The mysterious, enveloping white expanses of Antarctica have long been a source of fascination for artists of every stripe. But few have sought to replicate the experience of being in that environment in an immersive live music performance, combining field recordings and custom-built instruments to muse on the relationship between humans and the natural world.

Field work in Antarctica. Photo © Philip Samartzis

Soon to receive its world premiere in Melbourne, Speak Percussion’s Polar Force is an intriguing feat of daring, aiming to transport audiences to the Antarctic ice shelf through a complex, multi-sensorial work. The idea for the project was first sparked by high fidelity recordings made in the Australian Antarctic Territory by Dr Philip Samartzis, a sound artist and associate professor at RMIT University. Prior to his second research trip to Antarctica in 2016, Samartzis approached Speak Percussion’s Artistic Director Eugene Ughetti about a possible project built on the results of his fieldwork. There to document the presence and effects of katabatic wind, a volatile feature of the continent that sends cold, dense air down slopes, he identified in his recordings something that lent itself to use in performance.

“Whenever I encountered that kind of powerful geophysical force from my previous trip to Davis Station in 2010, I was reminded of the type of performances I’ve seen Speak Percussion do,” says Samartzis. “Extended techniques, abrasive sounds, unpitched noise, all those things that are associated with 20th century avant-garde music were being generated by the environment through those forces.

“I suggested that perhaps I could use some of the field recordings I was doing in Antarctica as a basis for a performance work, that they could possibly act as a blueprint or score for Speak to respond to. The idea was the blur the relationship between the recorded and the performed, so the performed could replicate what the recordings were doing and vice versa.”

Samartzis recording in Antarctica. Photo © Philip Samartzis

Ughetti jumped at the opportunity, having admired Samartzis’ work since his teen years. The first time he listened to the field recordings was very special, their slippery nature quite unlike that of composed music, he says.

“The sense of time and development and movement is obviously completely different,” Ughetti explains. “You start to hear layered details of sound within the recordings that allow you to deepen your understanding of the environment, but because you can’t see any of it, there’s an extraordinary amount left to the imagination. That was the first thing that struck me as a musician and as someone who knew he was going to be working with that material in a performance context – I knew that it wouldn’t function like pre-recorded electro-acoustic music in a conventional sense.”

“Another thing that struck me was that some of the sounds were actually kind of understandable – that must be a blizzard or that must be the foreshore of Antarctica and glaciers and ice and so on,” he says. “There were a range of other sounds that didn’t sound natural at all, very synthetic or electronic. And in fact, that’s been a beautiful strength to the work, sounds that are completely unexpected.”

Eugene Ughetti and Matthias Schack-Arnott. Photo © Jeff Busby

For Ughetti, the sounds of wind and ice were Polar Force’s point of departure. With Samartzis, he set out to find ways to manipulate the same materials in performance, soon discovering that conventional instruments were inadequate to the task. They ended up collaborating with industrial science students at RMIT, commissioning them to build instruments in response to Samartzis’ field recordings and images of Antarctica.

“They developed a whole range of ice instruments that could be performed or manipulated in different ways,” Samartzis enthuses. “Different instruments that could be frozen and then unfrozen and be haptically manipulated by the percussionists.”

Ughetti describes the creative process as highly unusual. “We knew where we were performing, we knew what the set-up of the room would be, and we knew that the instruments had to manipulate air, ice and water all before we knew what the music was going to be like. It was only when I began to understand the expressive possibilities of these instruments and listened very deeply to many hours of field recordings that I started to piece the music together. In a way the music came last when normally it’s the opposite.”

In performance, audiences will experience both field recordings and live music, the latter performed by Ughetti and Speak’s Artistic Associate Matthias Schack-Arnott. “Sometimes the live music takes complete centre-stage and other times it’s the field recordings,” says Ughetti. “And then there are times where we’re hearing both simultaneously, so the field recording might be acting as a bedrock above which live music is happening, or it might be a fluid interactive relationship between the two elements. And sometimes you hear a very strong, shared musical language between the two, and other times it’s more like the independent parts that are being heard simultaneously.”

Performance space. Photo © Clare Britton

One of the most intriguing aspects of Polar Force is the performance space, an inflatable structure replicating some of the conditions of Antarctica and holding an audience of 80. Based on the architecture of some of the research stations Samartzis has visited, the first thing to note is that it will be cold, but not freezing.

“The plan is to set it at 17 degrees, which isn’t necessarily cold cold, but is the operating temperature of remote research stations in Antarctica,” says Samartzis. “Below that, people are really uncomfortable and anything past that uses too much diesel and that’s in short supply in a station like that. So for audiences in summer, if you’re sitting in 17 degree environments or a period of calm you’re going to start to feel cold.”

“You feel like you’re walking into this kind of sound research laboratory where rather than researching the climate or wildlife of Antarctica, we’re researching its sound,” Ughetti explains. “So the space has this more industrial, scientific energy to it. The look and feel of the instruments that we’ve designed are really like industrial or scientific equipment. Even the ways in which we perform the instruments, the sort of physical language that it requires, is such that it means we don’t look like we’re playing instruments, it looks like we’re operating machinery.”

Photo © Phillip Samartzis

Samartzis is clearly pleased by how the project has come together, and excited by the prospect of introducing audiences to an environment off limits to most. “It’s a transformative experience,” he says. “It’s often hard to describe but it’s comparable to going out of space or to a different planet. It’s somewhere that’s completely alien and environmentally challenging in terms of cold and wind. It’s a desert. So this work has been to capture something that is in transformation and ephemeral and harsh to represent.”


Speak Percussion’s Polar Force is at Arts Centre Melbourne from November 24 – December 1

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine