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The Audiophiles: Finding music in the sounds of Antarctica

Oona Stern /resized and cropped
Local composer Cheryl Leonard recording the sound of Antarctica

Antarctica is officially the coldest, windiest, and driest continent on Earth. At almost one and a half times the size of the United States, 98% of it is covered with thick sheets of ice. 

With a landscape like that, it seems like it would be a pretty quiet, lifeless place, right? Well it’s not.

Cheryl Leonard is a composer and instrument-maker here in San Francisco. She recorded these sounds on a trip she took back in 2009 to Palmer Station, a biological laboratory off the Antarctic Peninsula. Through her work, Leonard has documented the sounds of a place that is slowly disappearing.

Antarctica has been losing ice since at least 2002 -- and losing more of it each year. Some native species there are also endangered. This means that as time goes on, the kinds of sounds Leonard recorded will become increasingly rare. She sat down with KALW’s Martina Castro to discuss the sounds of Antarctica and how she turned them into music.

CHERYL LEONARD: I was surprised how noisy it was there! Because it was the summer and it was the peninsula so it’s on the coast and there’s a lot of wildlife, and all the wildlife is frantically trying to reproduce in the short summer. So there are lots of bird sounds, lots of sounds from different kinds of seals, lots of whales that visited us. And then you have all the sounds of the ice melting, so the ice from the glacier next to the station constantly falling off into the ocean making these huge thunderous sounds, the little pieces of ice floating on the ocean, clinking and clunking and popping as they melt – it was really quite loud (laughs).

MARTINA CASTRO: Is there a sound that was unexpected, or that inspired you, that you found particularly beautiful or interesting?

LEONARD: One day I got to go out on the glacier and get lowered into a crevasse, which is a big crack in the glacier. And inside the crevasse, because it was summer and it was melting, were all of these icicles, just like thousands of icicles. So one of my favorite sounds was the sound of the icicles. You could tap them and they each had a pitch. If you hit them too hard they’d fall off, but the sound of them falling into the depths of the crevasse and bouncing off of other icicles was really neat.

CASTRO: How cold was it?

LEONARD: It wasn’t really that cold, I have to say. I went to the warmest part of Antarctica in the austral summer, so temperatures were usually around freezing. It’s kind of like going to Lake Tahoe in the winter here; it wasn’t really that bad.

One of the pieces I’ve written from Antarctica is called “Greater Than 20 Knots,” which refers to the wind speed. If the wind speed was greater than 20 knots, you were not allowed to go out in a boat at the station. So that was a significant line in the sand there. But also when it’s that windy it’s very difficult to record and it’s rather unpleasant to be standing outside for long periods of time in Antarctica. So that’s a piece that’s all about wind. Wind is such a major force in polar environments and you can’t help but feel that when you live there for any period of time.

So the weather and the wind really defines what your life is like there, what you can and can’t do. There are days you don’t even want to leave the station, or it’s totally unsafe to leave the station. And in our sort of modern urban lives we are pretty disconnected from that, so it’s just interesting to live within those confines.

CASTRO: And so you not only were gathering sounds, but you were also gathering different natural elements to create instruments, right?

LEONARD: Yes, so the other part of my project was to collect natural objects and materials and then come to back to the U.S. and then build instruments out of them.

So these are slabs of rock from Antarctica from an island called Breaker Island, so I call them the Breaker Slabs. And I chose them because they each have a different pitch and you can play a nice melody with them.

One of the things I like to do is, you can kind of tickle (rock sounds) ... so you can kind of tickle the little rocks and they wobble back and forth and it makes a nice sound. And it’s funny! (laughs)

CASTRO: Yes, it’s definitely funny to see you tickling rocks! (laughs)

LEONARD: Well, I was doing it in my studio and then I was like, “How to describe this playing technique? I am tickling the rocks!” (laughs)

Then we have the octobone which is eight penguin bones played with feathers. I also have a little mobile thing made out of penguin vertebrae. The sound they make is very subtle and quiet but it’s very similar to some of the sounds that the ice made. And then we have the limpet shell spine, which is 10 Antarctic limpet shells played by bowing and brushing with feathers.

CASTRO: How does it affect the instrument, or maybe the music, or how you feel about playing it, to have it be made of natural objects?

LEONARD: Wow, it’s hard to articulate that! I guess I’m just kind of fascinated to see what sounds I can get out of the natural objects. And so, for me, it relates to going out in nature and exploring the world and seeing what’s out there. In a similar way, I can take a small object from nature and look at that as a little microcosm and explore what you can get out of that shell, what kinds of worlds could you create sonically with a sound from a limpet shell, or something.

CASTRO: How do you then translate those sounds into what you would call music, for you?

LEONARD: Right, so the process of composing with these instruments … Well, first you have to build the instruments, and then I might have a preconceived idea of what they’ll sounds like, but it’s usually wrong. So I have to build the thing and then I have to just do a bunch of experiments with it and see what kinds of sounds it makes. And some of them will be interesting and some of them won’t. And the ones that I like, I will then build a piece out of, or I’ll take the sounds I like from several instruments and combine them into a composition. So maybe I like the little delicate sounds of the mobile, but by itself it’s just an interesting sound, you have to shape it into some larger structure or combine it with other sounds to really make it be a piece of music to me.

One of the things I’m very interested in sound is subtle changes in sound, what we call timbre, so what kind of sound is it? Is it very pure? Is it sort of more of a gritty sound? Is it an airy, breathy sound? So those kinds of changes in texture really fascinate me.

I have to say that one of the things that this whole process has really done to me is make me realize how important quiet is, and how much we don’t have that in our lives, normally. Even when you go to the “wilderness,” in quotes, there’s still tons of sound from airplanes going by and cars. But because I’ve been focusing on really quiet sounds from these materials, and I’m in my studio, and then, you know, a bus goes by, and argh! I have to record that again. I’m much more in tune to hearing the extra noise we have in our lives.

Click the player above to listen.

This interview originally aired on August 22, 2011.

Crosscurrents Climate