Composer Listens to Ice, Writes Music
If you pay attention to science news, you might be concerned by recent reports from both The United Nations and the U.S. Federal Government warning of the effects of climate change. Skeptics abound, however, and there seems to be little political will to make large-scale changes to the way we live. That's why, in part, the National Science Foundation is sending artists and musicians to far-flung places all over the planet.
That's how composer Glenn McClure found himself sleeping in a tent in Antarctica.
“It was fascinating,” he says. “We were tenting on the Ross Ice Shelf, which is a kilometer thick and about the size of France.”
McClure was there as a kind of translator in 2016, to look, listen, and write music in response to the place. There wasn't much to see, he says. No birds. No rocks. No plants. The horizon simply blended into the sky, and he found it disorienting, like being on an ocean of white. But it was noisy, he says, full of sounds like wind and the crunch of different kinds of snow.
“The scientific team I was working with was actually interested in the sounds we couldn't hear,” he says, “because they were pulling seismometers out of the ice that had been there for the last two years measuring the movement of the ice shelf in response to climate change.”
When he returned to Western New York, McClure used a mathematical conversion process to turn sound wave data from those seismometers into a piece of music called "Tremble," premiered last year by singers at the State University of Geneseo conducted by Gerard Floriano.
McClure wanted the singers to imitate the waves resonating through wind, water, ice, and even their own bodies. The “shhhhh” sound, he says, underscores what he calls our need to be quiet to listen to the planet.
“I find that musicians have a unique and very interesting role to play in climate activism. We have the ability to translate what's happening with the planet into a language that speaks beyond the intellect, that speaks beyond practicality, that speaks beyond economics, that speaks to the heart.”
More music has emerged from the composer’s time on the ice. This spring Rochester chamber Madrigalia and Artistic Director Cary Ratcliff premiered another Antarctica-inspired choral piece, "Cry." The words?
The ice is crying. The waters will rise with every tear.
This weekend Glenn McClure is flying to another far-flung place to listen. He’s on his way to Hawaii to hike up volcanoes and dive down to where the hot lava shapes fantastic sculptures the under ocean waves. He'll meet Hawaiians and listen to native music.
When he comes back, he'll start composing.
“I don't know what the music is going to sound like right now,” he says. “I have no pre-conceived notion of what that is because I need to respond to the place and the people there. That's very exciting as a composer to be in that dynamic environment where both the people and the planet are driving the creative process.”
McClure says he hopes his work helps everyone listen more closely to a world making music of its own.