Great big silences

Perennial Acoustic Laboratory

The British Film Institute Archive has recently restored a 1924 film by photographer and cinematographer Herbert Ponting, who had joined the British Terra Nova endeavour, a scientific expedition in the early 1910s to Antarctica. The expedition became infamously ill-fated, not only because the Norwegian team of Roald Amundsen beat the British team in the race to the South Pole by a mere month, but also because the expedition party died on the return journey from the pole. Ponting’s film captures their initial hopeful moments in the camp — crew members romping after the penguins — besides the challenges that life in that Great White Silence entails. Its newly composed score (by Simon Fisher Turner) does a great job in evoking the alien beauty and its massive silences – of the medium, the expansive landscape, and the fate of the explorers.

Quite a different sound of the Antarctic is produced by the Alfred-Wegener Institute for Polar and Sear Research. Their research station, the Perennial Acoustic Laboratory, has been recording the underwater soundscape around the ice shelf. The hydrophonic recordings are transmitted live via their website. They are used to study the acoustic repertoire of whales and seals “in an environment almost undisturbed by humans”. Nevertheless, it streams also many non-biological sounds, generated by movements of the ice masses and anthropogenic events like passing ships.

The sound quality, the research team acknowledges, is far from perfect, as a result of compromises between sensitivity to animal signals and not ‘overdriving the system’. In March 2006, for instance, the researchers fell off their chair when two icebergs at 20 kilometers distance from the microphone slowly collided, which resulted in a ten-minute extended exposure of well above 200dB!

As a source of scientific research, the team explains, it is not exactly “optimized for easy listening”. The live-stream presents a monotonous static, now and then interrupted by acoustic blinks and flashes, the equivalent of a tv-set antenna reception on a snowy day. (in that sense it is different from a contemporary pastime of digi-observing hatching birds). Obviously, the expert ear may hear data where the unaccustomed only picks up noise. Yet while such static may be regarded as communicative ‘noise’, it is also a real-time trace of an actually existing deeper world, a great blue, silent wasteland. Its interruptions, clicks and flashes are alive, and thereby different from the drones and hums of mechanical noise.

That does not make them more accessible to the untrained ear though, for they are traces are of a world we can’t imagine as real. As anthropologist Stefan Helmreich states in the opening sequence of his Alien Ocean, “the ocean is strange. It represents a contrast to the cultivated land and even the solid order of culture itself.” Listening to laptop-plugged-in-earphones, either to the dramatic sounds above the ice or the live-feed beneath, are both exercises in immersion in expansive silences that, despite being mediated by culture and technology, are as far from culture as can be.