Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Punta Arenas, Chile

Greetings from Punta Arenas, Chile. After three plane flights both myself and my luggage have made it here intact, though it was looking a bit dicey for a while there. It was critical that I make it to South America in a timely fashion because if I missed the boat to Palmer Station I would have to wait a month for the next one! I'm sure it would be fun to have a Patagonian adventure, but I do really want to go to Antarctica.

My first flight, to Dallas, Texas was delayed by more than two hours and it landed 14 minutes after my plane to Santiago was supposed to depart. Fortunately there were so many delayed flights with passengers that needed to catch the Santiago one that they held the plane for us AND our luggage. So, after a mad sprint across the Dallas terminal laden with 40-pounds of carry-on bags bulging with expensive and delicate recording equipment, I made it onto the plane, lungs burning but much relieved.

What followed has to be the coldest airplane ride I have ever endured, and unfortunately it was over 9 hours long. All night, by the window in the drafty exit row, I huddled under two fleece jackets and my scanty airplane blanket, attempting to find a way to get into the fetal position in my coach-sized seat. The experience reminded me of spending an unplanned night on the side of a mountain wrapped in a space blanket (which I must admit I have done a few times). At one point I looked up at the video monitor that was tracking our plane’s progress on a map of South America and it said that the temperature outside was a balmy -39 degrees Celsius.

In Santiago, thankfully, being the Southern Hemisphere, it was suddenly summer and quite a bit warmer. Myself and the other USAP (that's United States Antarctic Program) folk gathered in the baggage claim area and slowly met each other as we collected our bags. Our luggage all sported the USAP’s signature ice-blue, penguin-motif name tags so it wasn’t too difficult to identify who was with our group. We were met by an AGUNSA agent named Jimmy who helped us make our way through Chilean immigration and onto our next flight, to Punta Arenas. Jimmy has been wrangling USAP travelers through the Santiago airport for 25 years and I have to say he was really good at managing our lengthy caravan of luggage carts and bleary-eyed Antarctic scientists, artists, and staff. Our last flight arrived in Punta Arenas in the evening and we were shuttled to our hotels. Finally, after over 30 hours of travel, a chance to be horizonal, brush my teeth and change my clothes! Very exciting!

Today we will get our ECW (Extreme Cold Weather) clothing and then board the ship in the evening. Hopefully tomorrow we will be on our way to Antarctica, but right now the winds are blowing incredibly strong and operations at the port are temporarily shut down. We'll see.

Here's what the beach looks like here. Look at all the white caps!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Heading South

Well, I'm trying to anyway. At the moment, due to flight delays, I am just waiting at my gate in the San Francisco airport. This means I haven't even left my hometown yet, but hopefully soon I will be en route to Antarctica.

It takes about a week to get from California all the way down to Palmer Station. First I have two days of flying (possibly more with weather delays). From San Francisco I fly to Dallas, then from Dallas there's an overnight flight to Santiago, Chile, and then from there we fly to Punta Arenas, Chile. In Punta Arenas I will check out Extreme Cold Weather Clothing. This is the super-spiffy polar-specific clothing that the NSF loans us to use while on the Ice, including the signature big red parka that you see everyone wearing in photos from Antarctica. Then I will board a research icebreaker ship, the Laurence M. Gould, and sail south for about four days to the Antarctic Peninsula and Anvers Island, where Palmer is located.

Oh, we are getting ready to board now...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

How to play natural objects as instruments

When people learn that I am a musician inevitably their first question is "What kind of music do you play?" I'm never quite sure how to answer this because when I say that I make experimental music using amplified natural objects as instruments most people have no idea what I am talking about. So, in case you also have doubts about my sanity, here is a little background on how one can make music with things like rocks, water, feathers, bones and so forth, which is a big part of what I will soon be doing down in Antarctica.

There are many ways in which you can get items from the natural world to produce interesting sounds. Solid objects like wood, stone, leaves, feathers and bones may be bowed, brushed, rubbed, tapped, blown through, or set into motion in various ways. Materials such as water and sand can be dripped, drained, stirred, sifted, poured and filtered. These playing methods produce a great spectrum of sounds, from clear, pitched tones to gritty, textural noises, and each specific object or material contains its own unique voices. One of my favorite sounds, used in my work Ziran, are the muted flurries of delicate melodies made when flower petals are dropped on an amplified pinecone. Other sounds I am particularly fond of include the changing rhythmic patterns of wobbling rocks, and swooping sounds made by bowing dried leaves while changing their proximity to a microphone. You can hear some mp3 excerpts from my past compositions with natural-objects here.

One of the most exciting parts of working with these unusual instruments is the time I spend impersonating a mad scientist. My search for music hidden within objects and materials from nature includes a lot of sound-making experiments. Sometimes I start out with a hypothesis (I think that if I bow this boa constrictor rib bone it will make howling wind sounds) and sometimes I don't (This is when I just try random crazy things, and I have found some of my best sounds this way). Often my experiments fail - meaning I discover nothing new, or yet another irritating sound (it's surprisingly easy to find sounds that resemble fingernails scratching on a chalkboard). Every so often I have what my father, an engineer and inventor, calls a eureka moment. For me this is when a fascinating new, and often unexpected, voice jumps out of a leaf or stone or whatever I am playing with that day.

Like many scientific explorers I use tools and techniques that have only recently become available in order to gain access to previously unvisited realms. Because many of the sounds that natural objects make are very quiet I use microphones and amplification to enable me to hear them, record them, and to play them live on stage. In Antarctica I will be using contact mics, condenser mics and hydrophones. I will write more about the specifics of my Antarctic field recording equipment in a future post (specialized gear is needed to record in the Antarctic Peninsula's cold, wet, and windy climate- mostly the kind of audio equipment used in location film shoots and nature field recording). I love exploring the micro-aural worlds that these tools reveal within a rock, pinecone, leaf, or bucketful of water, playing with the phenomena I find there, and building musical compositions out of these sounds. Aside from amplification I use no other other electronic effects in my natural-object music. It's not that I don't like reverb, flanging, delays, distortion and so forth, I simply don't need them to make this music. The sounds I find in these instruments are already so unusual and rich.

Once I find a collection of sounds that fascinate me it's time to start creating an actual composition. After all, just having a set of novel sounds does not equal music, it's what you do with them that makes them musical or not: all the details of how you play the instruments and how the sounds are put together. When I am composing I sculpt my sounds into musical forms that reflect, model, or demonstrate the theme of the piece. This may include the manner in which objects are played, organizational structures, which instruments or sounds are used in the piece (or building new instruments for it) and/or overall mode of creation. For example, my piece Umi from Music for Rocks and Water which was inspired by waves, swells and surf in the ocean, is constructed from wave-shaped musical gestures (on both macro and micro scales), the physical motions performers use when they play the piece are circular and sinusoidal, the sounds that comprise the piece resemble ocean surf, and the instruments are literally rocks and sand from a beach. You can hear an excerpt from Umi here.

I actually score out most of my compositions so that my ensemble and I can learn them and then perform the pieces live in front of an audience. I have developed my own system of notation to articulate how to play things like rocks, water and pinecones. It's a combination of graphics and text instructions, sometimes with sections of traditional music notation mixed in. Here is a little excerpt from the score to Umi.

I should mention that all my natural-object instruments get names. I'm actually not usually that into naming things (for example, none of my cars have ever had names!) but when you start having a studio full of rocks and pinecones it becomes necessary to call them something just to help tell them apart. Then, also in scores I can specify exactly which thing to play when. So, above, the Cairn is a stack of three smooth granite stones, and the top one is named Lil' Wobbler because it is small, egg-shaped and wobbles. I admit most of my names are not that exciting, merely functional (that's probably because, as stated above, I'm not really the naming type). In the past there has been some confusion as several different stones all got dubbed "Grey Rock" and then I didn't know which one was the right Grey Rock for which piece. Thankfully the other players in my ensemble, currently A.L. Dentel and Karen Stackpole, are helping with the naming duties these days.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

About the project

Finally, after over a decade of dreaming and two years of research, grant-writing, logistics and planning, I am going to Antarctica in about 3 weeks. Here's what I will be doing there...

I have been awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation's Antarctic Artists and Writers Program to make music on the Antarctic Peninsula. My project is to create
a series of compositions based on the forces that shape environments and ecosystems in Antarctica, using only sounds from the natural world. While in Antarctica, I will play amplified natural materials such as ice, rock, water, moss, feathers, shells and bones as musical instruments. I will record compositional elements and improvisations created with these instruments, collect field recordings on the peninsula's islands and in the surrounding seas, and gather a few Antarctic natural objects that I will bring back with me to the United States to use later as instruments in live performances.

Each composition will have a unique subject matter and instrumentation. The musical structures, sound sources, and development process of each piece will reflect that work’s specific subject. Individual compositions will explore: sea and land ice, the Antarctic circumpolar current, wind and storm patterns, geological and paleontological histories, human exploration and exploitation, adaptations of life to environmental extremes, and changing terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Themes will focus on topics under current scientific investigation in the region, and highlight connections between the Antarctic Peninsula and global climate change.

Upon returning to the U.S. in February I will craft a final set of compositions from materials gathered in Antarctica. The project will culminate in a DVD release, and a series of live performances and educational presentations in late 2009.