Institute of Landscape Architecture ~ Melting Landscapes

Melting Landscapes is a success on all levels: concept, execution, presentation and sound.  This being said, Christophe Girot (Chair) and the staff and students of Zürich’s Institute of Landscape Architecture would likely trade all of their artistic successes for political movement.  Climate change continues to threaten our planet, but after years of moving in the right direction, the United States reversed course.  Now other nations are taking the lead.

The teaching team of Ludwig Berger, Dennis Häusler, Johannes Rebsamen, Matthias Vollmer has done great work here, but perhaps the most impressive aspect of this project is the credit given to the students, whose names are prominently featured in the liner notes.  This shows a huge level of respect for the young scientists who recorded the freezing and melting sounds of the Morteratsch Glacier and who photographed the landscape in stark black and white.  A dozen of these photographs are included in the 28-page book that accompanies the ice melt vinyl.  The sights and sounds of the region are brought to life, along with a sense of cold.  Seeing stone where the glacier once stretched is enough to give one pause; three years was enough time to produce evidence of retreat.

The recordings are pristine, with stereo effects often producing the impression of surround sound.  These microphones and hydrophones were frozen into the glacier and dipped into crevasses and streams, where they picked up the expansion and contraction, the bubbling, crackling, and reverberation of water in its solid and liquid forms.  While each segment is distinct, the tracks edge against each other like a soundscape.  As recordings this sharp are hard to come by, one wonders if a longer, unedited work might also become available (perhaps on USB stick).  Sonic reduction is more often associated with the loss of flora and fauna, rather than the elements themselves.  Due to the unobtrusive nature of the recording (which includes no human sounds), the only character of Melting Landscapes is Morteratsch. One does not want it to disappear.

One of the project’s most unique sequences comes from hydrophones “buried in deep snow while snowing.”  The track is heavier than one might expect, reflecting the rearrangement of molecules resulting from the accumulation of weight.  If trapped by an avalanche, one might hear such heavy tumblings, but be unable to appreciate their beauty.  In similar fashion, a microphone “frozen into a glacier during a snowstorm” is able to pick up the sound of snow in an uncommon manner, more frequently associated with the interjection of unnatural material such as aluminum foil.

Momentarily laying aside any thoughts of political action, one may exclaim, how lovely are the sounds of the natural world.  Yet these sounds are endangered.  Frequent readers of our site may note similarities between these sonic frequencies and those of electro-acoustical works found in our Drone and Experimental sections; but there’s nothing like the real thing.  On Side B, the ice begins to melt, sometimes dripping and sometimes flowing, accumulating in a small pond.  Year after year, we become used to the same things happening: the glacier freezes, the glacier melts.  But one year, the Morteratsch Glacier may not complete the cycle.  Glaciers may return to the sea, creating equal and opposite reactions as water reclaims land.  The Institute of Landscape Architecture is here to remind us of this potential catastrophe, inviting us to appreciate the value of ecological balance, and to fight for its preservation.  (Richard Allen)

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