Sounds of snow
Leonard discovers music in the cracks and creaks of Antarctica
Posted July 31, 2009
An Adélie penguin colony can be a cacophonous place, with hundreds of birds braying in an unlikely chorus. That was one of the sounds that Cheryl Leonard wanted to capture, but it wasn’t the most interesting one that she discovered.
Instead, she literally found music at her feet. Or, more accurately, at the feet of the Adélies. The dense stones on Torgersen Island off the Antarctic Peninsula produced melodious sounds — like coins falling together in a pile — when the penguins walked across them.
“Little melodies would come out from their feet as they walked on the stones, kicked the stones, jostled the stones,” says Leonard, a San Francisco-based composer and musician who spent about a month at Palmer Station this past season on an Antarctic Artists and Writers Program grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) .
Leonard composes musical pieces not for piano and violin, but from more unconventional sources such as pinecones and shards of glass. She started her career writing traditional compositions, but eventually gravitated toward stranger sounds that can be made with instruments, such as playing the strings of a violin behind the bridge, which produces high, squeaky notes.
“It was a slow morph into weirder and weirder sounds and sound sources,” she explains, adding that she was later influenced by friends interested in “noise music,” an avant-garde art form that uses a variety of elements, from feedback to random electronic sounds.
Leonard found inspiration in urban objects, producing music from box spring mattresses and circular saw blades. At the same time, she developed an interest in the outdoors, and took up mountaineering and climbing.
“I think for me it was a natural progression from playing sounds with urban objects to playing sounds with natural objects,” she says. “I was looking for a way to combine the musical side of myself with the outdoors side of myself.”
An opportunity to work in Antarctica and record the creaks of icebergs and the calls of its birds seemed ideal.
“I’ve always been attracted to remote, wilderness places. Antarctica is the ultimate location for that,” Leonard says. “At the same time, I was really interested in what kind of sounds one might find there. Antarctica’s sounds haven’t been that well documented. We’ve seen lots of pictures and films and science about Antarctica, but not heard many of its sounds.”
She found those sounds in dripping icicles after rappelling down a crevasse, and in growling snow and ice while boating near the edge of the calving Marr Ice Piedmont.
And just as her companion and fellow artist, Oona Stern , discerned immense variety in the types of ice in Antarctica for an unrelated sculpting project, Leonard discovered a range of music in the icebergs that calve, float and disintegrate in the sea. [See related story: Ice structures.]
“I was really surprised at how different the icebergs sounded,” she says. “The melting ice was always different, sometime subtly and sometimes extremely different. … It’s kind of like snowflakes. Visually, snowflakes are all different and aurally, the icebergs each have their own sounds.”
Leonard’s recording equipment — which she carried on hikes or on the small inflatable boats used for local travel around Palmer Station — included contact microphones, condenser microphones and hydrophones. Contact microphones pick up audio vibrations directly from objects that they touch, while hydrophones record sound underwater.
“I sort of looked like I was doing sound for a film,” Leonard says.
Recorded sounds only make up part of Leonard’s compositions. She also collected various objects found during her trip, including limpet shells and Adélie penguin bones. Normally the removal of such items from Antarctica is restricted, but Leonard had a permit from the NSF.
She is undecided about how she will incorporate the penguin bones into a composition, but says she will likely assemble them into little instruments that she can slide a bow across or rub, brush or strike with mallets or other objects. “Some of the thinner bones can probably be plucked.”
“I’ll be amplifying those and playing them live together with field recordings and projected video,” she adds.
How do you notate music for a penguin bone? You really can’t use traditional musical staves and notes, Leonard says. Instead, she has developed her own style of sheet music that combines graphics and words to describe how someone should perform on one of her unique instruments.
“Every time I have a new instrument and a new way of playing an instrument, I also have to invent a notation to explain that to the performer,” she explains. “I like the idea of performing [my compositions] live. It’s been a big focus for me because I’m using these unusual materials and getting these unusual sounds from them. I think it’s interesting for people to see where the sounds are coming from and how they are being produced.”
The public won’t have to wait too long to see and hear some of Leonard’s first compositions from Antarctica. She will premiere several pieces in October at Mills College Concert Hall in Oakland, Calif., including a composition called “Lullaby for the E [lephant] Seals.”
Many of the works, she explains, subtly combine aesthetics with a message of environmental awareness. “I am trying to make a great piece of music, but I’m really inspired by aspects of the environment and ecosystems.”