The sounds of Antarctica

Sound artist and RMIT University academic Dr Philip Samartzis travelled to Antarctica as an Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow in 2009–10 to record sounds that describe the impact of extreme climate and weather events on the human condition.

As a sound artist, the compositions I produce often comprise field recordings of natural and constructed environments, which are arranged and mixed to reflect the acoustic and spatial complexities of everyday situations. I draw on a range of practices ranging from acoustic ecology and bioacoustics, to musique concrète and sound art, to arrive at compositions that highlight the pervasive nature of sound and the myriad ways it informs and influences our daily experiences. I design my compositions for multi-channel surround sound systems that afford immersive and tactile listening experiences, to demonstrate the transformational qualities inherent in sounds familiar and strange.

During my arts fellowship I spent one month on the Aurora Australis enduring a topsy-turvy voyage across the Southern Ocean whilst we travelled to Davis station, and later to the formidable Macquarie Island. At Davis I spent six weeks making sound recordings in and around the station and further afield at some of the outlying huts in the desolate yet beautiful Vestfold and Larsemann Hills.

The aim of my project is to represent the complexities of our incursion into Antarctica by bringing together all the elements that inform and shape human experience on the continent. To achieve this I focused on everyday events around station, including the sounds of general infrastructure and transport, along with the various technologies used to facilitate research, construction and maintenance projects. I also surreptitiously employed an assortment of microphones hidden in various nooks and crannies to capture the general hubbub of station life.

To contextualise the sounds of human enterprise I undertook a rigorous study of the natural environment, making various recordings of the freezing wind howling off the Antarctic Plateau, whilst icebergs, brash ice and frozen lakes provided an endless source of amazing sound. I was particularly enamoured with the assorted grunts, snorts and wheezing emanating from the wallows of southern elephant seals surrounding Davis. These recordings later proved to be a hit with children and adults from all walks of life.

Whilst life on the frozen continent did have its challenges, they seemed quite trivial once I arrived at Macquarie Island. Nothing quite prepares you for the relentless wind or the stinging sand granules battering the isthmus where the station is located. As accommodation was in short supply I made daily trips between ship and shore, during which time the boating team had to navigate some pretty wild seas before crash landing on the beach. Once safely on land it was a matter of trying to stay upright whilst locating sounds that could be heard over the roar of the ocean and wind. Although my 10 days on Macquarie Island were some of the most arduous days that I care to remember, listening to my recordings I count myself fortunate to have experienced a place so remote and hostile, yet endearing in so many ways.

Since returning to Australia in April 2010 I have presented my fieldwork in festivals in Hanover, Germany, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and at the Heide Museum of Modern Art. In October I travelled to Cape Town to present a sound installation at the IZIKO South African National Gallery. I also conducted workshops for the visually impaired that provided them with a detailed aural experience of Antarctica.

I thank everyone at the Australian Antarctic Division, Davis, Macquarie Island and aboard the Aurora Australis, along with fellow artists and researchers, for the generous support and interest that was provided to me during the fellowship. I certainly could not have achieved all that I did without them and for that I will be forever grateful.


School of Art, RMIT University