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When musical composer and instrument builder Cheryl Leonard first arrived at the Palmer Station in Antarctica, she felt immersed in a plethora of sound, ranging from the bellowing of elephant seals to the crash of glaciers that were shaking off sheets of ice.
“I thought Antarctica would be very quiet,” said Leonard. “I was frankly quite surprised by how noisy it could be in the summer. A lot of it is the wildlife--they have a short time to reproduce, so they’re quite loud--and then there were the ice sounds.”
Leonard's dual interests in drawing music from natural objects, such as stone and wood, and traveling to remote parts of the world were what brought her to Antarctica. For five weeks in January 2009, she explored Anvers Island, near the Antarctic Peninsula, to collect a spectrum of sounds and natural objects that could be made into instruments.
She would ride out in an inflatable boat to record the sound of glaciers, floating pieces of ice, and icebergs. Icicles, Leonard said, have different pitches depending on their size and could almost be played like a xylophone, but one had to be careful not to tap too hard. Icebergs were also challenging because they could flip over. She had to hold her microphone at a safe distance so she wouldn’t fall into the water, while still keeping it close enough to gather sound.
“We could go up to an iceberg and it would have a lot of air trapped in it, like a bowl of rice crispies,” said Leonard. “Others would not have any air trapped in them, so they’d be very silent, but you could hear waves sloshing into the cavities inside.”
Leonard also built instruments from various items around the peninsula, such as penguin bones derived from carcasses she found along the coast. She created molds based on the icicles she came across, so that she could forge icicles for her performances. But, as one can imagine, maintaining ice instruments isn’t easy.
“Fabricating icicles takes several hours in my freezer and then I put them in a cooler with dry ice when I transport them to the concert,” said Leonard. “I remember the first time I did that, I didn’t think about how cold dry ice is. The idea is that they would drip during the concert, but we ended up waiting around for a while for them to do that.”
When it comes to composing songs, Leonard listens for aspects of these Antarctic sounds that seemed musical to her.
“I listen to them closely and pick out aspects I think are musical,” she said, “like a rhythm that seems to be repeating from the shifting ice or a melody that emerges from the animals’ vocalizations. I’ll try and create a repetition of those parts or use instruments that imitate the sounds I want.”
A year after her trip, Leonard released an album called, “Chattermarks: Field Recordings from Palmer Station, Antarctica” and began playing shows featuring Antarctic sounds. This week, she played for the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) conference in Portland, Oregon.
Leonard doesn’t intend for her work to deliver a message about climate change, but she believes that her music, in some way, can’t avoid reflecting the continent’s changing environment.
“I don’t want to preach, since my primary interest has been finding unique sounds,” she said, “but you can’t make a piece about that area without taking climate change into account.”
Leonard is currently working on a new album, consisting of nine tracks made from sounds she collected in both the Antarctic and the Arctic regions. She expects to release it sometime in early 2013.
“I’m always surprised by the range of sounds that come out of things. Like if you pick up a rock, you don’t think it would have a spectrum of sound,” said Leonard, “but it’s all about the way you play it and the way you amplify the sounds inside of it.”
Click on the links below to hear Cheryl Leonard's Antarctic Sounds.