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What Do Glaciers Sound Like? 

click to enlarge Sound Installation for "MELT"
  • Sound Installation for "MELT"

Museums are generally known for collecting and exhibiting objects we can see, if not always touch. Shelburne Museum is no exception. So it may surprise visitors to "32 Degrees: The Art of Winter" that one of the most evocative works in the show can't be seen at all — just heard.

As soon as you enter the gallery, the sound of water greets you: Water dripping like spring thaw or rushing like a swollen river. Frozen water creaking and popping. Then come ominous low moans and booms — the sounds of glaciers calving.

Aptly, this soundscape is called "MELT," and it's the 2015 creation of Danish artist Jacob Kirkegaard. Just 32 minutes in length, "MELT" plays in a continuous loop, without beginning or end.

Kirkegaard "travels to the edges of the Earth to capture its inaudible voice," as curator Carolyn Bauer puts it. Rolling Stone suggested in a review last year that the artist "amplifies hidden worlds into evocative drifts." Indeed, Kirkegaard has recorded "sonic environments" ranging from the vibrations of a geyser to singing desert sands to empty rooms in Chernobyl. He is currently the first-ever sound-artist-in-residence at St. John's College at the University of Oxford. Kirkegaard is developing a vocal work, "Earchestra" — featuring collected tones generated in the inner ear itself — that will debut at the college next month.

For "MELT," Kirkegaard recorded in Greenland using highly sensitive hydrophones (underwater microphones) placed at various depths, as well as vibration sensors on melting ice surfaces. The clarity is exquisite, and the sonic omnipresence in the gallery has both visceral and subliminal effects. So vividly does Kirkegaard's work underscore the exhibit, you may begin to wonder why all art shows don't have an auditory component.

To be sure, "32 Degrees" offers plenty of engaging visuals. But to appreciate its sonic element fully, visitors should eventually make their way to the back corner of the gallery. There they will find, in a partially enclosed nook, the source of Kirkegaard's watery symphony. The installation is a veritable shrine to sound: Two white KRK Rokit speakers and a squat black subwoofer sit on a slightly elevated platform. Above them, providing visual context, is a large-scale photograph titled "Ice Edge" that Kirkegaard shot of a glacier. Two benches flank the alcove, inviting visitors to sit and really listen. It is a mesmerizing and rewarding acoustical journey, by turns meditative and disquieting.

Reached at Oxford via email, Kirkegaard answered some questions about his work. 

SEVEN DAYS: I’ve read a lot about your work, but not about how you came to it. What inspired you to pursue earth-oriented sound recordings?

JACOB KIRKEGAARD: I’ve recorded sound since I was a child. My father was so kind to give me a [reel-to-reel] tape recorder when I was 6. It was then I discovered how I could manipulate the sound of my voice by recording it high speed and playing it back at low speed. Throughout my childhood, I often recorded my friends, in school, etc.

I think my early fascination with sound motivated me to go into music (at the age of 12). When I was 20, I heard a radio program about Pierre Schaeffer and how he had used the sounds around him for his sound creations. That was when I seriously started recording sound and understanding these sounds as much more interesting “instruments” than the more conventional instruments I had previously played (guitar, classical cello, percussion).

SD: For a layperson, can you describe/explain your recording equipment?

JK: The so-called acoustic sound is vibrations through air that vibrate our eardrum and stimulate the hair cells inside the cochlea of the ear. Since everything around and inside us vibrates, I am not only interested in listening to what is transmitted through the air, but also to listen to the vibrating matter itself. I therefore record a lot of my sounds using vibration sensors.

I use what are called accelerometers. They are actually used in science, like to measure engines in, say, airplanes or power plants, to make sure that things work in their correct frequencies. But I’ve used these tools to pick up vibrations from our surroundings, which can be from natural sources or industrial. I’ve recorded [the] subterranean sound of the active volcanic earth in Iceland, the creaking of ice surfaces in Greenland (as you’ve already heard), and I’ve recorded nuclear power plants, the West Bank barrier in Palestine… I also use hydrophones (underwater microphones).

I’ve recorded electromagnetic oscillations in the atmosphere caused by the solar winds (and which are seen as northern lights) using specially built radio receivers that can receive these natural waves bouncing between the Earth and the ionosphere. I use tiny microphones to record tones emitting from our very ears.

All in all, I use tools that can help me listen to and reveal the world, or ourselves, from perspectives that aren’t immediately audible.

SD: The sounds you recorded for “MELT” were underwater and on glaciers in Greenland. Where exactly were you, and for how long?

JK: I did the underwater recordings of the calving glaciers and the ice surfaces in and around the Ilulissat icefjord. I also recorded at Russell Glacier (which leads to the inland ice cap) near Kangerlussuaq. I also did some underwater recordings at Oqaatsut while standing on the very ice. There is one recording in “MELT” that I made in 2004 in Cologne, Germany.

SD: It seems to me your work is both science and art. In the end, you create an auditory experience. Do you think of it as music?

JK: I understand music as a subjective experience. Something can be music to one and be noise to others. I am more interested in imagining sound as a tool for sculpturing, in the same way as paint can be to a painter. If my sound works were paintings, I think they could be an abstraction of something concrete.

SD: In a previous interview (about your Ethiopian recordings), you said, “I don’t see myself as a conductor or composer but more of a collaborator of sound.” Could you elaborate a bit on that?

JK: In my younger years I studied cello and learned how to control its sound. I needed to know what I wanted and where I wanted the tone to go. If you’re not in complete control, you can’t play the cello. I respect people who can master that, but I just feel that the sounds around me give so much back. I don’t have to be the sole creator, I don’t have to invent everything from scratch or to follow a score. I listen to the world and there is sound. It talks to me. When I learn about places, phenomena or things in the world that catch my interest, that frighten me, mystify me or seduce me, I can go out and record it.

I never know exactly what I will find. For example, when I went to Greenland, I didn’t know what sounds I would meet. I returned to Berlin with sounds I had never imagined. And these sounds inspired the way I created the piece that I would call “MELT.”

SD: Maybe you don’t call it composition, but I have to assume you created “MELT” by putting your collected sounds into a sequence, like creating a mixtape, no? When I was listening to it, I wondered whether you chose the order of sounds to create a particular rhythm.

JK: Yes, I am a composer, but I also see myself as a collaborator of the sound that I record. The sounds aren’t dead or only brought to life by me, as is the case with the sound of the cello. I don’t create works like Beethoven did when he became deaf. My works are shaped in collaboration with the sounds. So, yes, I create a kind of narrative for “MELT,” but I don’t try to create a rhythm. I use my intuition in putting this together; I try to sense what the sounds are telling me.

SD: Of course, the 32-minute piece is on a continuous loop in the gallery, so I doubt anyone perceives a “beginning” and “ending” to it, and in fact visitors enter it randomly. Does that matter, or is that how you intend listeners to experience it?

JK: My intention with this piece is exactly that there is no beginning and no end. It is more like a state of mind. It would feel artificial to me to create a beginning or an end to this. I’d then have to start with the Big Bang.

SD: The human brain is hard-wired to categorize, interpret, identify. So it’s nearly impossible to hear sound and not try to figure out what it is. Or we use analogies — “that sounds like…” — as I have to do in describing your work to our readers. Clearly, you can’t control how listeners experience or relate to your recordings, but if you could, what might you suggest to them?

JK: It is an interesting question. I do wish to create, reveal or to find sounds that sound a bit out of this world. I know that we all understand things by recognition, and that we immediately try to relate new inputs to our previous experiences. So, how to create that connection between the unknown (or unheard) sound with the more familiar? How do we learn just to accept and not try to recognize and put into [a] category?

Well, many of the places or phenomena I record are known. Say, for example, Greenland. We’ve all heard of global warming. Yet, have we listened to it? If we can relate the sounds that we hear to something we know or have heard of, then I do believe that sound can be completely out of this world.

If we listen to my sounds from “MELT” without knowing what they are, perhaps they are alien to us. Maybe they sound like fire, or just like dust on an old record? But if I tell you it is ice melting in the Arctic, this alien sound all of a sudden gets “meaning,” and maybe it helps us to understand the Arctic from a more sensory perspective than dry numbers and statistics.

SD: Along those lines, how do you hear your recordings? You know where you put your microphones and presumably have some idea of what is making each sound. But when you are creating a soundscape such as “MELT,” is there a point where you let go of literal meaning and focus on pure sound (à la notes in a symphony)?

JK: Very interesting question as well. You’re right, it is quite impossible for me to hear my recordings completely blank without any reference. I’ve been there, on the ice fjord, felt the cold and remember the blue and white colors. However, it is indeed different to sit at home in front of my computer and speakers and edit these sounds. I remove the sounds from their place and context, and so they appear different to me. More like abstract sound.

I then use other parameters to select the sounds I want to use. They aren’t that conceptual. I’ve experienced recording places I found really impressive, but then it didn’t sound that good back home. So then I didn’t use the sounds. My parameters are more focused on the spectrum of the sound. How rich it is. In frequency, and the clarity of the sound. Its energy.

SD: I guess I’m getting back to the music idea. But perhaps this is wrong, and you are actually aiming to represent your experience in a particular place, to bring the listener there.

JK: I’m not having any particular wish or aim to bring anyone to a particular place. Because most of the audience hasn’t even been there. Or at least they weren’t with me when I recorded these sounds.

If I were to suggest a place I’d like to bring people when they listen to my recordings or my works, I’d like to invite them inside themselves. I’m happy if the sounds of the melting ice in Greenland, for example, can somehow feel like an inner melting. Or that we’ve got giant icebergs inside us. That the Arctic drama is part of ourselves. Perhaps we can relate to these hitherto unknown sounds if we dare to listen to our subconscious and unknown inner self.

SD: Sound is obviously ephemeral; you can remember hearing things, but you can’t keep hearing them once the sound has stopped (or you’ve removed yourself from the source). What would you like listeners to remember about this work?

JK: If they feel that my works speak to them, it is probably because something resonates in them. And if something resonates, it can be felt afterward. It doesn’t have to be the particular sounds they remember. Maybe, rather, just a feeling that was evoked…

SD: Last question: Why did you opt to include a visual — the photograph “Ice Edge” — in the listening nook at Shelburne Museum?

JK: This idea grew between the curator of the exhibition and me. They were also interested in my photos. I had wanted a much darker room where the photo would hardly be visible. I loved the design of [the] whole exhibition, but it is important for me that the physical image isn’t too explanatory.


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Pamela Polston

Pamela Polston

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Pamela Polston is the cofounder, coeditor and associate publisher of Seven Days.

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