Listening to the Arctic

An Irishwoman’s Diary: The song of the ice

‘When it works its magic the Arctic can be life-changing. That’s how it worked out for the composer Karen Power, whose short documentary, “can you hear the arctic”, aims to express the emotions which a three-week research trip last September evoked in her.’ Above, The Antigua tall ship in Trygghamna Bay, Svalbard. Photograph: Karen Power

‘When it works its magic the Arctic can be life-changing. That’s how it worked out for the composer Karen Power, whose short documentary, “can you hear the arctic”, aims to express the emotions which a three-week research trip last September evoked in her.’ Above, The Antigua tall ship in Trygghamna Bay, Svalbard. Photograph: Karen Power

Mon, Feb 10, 2014, 01:00

The Arctic is an imaginary place. It’s a real place too, where human beings are struggling to survive – and where animals are struggling even more, thanks to the arrogant behaviour of human beings over the centuries.

But the Arctic also exerts a powerful imaginative pull. The very word “Arctic” conjures up magical, fantastic landscapes of the mind. As for the Northern Lights, even the prospect of maybe (possibly) seeing them one day can make the most reluctant traveller fairly glow with excitement, which is why so many tour operators are currently offering trips to Tromso to do exactly that.

It can be a disappointing experience. The weather can be rubbish, the aurora invisible. But when it works its magic the Arctic can be life-changing. That’s how it worked out for the composer Karen Power, whose short documentary can you hear the arctic aims to express the emotions which a three-week research trip last September evoked in her.

Back home in Mallow, Co Cork, more than three months later, she is still under the spell of the north. Why did she go in the first place? “I’ve always wanted to record ice,” she says. In 2010 Power spent some time at Banff, Canada, as a composer-in-residence. “It was mid-November and it was minus 30. My cabin was out in the woods, surrounded by snow and ice.”

As a sound artist, Power was mesmerised by the song of the ice. “It’s an incredibly delicate and varied sound source – but its delicacy is also incredibly intimidating to work with,” she says. “And challenging, because no one piece of ice is going to give you the same set of sounds as another.”

After Banff, she studied ever more sophisticated ways of recording the sounds of icy landscapes. “I spent two years preparing for this trip in terms of getting the skills necessary to record – so I thought I was as ready and as well prepared as I could be,” she says. “But the place took me by surprise in ways that I didn’t imagine.”

Power is not talking about encounters with ice bears, or the danger of your rubber Zodiac being turned upside-down by skittish icebergs – although she experienced both. Rather, what she’s describing is a kind of homecoming – an extraordinary realisation that this space, or these kinds of spaces, have always been in her music.

It’s the kind of intense emotional response also found in Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams, one of the greatest nature books ever written, which inspired this writer’s own Arctic obsession and which, as it happens, will be republished in a new edition this spring.

The landscape of Svalbard, white and silent, might not seem to be the most promising place for a composer to find music. But as Power discovered, the stillness was deceptive. “So much of what I’ve become interested in, as an artist, has to do with environments and the way we respond to them,” she says. “I was fascinated by the way the landscape appeared to be eternal and unchanging, yet something was always moving. And the weather could change so fast that on occasions I couldn’t even find the recording equipment I had been using moments before.”

Some of Power’s ice recordings will be heard very briefly in a “radio art” project she is currently developing for Lyric FM. “It’s all about using radio as a means of exploring place,” she explains. Power, and Lyric, will be putting out a public call for people to record the place in which they listen to the radio – and the resulting clips will add a live layer to the composition, hearSpace, which will be broadcast on March 23rd at 9pm.

In the meantime, her evocative short film can be seen on Vimeo. Can Power describe, in words, the sound of ice 30 metres below the surface? “It’s like a symphony of the seabed,” she says. “One crack is coming from the extreme left, and it’s being joined by another coming from the extreme right. And you’re somewhere in the middle. It’s the most natural surround sound you’re ever going to experience.”

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