Philip Samartzis went to Antarctica to record the sound of wind, which ain’t easy when it’s travelling at cyclone level velocities.
Philip Samartzis does what any other audio engineer does; he records air molecules vibrating. It’s just that the molecules he’s trying to capture are caught in katabatic winds pulling ice and snow across the Antarctic sheet at speeds over 100 knots. That’s Cyclone Tracy level velocities. They call that a blizzard down in Antarctica; from the safety of the mainland, I call it madness.
Samartzis is an associate professor at Melbourne’s RMIT School of Art. His trip to Australia’s Casey station last year was the second time he’d visited the Antarctic region. The first was a three-month long jaunt in 2010 that covered six weeks at the more remote Davis Station, followed by time on the sub-antarctic Macquarie Island (roughly halfway between Hobart and Antarctica) before heading home. Navigating between each place took two weeks aboard an icebreaker, which added Southern Ocean sea sickness to the blizzards. “There’s no room for the weak!” said Samartzis. “You’ve got to be uncomfortable to get those recordings.”
Both trips were funded by Australian Antarctic Division’s Arts Fellowships, which is open to anyone who works in a medium other than moving image: poets, photographers, writers, and sound artists like Samartzis.
His first trip to Antarctica was an eye-opener. Davis Station houses around 65 people during the summer, less than half that during the winter. It’s a mix of tradies, scientists, forecasters, comms guys, pilots, station management, and they each have their own cliques. Unlike the Americans, who hire cleaning and cooking staff, the Aussie contingent assumes a socialist-inspired dynamic where everyone pitches in. The downside of this communal station life is a lack of privacy; every area is common, living quarters are shared, and you can’t go outside alone on the off chance you get caught in a blizzard or fall down a crevasse.
“Isolation does weird things to you. It affects your psychology, I was unnerved after three months,” recalled Samartzis. Which is not to say he didn’t enjoy it. On the contrary, as an artist Samartzis thrives on those sorts of tensions; observing the rituals and social dynamics of the alpha male, risk taker tradie who’s off-his-face the entire time, while the ‘governance of station’ crowd desperately tries to manage that rampant drinking. Samartzis describes Antarctic life as “a cross between a youth hostel and a ski lodge. Everyone’s running away from something.” Anthropology skating on thin ice.
The tension went deeper than humans interacting with other humans, it was clear to Samartzis there was tension between humans and the continent itself. “Antarctica is not all seals and penguins. It’s the sound of stations, and they’re very loud, complex environments,” explained Samartzis. While he somewhat aligns with groups like the Canadian Soundscape movement insofar as letting the field recordings speak through the composer, not forcing his own agenda on them. He’s also not going to blinker his mic’s perspectives to take in only the beauty of the environment while ignoring the discarded fuel drum, the mummified body of a seal, or the plume of smoke from the incinerator burning station waste. “It’s a natural place and wildlife preserve, yet within that the cost of human habitation is quite high in terms of impact and contamination,” said Samartzis. “That’s what I’m interested in, that paradox of our very act of preservation destroying the place at the same time.”
All of that ultimately infused itself into the composition. “What I ended up with wasn’t beautiful studies of Weddell seals and penguin colonies, it was about getting that dynamic of tension infused into the work,” said Samartzis, besides “Doug Quinn did that in 2000, and released a fantastic CD. I could never surpass it, it’s the standard. I focus on the dysfunction instead.”
SONIFYING THE ATMOSPHERE
Over his trips, Samartzis has crafted a number of remarkable compositions. As well as documenting the sounds of icebreakers, helicopters and other machinery humans use to navigate Antarctica, he’s also stuck a DPA 8011 hydrophone down a hole in a frozen lake to record the sound of it flexing with the thermal energy of the sun. He’s captured the harsh squawks of a radar station beaming coded sine tone signals into the ionosphere to detect turbulence in the solar wind. With accelerometers attached to the radar array, you hear the real local stress of cold metal fatigue mixed with intermittent blasts of signal sent to probe space kilometres away.
A fascinating project was sonifying the Aurora Australia. “One of the engineers at the station created a software program to transpose the infrasonic sound of about two hertz into the audible frequency range,” explained Samartzis.
“He took one year of data and transposed it for me, whereby each day of the calendar year is rendered down to about four seconds of sound.” It sounds like whip cracks and lightning, mixed with wind hitting the side of a thick tin shed.
His latest project is to translate his recordings of the effect of katabatic (low gravity winds that begin at the pole and speed up as they reach the coast) wind-induced blizzards on Casey station into an exhibition. It’s called Polar Patterns, a name I aped for the article… because ‘c’mon!’ How are you going to do better than that?
WINDING IT UP
Recording wind is not easy, and prior to this trip recording katabatic winds was almost impossible. “Most people associate wind against a mic as a blaring sound, and most of what you hear on TV and films is exactly that,” said Samartzis. “It’s not really the sound of katabatic winds.”
Out in the field, Samartzis used DPA 4006 omni mics which needed extra-special protection given one of the blizzards was the strongest ever recorded at Casey, exceeding 100 knots. He ended up procuring a set of Rycote’s new Cyclone windshields, adding fuzzy jammers over the top. “Rycote actually built them for me to take down there,” he said. “They were in production, but they hadn’t gotten around to building the models to house the 4006s. I wrote to let them know I was heading to Antarctica, and to find out if they could make them for me. They built four to take down and test. This project was about recording wind, not reducing or mitigating it. The Cyclones were really amazing because they removed all the turbulence of wind moving across the diaphragm, leaving just the sound of wind as you experience it in the environment. I couldn’t have got that sound without the Rycote Cyclone wind shields, it would have been a different effect.”
For two hours, Samartzis sat out in a -20°C blizzard recording the effect of the katabatic winds. By the end, when his body couldn’t take anymore, the windshields were frozen solid and his Nagra VI recorder was a block of ice, but still working. As well as the sound of the 100 knot wind, you can hear the granules of ice pattering against the stand.
Samartzis layered that recording with a host of other recordings made during a 36-hour blizzard event. He placed accelerometers on restraining cables, ambisonic microphones in vents, and other microphone configurations around the station to pick up the effect of the blizzard on the station. Then he set gain levels on his recorders and hoped for the best while he was trapped inside. You can check out the eight mic placements and descriptions Samartzis used to create his composition on the station map.
The entire effect is unnerving. Because the recordings are gathered from all around the station, from both interior and exterior aspects, the soundscape makes you feel at once protected from and exposed to the elements. The moment you lock onto the sound of an interior air vent and feel a sense of comfort at being inside, that feeling is stripped away the second you realise you’re simultaneously standing right in the middle of a freezing -20-degree, 100-knot blizzard with ice granules catapulting into your face.
There was tension even in this one human listening back to Samartzis’ recordings a continent away from Antarctica.