Through Haunting Tunes, Polar Ice Crashes Into Chi-Town

An art installation’s latest act has musicians interpreting the sounds of Antarctica’s disintegrating icescape.

January 31, 2020

All images and audio sample courtesy of Luftwerk

In a low-slung building on Chicago’s north side, musicians sitting in a semicircle discuss how to play a section of music with its composers. This moment of the piece is particularly poignant as it represents a dramatic event that happened after nearly 30,000 years of stability and relative quiet. The melody is unusual and soulful,punctuated by speaking and loud crescendos that suddenly stop. The notes come together in an interpretation of the sounds of a massive Antarctic ice sheet rupturing. Your ears imagine an enormous frozen slab sloughing off the continent, splintering with thousands of icy shards and drifting off into the cold, dark sea.

This intense aural experience, which the musicians will perform Saturday night at the Pritzker Pavilion in Chicago’s Millennium Park, is wrenching—and it’s meant to be.

Over the coming weekend, guided tours led by a historian, a scientist, a musician, and a comedian are set to take visitors under the pavilion’s latticework, where sounds of glaciers slowly scraping against each other create a mournful funeral song. Posters relay messages by Roald Amundsen, the first explorer to reach the South Pole in 1911, and Robert Falcon Scott, who discovered that same year that Antarctica was, in fact, a continent after his team collected a fern fossil there, proving that land existed somewhere below the ice. Their words are joined by the poetry of Emily Dickinson, who never visited the poles but used their legendary frigid environs as her muse.

At the rehearsal, the musicians—two violinists, two cellists, a bassist, and a percussionist (a singer will join the performance on Saturday)—are intently focused on one another. The music they are practicing is part composition and part improvisation, based on scientific data collected by University of Chicago glaciologist Doug MacAyeal. The event, “Requiem: A White Wanderer” (taking place January 31 through February 2), is the most recent iteration of a project begun by Luftwerk, a collaboration between artists Petra Bachmaier and Sean Gallero.

“I hope that people accept the invitation to contemplate their relationship to nature, to this landscape that many of us have never seen,” says sound artist Katie Young, who used to work with one of the installation’s supporters, Experimental Sound Studio, a nonprofit organization in whose space the group rehearses. The musical piece, she says, gives people the chance to “take a minute and reflect” how we influence the environment, to which we are all intimately connected.

We’re living through a climate emergency, but it’s something that many people don’t think about every day. This weekend’s installation hopes to catch visitors’ attention in a way that might surprise them—and even motivate them to act. “That’s the magic of art and music,” says Rob Moore, a policy analyst with NRDC, which helped support the project.

In 2017, a 70-mile crack formed on Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf, after which a trillion-ton iceberg the size of Delaware named A-68 split off and began to disintegrate in the Weddell Sea. Bachmaier asked MacAyeal to explain what had happened.

MacAyeal, who has more than a decade of experience studying Antarctica, showed her data he had collected between 2003 and 2006 from seismographs on another iceberg, B-15, which measured 183 miles long by 23 miles wide—the largest recorded iceberg ever to calve from Antarctica. (FYI: These icebergs are named for the quadrant of Antarctica where they originated and how many icebergs from that region calved before them.)

MacAyeal presented B-15’s data as images of sound waves. The audio files were recorded at a low frequency inaudible to the human ear, so Luftwerk sped them up to 100 times their original frequency and listened to the result: deep and slow death cries that emanated from the iceberg as it moved and separated from the ice shelf.

The end result was the first presentation in September 2017 of “White Wanderer,” a sound and light exhibit featuring an image of the crack projected, with musical accompaniment, onto Two North Riverside Plaza in Chicago.

“To my delight,” says MacAyeal, “Petra’s and Sean’s artistic idea developed just this incredible public engagement about Antarctica, about the science, about the future of climate change in a way that is not possible for a nerdy, mathematically oriented scientist.”

Luftwerk and MacAyeal collaborated again on Earth Day 2018 when they presented “White Wanderer” at the University of Chicago’s Rockefeller Chapel. There, MacAyeal spoke to the audience about Captain Cook seeing icebergs as a harbinger of things to come, and how today they are a signal of a warming world.

Hearing the sounds in the chapel sparked Bachmaier to consider transforming them into a musical piece for instruments and voice and what would become Luftwerk’s biggest production to date. They got Young on board and got to work.

“Anything we can be doing to address climate change on any level, at any point in our lives, is really important right now,” says Young, who is now a music professor at Boston’s Berklee College of Music. “I was thrilled to have this opportunity.”

For her part, Bachmaier hopes this isn’t the last chapter for “White Wanderer.” The next installation could be an hourlong musical performance. “This weekend is a first draft,” she says. “We see it as a big, big sketch or something that wants to get bigger and bolder.” Just like the icebergs it represents.

Requiem: A White Wanderer will be presented at the Jay Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park in Chicago, January 31 through February 2. More information available here.

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