Friday, January 30, 2009

Antarctic Instruments

During my stay at Palmer Station I have gathered some natural objects to bring home with me (normally removing materials from Antarctica is prohibited but I have a permit from the NSF to take them as part of my project). I've packed a box full of my "scientific samples" and am shipping them back to California. Once I am back in my studio I will amplify these materials and experiment with playing them in various ways to see what kinds of musical voices they contain. Some of the objects will be played "as is" and some will be used as building materials for new instruments I will be constructing the months ahead.

Here's what I'm bringing back with me:

Limpet Shells

On my very first excursion out into Palmer's chaotic, rubble-strewn backyard I found a few scattered limpet shells amongst the rocks. I had wondered if I'd find any shells around Palmer and here were some already on my first day. What luck! Delighted, I grinned like a small child in a treasure hunt and greedily gathered up all the shells I could find, which was about 5 or 6. They clinked and jingled as I turned them over in my palms and wobbled them on a flat granite slab. "Ah ha," I thought, "and they are musical too!" I excitedly returned to the station to show off my find. Strangely folks did not seem all that impressed. I thought this a bit odd because I had walked all over the backyard and had only been able to find a few of the shells. Therefore, surely they must be a rare and glorious find.

Shortly thereafter I went on a boating excursion to DeLaca Island. As soon as I scrambled up onto the island's stony ramparts I was greeted with the motherlode of limpet shell collections: all over DeLaca's rocky ledges shells were piled up by the thousands. Suddenly I understood people's lack of enthusiam about limpets- they were everywhere.
As it turns out Antarctic limpets (Nacella concinna) are very common in the Antarctic Peninsula. They are found in shallow waters and are an important food source for gulls and sea stars. The giant piles of limpet shells that I saw were the remains of many, many Kelp Gull meals. Apparently the gulls swallow the limpets whole and then regurgitate the shells. Another cool limpet fact: if they don't end up as food, limpets can live to be a hundred years old. In contrast to other kinds of limpets, Nacella concinna grows very slowly and there is concern that as water temperatures rise in the region these limpets will have difficulty coping (Read more here). So, perhaps someday it really will be difficult to find limpet shells near Palmer, but for now, they are everywhere.

Nonetheless, I remain excited about the musical potential of the limpets. Their shells produce clear, ringing pitches and I look forward to playing with them. By the way, I did look long and hard for other kinds of shells, but even though I know there are other shelled critters living in this part of the Southern Ocean I never found any on land. Maybe I need to take up Antarctic diving...


I must admit that over the last few years I have become quite the rock collector. Often it's the color, an unusual pattern, polish or shape that attracts me. Other times a reflection of light or metallic glitter catches my eye. And sometimes it's the sound: the melodious clatter of a dislodged stone as it falls or a sonorous chiming underfoot as I walk across loose scree. I have gathered stones from two islands here in Antarctica, Torgersen and Breaker, both home to strikingly musical rocks.

Soon after my arrival on station Jon Brack (cargoperson and photographer- check out his photos of Palmer here.) told me about some pitched rocks he'd found on Breaker Island. He had discovered a stone wall with loose sections that could be rattled to make melodies. Of course I was intrigued and, eager to hear them myself, I planned a trip as soon as possible. Because the tie-up point on Breaker is often exposed to large ocean swells, it can be one of the more difficult islands to land on. It took a little while to find a day when visiting Breaker was possible but finally, one grey afternoon when it was threatening to rain, a small group of us made it out there.

Even in the misty, threatening weather this small island was fascinating. The boat tie-up point was on a nearly vertical wall that we had to climb up carefully, lest we slip and fall into the cold, deep waters below. We emerged onto Breaker's top between two Giant Petrel nests and then wandered off across the island to an area full of pools, whose intriguing angled shapes resulted from the way the island's rock fractured. This granitic rock tended to break off in plates which were often resonant and pitched, and there were many rock faces with loose pieces that made interesting sounds. Jon and I searched for the specific wall he had played previously, but it was not to be found. Perhaps the rock pieces had broken off since his earlier visit. Our trip was still a success though, because during our quest we came across a number of other locations that were playable and found many good-sounding loose rocks. I later went back to Breaker, did some improvising at some of these sites, and gathered a small set of pitched Breaker stones to bring home.

The other rocks I have are from Torgersen, site of several Adelie Penguin colonies and land of the musical penguin footsteps (see the January 23rd entry below). This island has the most interesting spiny-shaped rocky outcroppings. And it is full of wonderfully melodious stones.
The number of Adelies nesting on Torgersen each year has been decreasing rapidly (read more about it here and here) and it is easy to pick out the areas that used to house colonies. The Adelies build their nests out of small stones, so large piles of these polished, much-handled rocks indicate where a colony used to be. It is sad to look around the island and see so many of these abandoned sites and to know that most likely within the next 10 years Adelies will no longer be nesting on Torgersen or anywhere in the Palmer area.
I have a small handful of stones from one of these sites. They chime like little pieces of glass.

Adelie Penguin bones

Scattered among the rocks of many of the islands I often found small white bones, usually the remains of Adelie Penguins. On Torgerson, and other islands where Adelies nest, remains are readily found on the outskirts of colonies. Here skuas have staked out territory and are on the lookout for weak chicks or injured adults that they can attack and eat.

Being a bit squeamish about dead things I only collected bones that were already clean and mostly bleached by the sun. I have a lot of them, maybe close to 100 pieces. Once they arrive back in San Francisco I'll be building instruments out of them. Stay tuned in the coming months to see and hear what I construct.

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