The simple title bears multiple meanings. First and foremost, ICE RECORDS is a historical document, a ledger in sound. Second, by switching the noun to a verb, ice records changes in atmosphere, pressure and temperature: for example, ice cores reveal the extent of climate change. Third, ICE RECORDS is a vinyl LP about ice, pressed on frosty vinyl. An incredible note on the choice to release the album in the vinyl format is that until the 1930s, meteorological readings were made by means of a stylus. The very nature of vinyl, producing crackles and pops as it wears down, is akin to the dissolution of ice, “the acoustic expressions of climate records scratched deep into the Earth’s icy grooves.” We credit BEK Centre for Electronic Arts, Bergen in Norway for these observations.
The project debuted as a multi-media event: a “listening session, a text work, an LP and a lecture,” the latter of which is streaming below. One of the saddest observations in the liner notes is that Ladakhi singers have learned over a hundred songs about ice, glaciers and snow, but these songs are increasingly forgotten as young people move away and as the glaciers recede, becoming less a part of collective culture. In a unique way, a mind is itself a groove, a repository for memory; one such singer, “Song Collector” Morup Namgyal, is recorded here.
The album also exposes our relationship with sound. An ice expert listens to echoes and pings and knows what ice is safe to cross and what is not. Expanding ice makes a different set of sounds than contracting ice, and frigid ice melt sounds different from warm water flow. Across the centuries, cold climate cultures have relied on their ability to interpret sound for survival. Today we are more likely to be impressed by charts than by aural clues, but Susan Schuppli teaches the value of close listening, highlighting the lessons missed when we turn a deaf ear.
Side A is a travelogue, a collage of field recordings and discussions with scientists, activists and communities across Canada, Svalbard, Norway and India. Side B is the score to Schuppli’s documentary Svalbard Arctic Archipelago, composed by Mohamed Safa. Together they form an enveloping impression: first the facts, then the sorting. The sounds form a requiem as well as a warning: life is changing, not only at the glaciers, but everywhere because of the glaciers.
Schuppli’s sonic journey begins with Martin Sharp’s 2009 recording of the Belcher Glacier. Schuppli is filming the Canadian ice core archive when she has the chance to meet Sharp, supercharging a fascination with the sounds of ice. Already one hears the sound of rapid melt, intuiting that this is not “normal spring melt,” but something more alarming. The artist’s travels lead her to a series of cold climates and unique sounds, such as the call of a bearded seal: a reminder that glaciers are part of a protective network for beings beneath the ice. At the Drang Drung lake, Schuppli switches to hydrophone, capturing a hidden, pristine world. But sound, as pure as it may be, is insufficient to teach the lessons of climate change; for this, the narration is key.
“Deep Listening” is a fun track, filled with laughter, as the villagers of Akshow are brought to the glacier. At first, they listen through crevasses; then they delve deeper through hydrophones and other submerged equipment. “This is amazing!” one villager exclaims. Another compares these sounds to boiling tea, and after this, it’s hard to hear anything different. “Prayer Wheel Kulum” introduces a religious aspect, the intersection of geography and faith. Finally, a tiny piece titled “Ice Talks,” which is both a talk about ice and (as in the project title) a reminder that ice talks.
Safa’s score, detached from moving images, provides opportunity for reflection. Ice sounds are sprinkled throughout the piece, along with machinery, flowing water, seabirds and intermittent humans. Drones weave in and out, bearing mournful witness. “Svalbard Arctic Archipelago” conveys both the sound of ice and the emotions that vanishing ice engenders. As glacier songs grow scarce, glacial instrumental music continues to grow, as heard in Cities and Memory’s Polar Sounds, Eldbjørg Hemsing and Arctic Philharmonic’s Arctic and the BBC Philharmonic’s fiftieth anniversary celebration of Ralph Vaughn Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica, all released in early 2023. Politicians may have dropped the ball, but artists such as Safa and Schuppli have picked it up, assuring that our century’s most urgent issue remains in public conversation. (Richard Allen)