A Composer in Antarctica


In November 1999, Chris Cree Brown was selected as one of two artists to travel to Antarctica with the Artists to Antarctica programme run under the auspices of Antarctica New Zealand.  He describes some of his experiences on the Ice and reflects on some of the ideas that emanated from his trip.


Despite my new protective PX5000 sunglasses, I felt my pupils retract with a snap as I peered out the cabin door of the Starlifter.  The volume of the engines, unfiltered by the fuselage, suddenly intensified.  My nose, ears and cheeks instantly began to tingle, and my lungs, having endured eight and a half hours of the recycled Starlifter air, were permeated in what seemed like frozen oxygen.  Resembling the Michelin man, I clambered down the stairs in my seven layers of clothing.  Despite these layers, the netted seating had created deep corrugations in my buttocks, which finally began their emancipation.  My mukluk-clad feet touched the hard ice and at last, I slowly surveyed my first vista of Antarctica.

Nothing had prepared me for this: not the well-composed slides, nor the well-crafted videos nor even the hours of reading the adventures of Shackleton, Scott, Amunsden, Borchgreivink or Cherry-Gerrard.   It is not surprising.  There could never be a slide that could capture the majestic spectacle of Antarctica, and even with a 360-degree pan, a video could never realise the sheer scale of the icescapes.

It had taken a week of aborted attempts to arrive.  On two occasions the crosswinds at Christchurch were too strong for the Starlifter to take off.  On three further occasions, the weather at McMurdo was preclusive, and on another occasion, at precisely the moment the plane was about to start its run down the tarmac, a cockpit window fell out, and it had taken twenty four hours for the glue to cure.


Later, in solitude and under the midnight sun, I huddled with my back to the piercing wind and allowed myself to become part of this vast vista.  We were on AFT (Antarctic Field Training) and had built a snow cave in which to sleep for the night.  The temperature in the cave was very warm, but I was hemmed in on three sides by thick ice and on the remaining side, by a rather large English glaciologist.  Eventually, I gave up my struggle with claustrophobia, and instead took the opportunity to record the polar wind.  A small plume of volcanic smoke issued from the top of Mount Erebus.  It seemed so close, as though I could amble up to the summit before breakfast.  In reality, this smoking giant was five miles high.  The clear air together with the absence of trees, buildings or other objects from which to gauge scale, meant that reckoning distance was impossible.  Sound too is a little surreal.  Not only are the Antarctic sounds unique, but also in the absence of any ambient sound, their quality is unique.  Earlier that day I had experienced this curious quality, and had felt that disconcerting, ill defined and self-conscience unease associated with one’s over loud body sounds which then seemed to thump and ooze out across the Sea Ice.  

Now the only audible sound was the perpetual and menacing lament of a polar wind.  


I had been fortunate to be given the opportunity to experience a glimpse of the continent and was primarily there to record sounds. Upon my return to Christchurch, I would dump these recordings into my computer, and use these sounds as source material for an electroacoustic composition.  My goal would be to create an expressive work of sonic art that would reflect my personal interpretation of the environment of Antarctica and my experiences in Antarctica.

I had classified the Antarctic sounds into four different categories.

i) Environmental sounds: ice cracking, breaking and rumbling on the Erebus ice tongue, tapping ice crystals, ice crystals shattering, and the various types of wind (polar wind, Antarctic white out, katabatic wind).

ii) Wildlife: various species of Penguin, Skuas, Petrels and the underwater vocalisations of seals

iii) Human activity: the effort in walking (panting), the squeaking of footprints on snow (the snow in New Zealand is not dry enough for this sound), ice breakers and the radio communications.

iv) Silence


One of the most striking aspects of the Antarctic sound world is the paucity of sound.  If, over a period of time, all sound were drawn on a map of Antarctica, the vast majority of markings would be the sound of wind.  Exclude the sound of wind, and the map would become virtually blank.  There would be a small dot representing an Adelie penguin rookery here and a small pinprick representing a Skua call there and, if in summer, perhaps a solid line between McMurdo and the centre of the map depicting a flight to the pole.  Hundreds of thousands of square miles would remain totally unmarked.  Indeed, the greater preponderance of sound sources (other than wind) in Antarctica would be of human origin.  There were two occasions when noise prevented me from making recordings.  A Hercules aircraft, at some distance hindered me from recording the snorts and bellows of a Weddell seal snoozing in the pallid sun.  The second time was at Lake Vanda where a scientist was pumping water with a diesel engine (again at some distance), preventing any recording.  These exceptions, however, accentuated the ubiquitous silence.


The Antarctic Treaty acknowledges sound ecology and has set aside some few thousand square miles where mechanical and other human noise is prohibited.  Ours is a world where noise (defined here as the undesirable sonic byproduct of human activity) and its insidious psychological consequences on humanity has largely been ignored. As the Canadian sound ecologist, R. Murray Schafer wrote in his book, The Soundscape - Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World,  “It would seem that noise pollution has reached an apex of vulgarity in our time.….”.   It is now impossible to be anywhere in the mainland of the United States for more than two minutes without a high probability of hearing an aircraft.  Even in New Zealand’s Fiordland, tourist planes and helicopters pass with an incessant regularity. While writing this paragraph there are no less than five audible concurrent sound sources that are, by the above definition, noise. 


Antarctica, by contrast, appears as a near pristine environment, not only with regard to its visual and physical environment, but also in its sonic landscape. The tranquility in Antarctica is unfamiliar and, as a consequence marginally disturbing, especially when exacerbated by the absence of ambient sound.  The sociological, psychological and cultural changes that have occurred as a direct consequence of the unrestrained increase in and excessive intensity of noise pollution must be profound.  However, it is reassuring that our species has saved some small piece of the planet in terms of sound ecology, even if there is nothing there except ice.

There is little doubt that when tourism in Antarctica becomes further established, a corresponding quantity of noise will ensue and, as elsewhere on the planet, assume a low priority in the pollution stakes.


A further striking aspect of the Antarctic sound world is the apparent incongruity of many sounds when compared to the environment.  The massive, majestic icescapes and graceful, sweeping glaciers evoke a music that embodies grand, slow moving, dense and interweaving textures.  These characteristics seem to be the antithesis of the sounds that are heard on the continent.  The sound of an Adelie penguin rookery is a babbling of squabbling jesters, and the sound of mukluks trudging on snow is like insects walking over one’s eardrum.  The Weddell seals make sounds that could be confused with sounds from the thirty-year old AKS synthesizer, and even the differing types of winds are often too unsettling to be closely associated with the land and ice forms they embrace. 

Perhaps only the Skua with its long plaintive cry finds any sonic analogy to the landscape.  I had hoped to find sounds whose morphology and spectra I could digitally transform to create abstract sounds that would reflect some of the magnificence of the continent.  This would create an expressive link between a real, unaltered and recognisable sound source and more abstract textures.  After several attempts, all of which sounded rather contrived, I resorted to using non-Antarctic sound sources for the abstract material, and into this material I reticulated the (mostly) unaltered Antarctic recordings.


Antarctica is a place of immense beauty.  The panoramas are breathtaking.  Fortunately, I have no difficulty in recollecting the diverse and awe-inspiring terrain and the ecstatic, but sometimes formidable memories they evoke: sitting on a cliff top at Cape Royds, looking out over the pressure ridges and across the frozen Ross Sea to the distant Royal Society Mountain range. Or sitting amongst a myriad of outlandishly shaped wind-carved boulders in the moonscape-like Bulls Pass.  Or scrutinising the rocks on the bottom of Lake Vanda through three metres of clear solid ice.  I will certainly never forget the celebrated Antarctic White Out.  Four of us were in a Hagglund delivering supplies to a depot for a group of scientists at Turtle Rock.  We were out on the Sea Ice, miles from anywhere and I ventured outside the vehicle, ostensibly to help tie off the provisions; I really wanted to confront the Antarctic White Out. I felt both panicky and exhilarated.  I could not see my hands six inches away, and the small parts of my exposed face stung with pain from the wind-blown ice and snow.  While I was partially relishing this experience, a little voice at the back of my mind fervently prayed that the GPS and radio equipment had been well maintained. 


Antarctica is a very different place; almost like another planet.  It is beautiful, quiet, majestic, exquisite, graceful, orderly, and yet simultaneously dangerous, deafening, menacing, violent, harsh and aberrant.

Those who return from wintering over on the continent are easily recognised by the way they spend hours examining the antics of a sparrow or staring at the shades of green in grass.


My Antarctic experience is one of the most significant and important experiences of my life.  The various moods, expansive grandeur and majestic icescapes have left a deep and enduring impression, not only on me, but also my work.


Given the opportunity, would I travel to Antarctica again? 



I succeeded in recording about half of my list of sounds, and completed the electroacoustic work, Under Erebus, a little over a year later.  I also used some of the sounds from Under Erebus for two further projects.  Firstly, for a video entitled Antarctic Heart by the sculptor Virginia King, who was the other recipient in the 1999 Artist to Antarctica programme.  Secondly, a soundscape for a dance entitled Circulus Antarcticus, choreographed by Bronwyn Judge, who was one of the recipients in 2000.  

I also completed Icescape, for orchestra that was premiered by the Christchurch Symphony orchestra in 2003.


I would like, once again, to thank Antarctica New Zealand and Creative New Zealand for their visionary programme that enabled me to experience the magic of Antarctica.


Chris Cree Brown



Under Erebus - excerpt

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