glacier and the actual sound of those recordings melting. The result is a powerful recreation and re-enactment of the hidden destruction created by humans in the northern part of the world. The sound itself is, especially in context, really menacing:

Sound of ice melting, on a record melting

The records that were made no longer exist, but they are preserved in the form of three DVDs, and there are clips from the original sounds on her site.

What these projects highlight for me is the changing role of the polar regions are coming to play in our culture, as they morph from the arenas for displays of heroic human achievement, to a testament to our unwitting destruction of the Earth. The fact that these two artists have used sound to allow the environments to speak for themselves, as opposed to the stock wind sound effects that once would have stood in countless Arctic-based films, is really interesting, and tries to make our intellectual engagement with what’s going on there that bit more real. The fact that at least some people, culturally, artistically and politically, are willing to engage with the scientific facts of what is happening to the Arctic and Antarctic is a source of hope in the face of the new terror: the destruction of what was once endless white.

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4 Responses to “Frozen sounds”

  1. rogerthesurf Says:

    Check this site out for the latest on the Antarctic temps.
    http://www.powerboat-world.com/index.cfm?Nid=64259&ntid=57&subid=38474&nlid=459316&tbl=Subs&pwd=u6t79a

    They seem quite disappointed really. I wonder how they justify the predictions?

    There might be global warming or cooling but the important issue is whether we, as a human race, can do anything about it.

    There are a host of porkies and not very much truth barraging us everyday so its difficult to know what to believe.

    I think I have simplified the issue in an entertaining way on my blog which includes some issues connected with climategate and “embarrassing” evidence.

    In the pipeline is an analysis of the economic effects of the proposed emission reductions. Watch this space or should I say Blog

    http://www.rogerfromnewzealand.wordpress.com

    Please feel welcome to visit and leave a comment.

    Cheers

    Roger

    PS The term “porky” is listed in the Australian Dictionary of Slang.( So I’m told.)

    • Hi Roger,

      I really disagree with some of the stuff you’ve written here and on your own blog. I really don’t want to get into a massive debate with you about climate change. It’s a scientifically proven fact. Many of the kind of common issues you raise are dealt with this in the New Scientist Guide for the Perplexed about Climate Change:

      http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11462

      In particular the issue of Antarctica, which the above guide deals with as well-the link you provided (a site devoted to power boats, a commercial sector I’m sure has a few problems with cutting carbon emissions) admits that massive warming is taking place around the world and this is having an impact on the Antarctic and the Antarctic Ocean. Here’s a quote from the article:

      “Dr. Colin Summerhayes, Executive Director of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research said, ‘Antarctica is an unrivalled source of information about our planet. This review describes what we know now and illustrates how human activity is driving rapid climate change. By integrating this multidisciplinary evidence into a single source we will help scientists and policy makers understand the distinction between environmental changes linked to the Earth’s natural cycles, and those that are human induced. The work is particularly important because it puts Antarctic climate change into context and reveals the impact on the rest of the planet.’ ”

      The article (which you linked to) goes on to list 10 key findings of the Antarctic survey report, all of which relate in some way to anthropogenic climate change. These include that carbon dioxide levels are rising at the fastest rate for 800,000 years, that Antarctica is predicted to rise 3 degrees in temperature over the 21st Century, that the Antarctic peninsula is rapidly warming as evidenced by the increase in plant life, that rapid ice loss is taking place from the West Antarctic ice shelf, and that Antarctic ice melting could contribute 1.4 metres to global sea levels.

      What you referred to is the finding that the human created hole in the ozone layer is causing cold winds to circle the continent, protecting the main body of the land from global warming, is still consistent with the overall scientifically proven warming that is taking place globally. Many suspect the hole will repair itself eventually, at which point this effect will come to an end and Antarctica proper will be exposed to the same ravages of warming as the rest of the planet.

      Of course, none of this addresses the massive melting taking place in the Arctic, which is apparent for anyone to see, as illustrated in the art works I wrote about.

      I think you should really have another hard look at the evidence and re-consider your position. Websites like yours, unintentionally I’m sure, cause a huge amount of damage. Human civilisation is in a massive intertwined ecological/economic crisis. The crisis can be resolved either be massive socio-economic change (which you seem to recognise, and which underpins a lot of your opposition to facing the facts, because you don’t want it to happen) so that we can live in a socially and ecologically just society, or the collapse of advanced civilisation and conditions of absolute misery for whatever small human populations survive.

  2. rogerthesurf Says:

    Jack,

    Thanks for your reply.

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion but there are several things I have to mention in relation to your reply.

    First of all, I and and others like me like you are particularly concerned about the health of our planet AND

  3. rogerthesurf Says:

    Jack,

    Thanks for your reply.

    Everyone is entitled to their opinion but there are several things I have to mention in relation to your reply.

    First of all, I and and others like me like you are particularly concerned about the health of our planet AND the wellbeing of its habitants. Although there is some attempt to make my blog entertaining please do not think for one moment that it is frivolous.
    Secondly you state the anthropogenic CO2 induced climate change is a proven fact. Well no matter which way you look at it, the truth is that it can only ever be an UNPROVEN HYPOTHESIS. Simply because there is no way of actually empirically proving it. And worse than that there are a number of factors which actually disprove it, such as the fact that the world has been warmer than the present in historical times without any human induced CO2 present.
    Thirdly, you state that the world is in danger. I agree but the danger does not come from global warming which ,believe it or not, history shows warming has always been beneficial to man kind, but it comes from the measures proposed to reduce carbon emisions, which not only endanger the planet by diverting resources away from the serious ecological issues that effect our world but endanger, very seriously, the wellbeing of mankind including us in first world nations.

    If you can swallow your “Faith” for a short while I recommend that you watch the following documentary which interviews emminent scientists including a number associated with the IPCC. (takes over 1 hour)

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-5576670191369613647&ei=6KhjS9PZMJvu2ALEj6CjCA&q=the+great+global+warming+swindle#

    Cheers

    Roger

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