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Arctic Notes 9 – 9/26/2010

Arctic Rhythms: Ice Music
Paul D. Miller aka Dj Spooky

The Arctic System

Whosoever will be an enquirer into Nature let him resort to a conservatory of Snow or Ice.
Francis Bacon

OK – so here I am in the High Arctic with Cape Farewell, creating a series of drafts for several compositions that I’ll eventually turn into several string quartet pieces, a gallery show, and a symphony out of the experience. I’m looking at how to collect impressions of the landscape, distill the material into something that I can use in the compositions (visually, sonically, and for writing as well), and arrive at a point where sound and art can create portraits of what’s going on up here. The next couple of steps are now: how does this all come together? Dj culture is all about collage – sampling, splicing, dicing etc etc everything is part of the mix, and there’s no boundaries between sound sources. When you apply the same logic to the environment, there’s a lot of room for mapping sampling techniques to the environment itself. The world is a very, very, very big record. We just have to learn how to play it.

Borges once wrote in his essay “The Fearful Sphere of Pascal” that “it may be that universal history is the history of the different intonations given a handful of metaphors.” I tend to think that this Cape Farewell excursion has been a journey into the realm of the hypothetical, a world where fictions clash with the realities of the everyday world, with really mixed results – that’s what makes this trip

Let me give you an example or two:

As we pull into Krossfjorden, to survey Fjortende Julibreen Glacier, I’ve been thinking more and more about the patterns holding this fragile ecosystem together. This morning when I started writing, I took a break and went outside to take a series of photographs of the glacier from several angles. Whenever you look at a glacier, you’re seeing geolgic time: every glacier moves at certain tempos, and the way they sculpt the land beneath – all of this is the way the planet moves in different rhythms and tempos. At one point while I was looking at some of the striations in the glacier a huge “boom-crack!!!” came out of the glacier – with no visible change in the ice facing me.

Fjord after fjord we’ve looked at has been a site of glaciers vanishing – they move in patterns that are difficult to see, but you can feel the sense of disappearance. I look at the whole process as a starting point for some of the hip-hop and electronic music, and the classical music compositions I’m working on for the Arctic Rhythms project. Ice is a geological clock. It measures the transformation of the earth’s atmosphere, and the overall temperature of the planet. In the last century, small temperature changes created an environment of radical ecological change, all this has accumulated, and we’re being presented with a bill none of us thought would be due for a long, long, long time. So what does this have to do with looking at a glacier?

Glaciers are the planets measurement of change. Ice measures the tempo of the change.
Glaciers in retreat are like rivers in reverse, running straight back into the landscape, they’re a beautiful criss-crossing of layers, diaphanous veils of material that seem like clouds frozen into new forms of cumulus. What I love when I look at stuff like the Fjortende Julibreen Glacier is the layers of time, the grooves carved into the ice and land on a massive scale. The ice’s micro-terracing is a kind of granulated, fractal infinity of sharply cut surfaces, molded forms shaped by wind, water, and the passage of time. Think of them as clouds as a kind of wave-form that’s been flattened, made prismatic blue and white, with streaks of earth materials run through. Looking at the glacier’s retreat, you can see how the movement of the ice is occurring in two directions – forwards and backwards – it’s kind of like looking at a time lapse photograph in reverse, the glacier goes straight back to its source. The glaciers we’ve seen aren’t just melting and retreating, they’re falling apart from the bottom up. Rivers form underneath the glacier, and the currents weaken the foundation of the ice that has formed above, until the point that “moulins”, naturally formed funnels that let water from the top drain down into the ice sheet below, drill through layer and layer of the glacier on their way down, carrying water at different temperatures to the bottom of the glacier where they cause more and more melting at the glacier’s sole. The “boom-crack” I heard was from what scientists call “basal sliding” – the ice repositions itself and creates massive sonic booms that reverberate throughout the glacier at every level. The ice grinds against the soil beneath itself, causing more friction, causing more melting, saltwater from the sea invades the ice tongues underneath the “roots” of the glacier, causing the ice to break off. Thus you get a kind of sonic “echo-system” that mirrors the way the rest of the planet’s systems move in and out of “homeostasis.” Think of it all as a kind of meshwork – the planet isn’t improvising, it’s creating dynamic tensions between complex living systems in a planetary choreography: a balancing act between physical, chemical, biological, environmental, and human components. Arctic ice – I try to contextualize everything in the material I look at – is a kind of global text, and all the material that makes up the vanishing place that I saw today, it is all part of the problem, just as much as it’s all part of the solution.

The sound pieces I’m composing for the “Arctic Rhythms: Ice Music” project are essentially acoustic portraits in motion. They’re focused on pattern recognition in flux: the carbon pollution we’re pumping into the atmosphere is no geologic anomaly – the whole climate change scenario is loosely resonant with the way we produce this particular material, but everything in this world is connected, so one thing affects another. In music you could call it “polyphony” of many tones and forms – but in another paradox of our situation, the carbon dust causes global dimming as well – it blocks sunlight from getting into the planet’s atmosphere – that becomes noise. If I was planning on doing a music composition today, I’d have to think about this kind of material, and try to turn it into sound sketches. I guess that’s what I’m doing here and now in the Arctic.

Arctic Rhythms: Ice Music


Meta: Macro-Systems
Interstellar space, close up to the earth on the Arctic, then turning globe – various nations that participate in the Arctic Treaty System, then close up to:

Then flying over glaciers, ice cracks, water, ice islands
Seals, whales, weather patterns, my personal images (water, boat footage moving through ice fields), GPS coordinates, archival charts showing the changes in Arctic ice-mass, parts per million of various dust particles in the air, ocean currents

Macro-Micro: Ecosytems – history
Historic footage, scientific footage, (molecular diagrams, ice crystals), earth’s magnetosphere, aurora borealis, historic texts projected from Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau

Storms, Antarctic Convergence, Arctic polar pack-ice melts, katabatic wind, water sounds, satellite footage, zoom out away from the ice back to the beginning footage in reverse.

The Arctic compositions I’ve been working on are based on a place where Nature is a commons, owned by no one. My first Antarctic symphony project was an “acoustic portrait” of Antarctica as a place that has no government, and is under a kind of “Terra Nullius” context – the Arctic Rhythms project will take that path and go further along. So many countries claim the Arctic. I want to make music a way to reflect on this, and move beyond it. Today, concepts like “land” and “territory” are becoming more and more abstract – the internet has radically changed the way we relate to both concepts. The “commons” in our information economy based global culture is just as intimately linked to climate change in the Arctic and Antarctica as anywhere else in the world. In “Terra Nullius” – the legal concept of land considered “ownerless” property is usually free to be owned – how do we portray that in music? Under international law, no country owns the North Pole, or the region of the Arctic Ocean surrounding it. The five surrounding states – Russia, The United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark, have “exclusive economic zones” but under the United Nations Convention on the Law of The Sea, there’s a lot of possibilities that the Arctic could be opened for exploitation in a way that Antarctica never can. That’s what these compositions will look at – how music can reflect some of the basic realities facing us in this time of massive change and they’re a signal, like the glaciers I watched this morning, that we need to really think of everything as being more connected than we realize.


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