Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Update/Recommended Listening and Reading

I'm busy putting together a CD of my favorite undeveloped field recordings from Palmer Station, which I expect to release in January 2010. More details coming soon!
Once the field recordings CD is complete I'll focus on constructing additional Antarctic-object instruments, and writing and recording the rest of my set of Antarctic music compositions. I have three pieces finished so far, but I think there will be ten total. I'll be performing these pieces live in a series of concerts throughout 2010. Performance info will be posted here as it becomes available.

In the meantime, if you have a hankering for some stormy/icy/polar-type sounds I suggest you take a listen to the following recordings:
Jana Winderen- Heated
Jana Winderen- Submerged
Chris Watson - Weather Report
Chris Watson & BJ Nilsen - Storm
Douglas Quinn - Antarctica

And I very highly recommend Meredith Hooper's book The Ferocious Summer: Adelie Penguins and the Warming of Antarctica.


Thursday, October 15, 2009

Antarctic Instruments Part 2

Here are some photos of the instruments we are using in my first few Antarctic compositions.

Brash Ice
Things that produce popping, snapping, cracking, jingling, tinkling sounds a la underwater ice.
Rock slabs from Breaker Island, limpet shells, the Adelie Vertebrae Mobile, and some penguin leg bones (probably the tibiotarsus, and their rounded ends looks like they were gnawed on by skuas or some other predator).

Adelie nesting stones, granite rocks, more penguin bones (femurs), and bowls of melting crushed ice.

Greater Than 20 Knots
Airy, whistly, howly, windy instruments

The Bone Slug- two Adelie leg bones amplified via an Aquarian Audio hydrophone. Played with a violin bow or by pulling string across the bones it produces ominous low tones.

More rocks, of course! There are so many wonderful sounds you can make with them, including the delicate whistly wind that these two Adelie nesting stones emit when rubbed together in just the right way.

The Limpet Spine Instrument (now completed, except for a little cosmetic tweaking)- 10 mounted Antarctic limpet shells which are bowed and brushed with feathers for this piece. I have a whole arsenal of playing techniques that work great on this instrument and I expect to use it in several more of my Antarctic compositions.

The Adelie Synsacrum-
This is the bone at the base of the penguin's spine where the sacrum and several vertebrae are fused together.

Performer Ann Dentel demonstrates how to make gusty sounds by blowing on and through the Synsacrum.

And one more instrument that's not in a piece yet, but it most certainly will be: The Keel, an Adelie sternum bone.
And now it's time to get back to building more instruments and composing more Antarctic music...

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Live on stage this Saturday Oct 10th

Come see my first three completed Antarctic compositions this Saturday at Mills College. Together with musicians A.L. Dentel and Cliff Neighbors I'll be performing:

Greater Than 20 Knots- a piece inspired by the mighty Antarctic winds
Brash Ice- explores the spectrum of sounds that ice makes underwater
Lullaby for E Seals- sort of a love song for Antarctica

This will also be the concert debut of several new instruments made with materials I collected at Palmer Station, including the Limpet Shell Spine and three Adelie penguin bone instruments.

We are playing first, so don't be late!

Saturday October 10, 2009, 8pm
Littlefield Concert Hall
Mills College, 5000 MacArthur Blvd, Oakland, CA 94613
$15 general, $10 seniors and non-Mills students

Breathtaking works located at the intersection of the natural world and new technologies. Nick Didkovsky performs new solo works for prepared electric guitar, electronics, and software. Krys Bobrowski's works feature everyday objects and invented instruments made from natural materials. Cheryl E. Leonard premieres compositions for amplified natural objects and field recordings from Antarctica.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Antarctic Sounds in Seattle

Should you be in the Seattle area in the next couple of months you can hear some of my Antarctic field recordings accompanying an exhibition at the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Selections from my recordings of Adelie penguins, icebergs, brash ice, wind and glaciers will be playing in the exhibition space.

Wonderous Cold: An Antarctic Journey
October 3 - November 29, 2009
A new exhibit at the Burke Museum of Natural History of Culture offers a glimpse at the life of researchers on the world’s most hostile continent – Antarctica – through large format photographs, displays of camp equipment, and presentations of recent research findings from the University of Washington.

And, as part of the opening day festivities I will be speaking at the museum about my adventures at Palmer Station.

Opening Day October 3rd
10:30 am - Dr. Christian Sidor, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Burke Museum, will discuss two expeditions he undertook to Antarctica where he collected 245-million-year-old fossils that are now part of the Burke's collection.

11:30 am - Cheryl Leonard is a composer who visited Palmer Station last January on an Antarctic Artists and Writers grant from the National Science Foundation. During her month on the ice she explored the local islands and glaciers, searching out and recording natural soundscapes. The Antarctic Peninsula in the austral summer is full of wildlife, icebergs, melting glaciers, and fascinating sounds. Leonard will share stories, photos, and unique audio recordings of wind, ice, birds, and animals from her adventures at Palmer Station.

1 pm - Dr. Eric Steig, director of the Quaternary Research Center and professor of Earth and Space Sciences, will discuss what ice core records reveal about long term Antarctic climate change.

2 pm - Thomas Tobin is a second-year graduate student in Earth and Space Sciences and Astrobiology at the University of Washington. He will discuss his field work traveling to Antarctica by boat to explore the Cretaceous Tertiary mass extinction that occurred there 65 million years ago.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Instrument Building Part 1

I've been experimenting musically with the limpet shells and Adelie Penguin bones that I brought back with me from Antarctica, working to uncover the palette of sounds they contain.

My first exciting discovery: the limpet shells can be bowed. Played this way they produce clear, singing, high tones, similar to bowed glass. Each individual shell has its own pitch and I've picked out a set of shells/tones that (to my ears) work well together.

I'm eager to use the shells in a composition, but it's pretty tough to bow them while they're just lying on a table, so first I have to figure out a good way to mount them. This is a bit tricky because I don't want to do anything destructive (like drilling) to my limited supply of irreplaceable shells. Also they resonate best when held/clamped in the center of the shell (imagine a tiny cymbal), otherwise the sound vibrations are dampened and only a very dull airy tone results.

My first attempt at mounting a limpet shell worked, but was pretty ugly visually. It's just too mechanical for my taste.

I'm much happier with yesterday's second attempt, which is more organic-looking. What you see here is just a prototype. The finished instrument will have 10 shells, all mounted in a row along/above one large piece of driftwood. Time to go back to the beach in search of more thin, curved pieces of driftwood to hold all the shells in place...

Yes, I know there are no trees in Antarctica, but I've decided to use driftwood in constructing my instruments anyway. I considered other materials (metal, plastic, ceramics, non-penguin bones), but none of these would have originated in Antarctica either, and most options seemed even further removed from the natural world. At least driftwood is an organic material. It is easy to work with and the bleached forms blend well visually with the limpet shells and penguin bones. Also I like the fact that driftwood comes to us via the sea. I am reminded that the Pacific (which my local specimens travel through) extends far to south, down to where the Antarctic Circumpolar Current connects and mixes its waters with those of the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. It's also fun to think back in geological time to the eras (40 million plus years ago) in which trees did grow in Antarctica.

One of the instruments I am making with my Adelie Penguin bones is a vertebrae mobile. The suspended bones make delicate muted clinks, similar to some of the sounds I heard small bits of brash ice produce. Examined up close, the vertebrae have intricate structures and are quite beautiful. Many of them bring to mind tiny alien spaceships and I like the idea of taking bones from a flightless bird and making them float in the air.

This is what the mobile looks like so far, but it's not complete yet. When finished there will be 20 or more suspended vertebrae.

And now, back to work!

Monday, July 27, 2009

Antarctic Late Night Snack

I am busy working on my official Antarctic musical compositions, but they are not ready to share just yet. In the meantime, here's a conceptual piece which I wrote shortly after returning from the Ice. This piece was inspired by the sounds and events of my camping trip on Old Palmer Island (see the Night of the E Seals story here). It's dedicated to Palmer Station and I'm told a copy of the score now hangs in the galley there...

Antarctic Late Night Snack

Begin with one secret island cove, whose name changes several times each year. Line its edges with slowly melting walls of ancient ice 20 to 40 feet high. Roll small crumbs of ice down the walls, jingling sparsely.

Add bergy bits and brash ice to taste and stir gently with an ebbing tide.

Place 2 to 3 small heaps of dozing Southern Elephant Seals (4 - 7 per pile) along the sides and pepper with occasional hurrumphs, sputters, snores and sighs.

For the main course throw 8 to 10 additional Elephant Seals into the water in the center of the cove and frolic freely. Periodic breathing and splashing should punctuate the night. Be sure to include a healthy dose of loud, otherworldly calls, echoing both above and below the water.

Savor up close for several hours until well after midnight. When you can no longer feel your toes retire to a cozy tent. (Be careful to avoid frostbite.) Sip hot tea nestled in a warm sleeping bag and enjoy the lingering echoes until dawn.

Cheryl E. Leonard 2/19/09
for Palmer Station

(Copyright 2009 Great Hoary Marmot Music. All Rights Reserved.)

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

October 10th - Save the Date

I'll be premiering the first few works from my set of Antarctic compositions in October. Look for pieces inspired by brash ice, Adelies, and a lullaby for E Seals...

Music by Cheryl E. Leonard, Nick Didkovsky and Krys Bobrowski
Saturday October 10th, 8pm
Mills College Concert Hall
5000 MacArthur Blvd, Oakland, CA

Mark your calendars. More details coming soon.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Penguin Bones Are Here!

Since my return from Antarctica I have been slowly sorting through the materials I collected and, of course, all my memories and experiences. I have hours and hours of audio recordings, 3500 still photos, and 20 hours of high definition video. The goal is to create a set of musical compositions with a visual accompaniment from all these media and ideas. I am very inspired to make them, but it's going to take a while.

I am happy to say that the last of my Antarctic materials arrived yesterday: my Adelie Penguin bones. Don't worry, no penguins were harmed for this project, I just collected bones I found laying around from birds that were long dead from natural causes (probably mostly those fat skuas!). Anyhow now, nearly 3 months after I left Palmer, the penguin bones have finally made their way through the maze of shipping and customs hoops and are in my possession. They join my modest collection of shells and stones, which arrived in March, and soon I will begin exploring their potential as musical instruments.

For the moment, however, I am content to just unwrap and hold them, these small pieces of evidence (they even came in plastic ziplock bags) that my Antarctic adventure really happened. Here in the midst of "normal" life in San Francisco sometimes my stay at Palmer Station seems as remote as a murky dream, and I wonder if I just imagined it all. Of course it was real, and all I need do to bring it all back is remember the feel of ice bumping against our zodiac, the smell of penguin poop, or the rumble of the glacier calving in Arthur Harbor. Plus I have all my audio, video and photography documentations to vividly jog my memory.

Still, sometimes there is nothing like touching an object actually from Antarctica to make me feel connected to this distant land.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Scott Sternbach: Antarctic Souls

Fellow Antarctic Artists and Writers Grantee Scott Sternbach's photographs from Palmer Station, Antarctica are now on display at La Guardia Community College, Long Island City, New York. I strongly recommend seeing them in person if you can!

Photographs by Scott Sternbach
April 3 - May 31, 2009, Opening reception April 16, 6-9pm

E-Building Atrium
31-10 Thomson Avenue
LaGuardia Community College
City University of New York,
Long Island City, New York 11101

You can view some of Scott's work online at: http://www.lagcc.cuny.edu/ph/

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Heading Home

On February 9th my adventures in the south and this research phase of my project came to an end. From the Punta Arenas airport I flew north: Punta Arenas to Santiago, Santiago to Dallas/Fort Worth, Dallas/Fort Worth to San Francisco, aka home.

Now it's time to begin digesting all that I have gathered and learned so that I can make music out of it. What an amazing trip it has been!
Patagonian glaciers enroute from Punta Arenas to Santiago

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Chilean Pinguinos

It had not even been a week since my departure from Palmer, and only a day had passed since I disembarked from the Gould, but I had to admit that I already missed being out in a Zodiac, and I missed seeing penguins. So, as my Palmer friends departed Punta Arenas one by one, I decided to book a little tourist trip out to see some Chilean Magellanic Penguins.

Early in the morning, along with an international collection of tourists, I boarded a covered Zodiac that held around 20 people. It was quite a windy day in this part of Chilean Patagonia. Summer winds here can be so strong (often up to 60 knots!) that they will knock you over as you try to walk, and in Punta Arenas some intersections even have chains installed to keep pedestrians from being blown into the streets. And so, the tour guides explained that our boat ride out to Isla Magdalena would be a bit choppy today and they advised the weak of stomach to sit in the rear of the Zodiac. Proud to now be a bit of a boating expert, I gleefully positioned myself in the front, and smiled as the boat smacked against the wind-driven waves.
After a thrilling, butt-bruising ride we arrived at Isla Magdalena, which is part of Los Ping├╝inos Natural Monument. Here a large colony of over 60,000 pairs of Magellanic Penguins were breeding. As I stepped off the pier onto the island my first thought was "Wow, they smell so much better than the Adelies!" This is probably not what goes through most people's minds when they first arrive at Isla Madalena but, having never been a smoker, I possess a very sensitive nose and to me the difference in fragrance was striking (and much appreciated)!

The Magellanic Penguins were about the size of the Antarctic Adelies, and their chicks were at approximately the same adolescent stage of development as Torgersen's Adelies had been at the end of my stay at Palmer: molting off their fluffy chick coats and starting to fledge.
Instead of building a nest of stones, the Magellanic Penguins lay their eggs in underground burrows, and the island is literally covered with them.While strolling along the fenced-off pathways that lead around the island, I let the other tourists go on ahead of me, hoping for a chance to record these new penguins. Though I suspected the winds might be too strong for even my mighty Sennheiser windscreen, I pulled out my recording gear and searched for a sheltered place on this barren island where I could set up my microphones. Turns out there was no good wind shelter to be had. I tried to use my body to shield the mics, but those crafty Patagonian winds just wove their way around me. Here's a sample of the best recording I could make in these conditions.
Our next destination was Isla Marta, home to more Magellanic Penguins, cormorants (who nest in the island's cliffs), and a large colony of sea lions. As we approached the island in our boat a raucous din of sea lions groans and howls greeted us. The beach was covered with the squirming brown shapes of hundreds of sea lions and curious heads popped up out of the water next to us.

You are not allowed to land on Isla Marta (it's protected), so we hovered just offshore in our boat for a while: the tourists gawking at the sea lions and the sea lions gawking at the tourists. It must have looked pretty hilarious, as we humans took turns sticking our heads out of the open areas at the bow and the stern of the boat, and the sea lions took turns sticking their heads out of the sea, both species wondering what the other was up to.

And then it was time for the bumpy return to the mainland, followed by a van ride through wind-scoured landscapes and back into the city of Punta Arenas.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Viva la Oona!

It was the morning after our arrival in port and nearly time for Oona to head to the airport and begin the series of flights that would bring her home to Brooklyn, NY. The two of us took a final stroll together through the streets of Punta Arenas, enjoying the strange mix of architectural materials and styles (including some very elegant uses of corrugated sheet metal), the abundance of unusually attractive and healthy-looking stray dogs, the now-familiar scrambled mess of overhead wiring, and other quirks and details of the city.
Even though we had been a team for the last 6 weeks, and I had lots of photos of Oona and she had plenty of me, we realized that no pictures existed of the two intrepid Artboat #66 Co-Captains together. When you consider that we had just shared an entire Antarctic adventure, this was quite ironic, and needed to be remedied before we flew off to opposite sides of North America. So, up on a hill overlooking Punta Arenas we asked a stranger to take our photo.

Oona Stern and I had been thrown together by the logistical considerations of the United States Antarctic Program. Before our arrival on station it had been decided that we would be both boating partners and roommates at Palmer, which meant that we would be spending almost all day, every day together. One Palmerite is said to have remarked: "I hope they get along, because they're really stuck with each other." It could have been a complete disaster, but instead I found that I couldn't have asked for a better adventure buddy, boating cohort, artistic accomplice, and friend. And she sure can kick my butt when it comes to throwing snowballs!

Together at Palmer we had learned to drive Zodiacs through the brash, tie up to an island, set a stern anchor, remove ice from the underside of the boat, and judge when the weather was turning. We had been honked at by penguins, squeaked at by terns, and dive-bombed by skuas; pursued by Leopard Seals, huffed at by Fur Seals, and snored at by Elephant Seals. We had descended into crevasses, circumnavigated icebergs, and gasped as ice calving from the glacier produced a wave we were certain would flip our boat (I am happy to say that it didn't. By the time the wave reached us out in deep water it just made the Zodiac bob up and down gently. Pheww!). Inside the station we had struggled to make it to the galley before hot breakfast ended, scrawled many a silly callsign on the blackboard, wondered how best to interpret all the weather charts and graphs, learned how to House Mouse and GASH, and Oona even mastered some of the finer points of Palmer's preferred card game: Australian 500. And through all this we had not just managed to get along, but been incredibly productive and rustled up a lot of fun along the way.

Thanks Captain! I hope we get to adventure together again soon...

Be sure to check out Oona's blog http://www.antarcticice.blogspot.com/ and keep an eye out for her work.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Back on Land in Punta Arenas

On the morning of February 6th, having completed her passage through the Strait of Magellan, the Laurence M. Gould approached Punta Arenas. Eager to set foot on land again after 4 1/2 days at sea, many of us (especially those who had suffered from seasickness) were once more outside on the decks. I marveled at the rich green hills in the distance, the chaotic jumble of colors and forms that comprised the city, and the fact that we were no longer alone. There were many other ships in the water around us now and a whole urban world awaited onshore. What a change this would be after living in the small, vivid communities of ship and station. I wasn't sure if I was quite ready to be back in the "real world" again, but it was upon me.

Although many people describe their time on the Gould as a kind of grueling purgatory that must be endured in order to get to/from the Antarctic Peninsula, I was happy to have had shipboard segues bookending my time on the Ice. Heading south, these days in transit let me fully relish the unknown, to deliciously wonder what lay in store for me at the bottom of the world. Northbound the Gould granted me precious time in which to savor my experiences before plunging back into regular life. I almost felt sorry for people who travel to McMurdo. These folks access Antarctica from New Zealand via a military cargo plane in a matter of hours. What a rude shock it must be to drop abruptly into such drastically different environments and cultures.
As Oona and I watched, the pier grew closer and closer and then the Gould turned and slowly backed into place alongside the dock. We had finally arrived, and despite my mixed feelings about the impending end of my great Antarctic adventure, I found I really was excited about going ashore.

However, we had to wait just a little longer before we could cross the gangplank, as were not allowed to leave the ship until it was safely tied up and the Chilean immigration agents arrived onboard to stamp our passports and officially grant us reentry into their country. In the meantime I amused myself by peering out the galley portholes at Punta Arenas,
and adding a Laurence M. Gould stamp to my passport alongside the ones I got at Palmer Station. I'm not entirely sure why we are allowed to have stamps from Antarctica and Antarctic research vessels, and they hold no legal significance (remember Antarctica is a whole continent ostensibly not owned by anyone). Still, I am delighted to have passport evidence of my journey.
And then, after an hour or so, we were gleefully strolling down the pier. It was time to set foot on verdant land once again and, perhaps more importantly, to get some fresh lunch!
Stepping back onto land in the midst of "The Most Austral City in the World" my first impressions were of how busy and messy everything was: visually, sonically, aromatically. After the austere, relatively spare world of Palmer Station, and the contained realm of the ship, I was suddenly affronted by too many options. Everything seemed to mirror the confused tangle of cables suspended above our heads as my friends and I wandered up Punta Arenas' sidewalks. Whereas at Palmer there had been one bumpy, gravel "road" that ran for only a couple hundred feet, here a maze of interlaced streets stretched out before me. The city's brightly painted buildings and corrugated rooftops came from a color palate that had expanded exponentially from the whites, grays and blues that dominate Antarctic landscapes. The scents of penguins and elephant seals wafting across the water from nearby islands had been replaced by diesel and gasoline fumes, scrambled restaurant food odors, and the earthy smells of things growing in dirt and a profusion of human and animal life.

As for the soundscape: well cacophony really is the appropriate word. Engines and motors of all kinds surrounded us. Everywhere I looked the world was overrun by people: chatting, arguing, laughing, coughing, and clomping. This incredible layer of "background" noise was punctuated by the occasional doorslam, tolling churchbell, or altercation between street dogs. Even after living with the blaring drone of the ship's engines for days on end this was quite overwhelming at first. Since Punta Arenas is not even all that big of a city (around 130,000 people), I wondered how I was ever going to adapt to hearing San Francisco when I arrived home.

Luckily yummy food awaited us, and the growling of my stomach soon overrode my other senses. Even though I was a vegetarian in a place where people seem to eat a lot of meat, it was thrilling to have so many food options again. And after a month away from freshies, the fact that there were whole stores full of ripe fruit and vegetables seemed nothing short of miraculous!

In the evening, after settling into our hotels, and strolling and eating our way around town (One of my friends had 3 or 4 different lunches. All afternoon he just kept moving from one excellent restaurant to the next.), Oona and I gathered for a beer with some of the researchers from the LTER cruise. Then it was off to a final dinner with our fellow Palmerites. Tomorrow many of them, including my amazing Artboat co-captain Oona, would be jetting north or heading off to other South American adventures. I, on the other hand, would be staying in town for a couple more decompression days before flying home.

I was so excited about our desserts that I couldn't resist photographing them.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Evening in the Strait of Magellan

I was thoroughly ensnared in a leather sofa and "The Lord of the Rings" when one of my birder friends rushed in the back door and excitedly announced that there was a rainbow outside. Happy to have an incentive to escape the clutches of the Gould's lounge I wrestled myself out of the sofa and climbed out onto the back deck of the ship.And there it was: a complete 180 degrees of vivid double rainbow that straddled our wake and stretched all the way across the horizon from port to starboard. We had entered the Strait of Magellan and now in the evening light I could see low-lying land on either side of us. The waters were calm and it was actually warm outside. The air was decidedly humid, something I had not experienced in 6 weeks (even right next to the sea the air in Antarctica is quite dry due to the cold temperatures), and smelled faintly of land and vegetation. We had arrived back in Patagonian summer and boy was it lovely!

As news of the rainbow traveled throughout the ship, one by one folks gathered outside on the Gould's many decks. Hermits I had not seen for days (hibernation seems to be a popular strategy for dealing with crossing the Drake) emerged and started chatting happily with their shipmates. Many of us had cameras out to photograph the rainbow, but you could only capture short segments. It was far too immense to fit even in a wide angle lens.There was a festive mood onboard and everywhere I looked people were just beaming. And why not? It was our last night on the Gould and tomorrow morning we would arrive back in port at Punta Arenas. There we would have solid ground again, beds instead of bunks, plenty of excellent restaurants to choose from (the Gould had last been supplied with fresh fruits and vegetables 6 weeks ago, and although the food onboard was OK, the vegetarian options had been less than exciting of late), and for those who like to drink, bars aplenty (the Gould is a dry ship so many folks were really looking forward to this). Some people were happy to be heading home to their families and lives in the Northern Latitudes, while others were eagerly planning adventures in Cerro Torre or other parts of Patagonia. Many of the crew would be heading back out on the Gould's next Antarctic cruise, but they were looking forward to nearly a week in port first.

To me the rainbow was a giant smile from the world. It was the perfect punctuation to mark the end of a benign crossing of the Drake, a successful journey, and a wondrous stay in Antarctica. I lingered outside, savoring the evening, as the rainbow slowly faded and a brilliant sunset took over.