“O penguin, have you ever heard the bagpipes play? Have you ever watched knees freeze beneath a kilt of Scottish pride? Have you ever been tethered and sung for your freedom and inspired headlines far across the globe? Go. Collect your stones. Remain ignorant of the nuances of tonal music. Raise your beak in salutation so the photographer can pretend that he, too was really, truly THERE.”
While this sort of behaviour may not be condoned in Antarctica anymore, music is still very important down on the continent. From homegrown band nights to trippy wildlife soundtracks, there is far more for the ears to discover than the famed Antarctic silence.
Before leaving Christchurch I asked my musical friends to recommend music that would enhance the Antarctic experience. One thing I’d noticed was that all of the films of the continent were accompanied by sweeping orchestral tracks, designed to tap into one’s emotions and make one really feel in awe of the sights. In light of this, I decided I needed a soundtrack of my own in order to maximize the experience. Pieces suggested included Sibelius, Nielsen, John Cage’s string quartet, Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica’, and, more bizarrely, ‘Antarctica’ by the Weepies.
Despite having lofty aural aspirations before taking off, Bryan Crump’s suggestion of an “Anti ice atmospheric track” featuring Abba, A-Ha, Aqua, or JPSE turned out to be closer to the mark. Upon landing on the ice and boarding Ivan the Terrabus to be ferried over to Scott Base we were serenaded by the Beatles’ good old Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. Not exactly the coldest of tunes, but it set the scene for what would be an aurally interesting few weeks.
In our group we were lucky enough to have Sue Ferrar, who is not only the granddaughter of the geologist from Scott’s Discovery expedition, but also an accomplished musician. Her desire to travel to Antarctica was motivated by her family connection and she wanted to play her violin in the Discovery hut as a tribute to her grandfather. Listening to the violin articulate her version of the setting as the strains wafted over the hessian curtains at Hut Point was spellbinding. An improv musician, she let the violin tell the story she could see, and while she did so, people hardly dared to breathe.
The rest of our cohort were not so musically talented. The lad in charge of Christmas carols was not accustomed to celebrating Christmas on the summer side of the globe either, so while he was belting out the words to ‘Winter Wonderland’ we were all scratching out heads and thinking of the Beaurepaires ad. Sure, ‘Christmas on the Beach’ would have seemed a bit out of place on the Ross Ice Shelf, but the majority of us had had no experience whatsoever of ‘roasting chestnuts on an open fire’.
The local wildlife put our own caroling ambitions to shame, with the song of the Weddell seal trumping even the best of our Chrsitmas choristers. Whales sing underwater symphonies, but Weddell seals out-zane Led Zeppelin. Shooting stars ricochet under ice, strobing and zigzagging and bouncing off your eardrums inside of your brain in ways that the drab speckling of their blubber and rock-pool shine of their eyes would never have you believe. Rock-stars in disguise, they party to the underwater trace, enticing those more accustomed to the whales’ sigh to change the channel, dare to experiment, live a little. Next time we’re playing a party game and I have to choose an animal that knows how to party, lemurs are out and Weddells are in, baby.
All in all, Antarctica offers a very interesting soundscape and one quite far removed from the one I imagined before going down there. While it’s not really the done thing to force penguins to listen to our musical preferences these days, I will be tuning in to see what else comes out of the ice in years to come.