Katabatic winds inspire sound rendition of Antarctic experience

Philip shelters beside Jack's Hut while recording sounds during a blizzard.
Philip spent some time sheltering from a blizzard beside Jack’s Hut, while his recording gear “got hammered” – resulting in some exciting recordings of katabatic wind. (Photo: Dan Wilkins)
Philip with his sound recording gear at Casey station.  Frank Hurley’s iconic image of Leslie Whetter and John Close collecting ice in a blizzard.

Sound artist and RMIT University academic, Dr Philip Samartzis, travelled to Casey station as an Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow in early 2016, to explore the interaction of katabatic wind with the built and natural environments.

My project emerges out of an admiration of the innovative photography of Herbert Ponting and Frank Hurley who, by combining subject, composition and climate, conveyed a deeply mysterious and alien place. I am particularly intrigued by Hurley’s depictions of life on the ice through two iconic photographs, The Blizzard and Leaning on the Wind, both taken in 1912. The photographs convey the ferocity and atmospheric effects of the conditions using a mix of techniques, including staged scenes and composite printing, to viscerally express something almost impossible to articulate through conventional documentary photography. Inspired by these evocative depictions of abstract landscapes shaped by volatile conditions, I wondered how I could produce an equivalent account using sound recording techniques to render an embodied experience of extreme climate.

With images of ferocious gales and phantasmagorical landscapes etched firmly into my mind I undertook three weeks of fieldwork at Casey station, interrogating the effects of katabatic wind on the station and surrounding environment. Katabatic wind is a low gravity wind that gains force as it travels down elevated slopes. It is particularly prevalent at Casey due to its location at the base of Law Dome, which gently rises to an elevation of 1395 m. When the cooler temperature of a katabatic mixes with the warmer temperature of the onshore wind, an erratic weather system emerges, making Casey the ideal location for my project.

Katabatic wind is particularly notable for the way it shapes the manner in which sound is experienced within the built and natural environment. Its trajectory can push sound away from you or it can draw it closer to you. Its intensity can mask sound and its absence can heighten it. At its most ferocious it simply obliterates everything in its path. A collision with the built environment transforms katabatic wind into an intense series of ascending and descending pitches - a supercharged aeolian harp. Inside the braced, steel-framed and insulated panel buildings, pervades a silence that imposes a profound sense of isolation from the immediate environment. Outside, the volatility is expressed through a variety of resonances emitted by miscellaneous surfaces and materials undergoing tremendous stress. On one occasion, while recording from an ice encrusted cold porch, I was informed that wind gusts were exceeding 185 km/h. The piercing shrieks of the anemometer emerging from the white abyss provide testimony to its ferocity.

Over three weeks I recorded an assortment of sound activated by wind and shaped by the cold. Ice granules dancing across sheet metal, agitated flags, murmuring cables, brittle plastic sheets billowing in the wind, indifferent buildings and infrastructure, wind gusting across desolate ice fields, and the transformative effects of warming and cooling upon the polar environment.

The sound recordings will inform a new series of compositions for exhibition and performance designed to generate tactile and immersive experiences of the sonic ecology of extreme weather events. In development is a new concert work for Melbourne-based ensemble Speak Percussion, combining multi-channel sound recordings with acoustic instrumentation, including specially designed ice instruments and wind machines. Through the convergence of sight, sound and space, expressed within the mutable framework of sound art and experimental performance, vivid and dramatic impressions of nature in extremis will be achieved.

Philip Samartzis

Philip Samartzis is the artistic director of the Bogong Centre for Sound Culture and Coordinator of Sound in the School of Art – RMIT University. Philip thanks Creative Victoria for their support of his fellowship.