Polar Force and Array ~ the first release on vinyl, the second on CD with booklet ~ investigate the properties of Antarctic sound inside and outside Casey Base Station. A wealth of field recordings were made on site by Philip Samartzis, and reflective musical abstractions were added in live performance by Eugene Ughetti. Special instruments suited to the environment were invented especially for their ability to interact with snow, ice and cold. The project culminated in a vast installation, “a white inflatable structure reminiscent of a remote research station on the ice.”
Polar Force builds slowly to the quarter-hour “Blizzard.” Array is dominated by field recordings, especially “Katabatic Winds.” In “Blizzard,” one can hear the soulless cold, the energy-dampening sleet, the howling winds. In “Katabatic Winds,” the wind attacks in waves. This is not a place for visitors. Only the hearty can survive, and even so, with herculean effort. The sounds are bleak and beautiful, producing natural drones offset by the percussion of precipitation.
The station contributes the sounds of human construction in dialogue with the elements. Signs sway and rattle, fuel drums ping, scientific instruments struggle to stay intact. The cold causes a forced entropy, a stalling, a devolution. During each of the aforementioned tracks, one wonders, “are they safe inside?” The blizzard is brutal, but mercifully brief. A kindred spirit, graciously mentioned by Caroline Philpott in the liner notes, is Lawrence English’s Viento.
And yet, as Samartzis writes, stillness is another active component, providing what he calls “an immaculate framework for close listening.” (Thank you for the unintentional shout-out!) Nuances are created not only by sound, but by the absences and amplifications of sound, from the muting of snow to a low industrial hum. Technological advances have made sonic explorers possible where none have existed before, although Ughetti mentions that sound is the most representative of the senses in the Antarctic.
Drawing on the wealth of Samartzis’ recordings, Ughetti sets out to create a sonic conversation akin to the interaction between the research team and their environment. Only 80 may fit in the inflatable space, 20 fewer than the team at its summer peak. But the recording would be three-dimensional, including whistles, tubes, and the unpredictable presence of the world outside the tent. Adding variables such as an “8-voice guiro duo,” Ughetti turns the project into a “hyper-realistic Antarctica” that includes both natural sound and the perception of such sound.
On “Medium Frequency Spaced Array Radars” (from Array) sine waves join drones and drips, like electrical currents too close to water. In “Brash Ice” (Polar Force), pristine water currents lap and swirl before “Ice Core” cracks like cold cicadas. “Casey Station” is Polar Force‘s first purposefully musical piece, as handmade woodwinds meet timed percussive bursts and construction vehicles beeping as they reverse. In “Cosmic Rays,” drones start and stop, producing segments of silence; there’s no disguising Ughetti’s hand now. But “Sea Ice” may be deceiving, as such landscapes are known to produce sounds perceived as musical: glissandos rising and falling with the expansion and contraction of ice. “Bubbles” is an electro-acoustic work, its sounds echoing through “Metal Fatigue;” but are the clanking ice shards of “Aurora Australis” pure or interactive?
While the lines may blur, it’s impossible to observe an environment in person without becoming part of it. In Polar Force and Array, Samartzis and Ughetti have shared not only what the Antarctic sounds like, but what it feels like, using music as a metaphor for understanding. (Richard Allen)