Science and Technology News

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Ice is Alive with the Sound of Music [Dispatches from Antarctica]

18 October 2010, McMurdo Station, Antarctica: Wesley Allen from Seattle
Routine lunch break. Howling, wind-swept day. I walk the 100 meters from operations to building 155, the big blue building which houses the galley. Ice crystals and snow find their way under my sunglasses and sting my eyes. I look down and squint. The door ahead of me has a large swing-handled latch, similar to those found on big industrial warehouses.

I stop for a moment just inside the doorway. The bright white sun plus icy shards give way to warm air and darkness. Visually, it’s quiet again.

Yet, as I step inside, I hear music. Looking up in the stairwell at the end of the hallway, I see a man perched on the landing strumming a banjo. A banjo? In the stairwell? Where am I? Who is that?

Music is lifeblood at McMurdo Station. With long work days, sometimes crowded living conditions, and non-stop daylight, a few minutes respite with headphones can be a sanity saver. Fortunately, the natural blending of art and science (maybe it is unnatural) in Antarctica means that there is no shortage of good music, or musicians, here.

Even the National Science Foundation gets into the scene by inviting musicians to visit Antarctica as part of the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. During the 2008-2009 austral summer season, NSF grantee Cheryl E. Leonard traveled to Palmer Station to create music using naturally occurring sounds and materials.

Back in the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration, long before mp3 and I-Pods, polar explorers and members of expeditions had to make their own music. The morale benefits were so well known, that the famed Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, made it a requirement.

So far as I remember, he asked me if my teeth were good, if I suffered from varicose veins, if I had a good temper and if I could sing. At this question I probably looked a bit taken aback, for I remember he said ‘Oh, I don’t mean any Caruso stuff; but I suppose you can shout a bit with the boys?’ He then asked me if my circulation was good. I said it was except for one finger, which frequently went dead in cold weather. He asked me if I would seriously mind losing it. I said I would risk that … After that he put out his hand and said ‘Very well, I’ll take you.’

– Cambridge University Physicist R. W. James, Expedition Scientist, recalling his interview with Sir Ernest Shackleton for the Endurance Expedition, 1914.

So who was that in the stairwell? That was Wesley Allen of Seattle, seasonal dining attendant in the McMurdo Station galley. Wesley was kind enough to permit me to film the above snapshot of life and music here, featuring him. What does Wesley recommend for a musical escape from the station’s more pedestrian pursuits?  Tin Hat Trio. After hearing some of their music, I concur.

You can see many more of the musicians and experience the central role of music at McMurdo, by looking up the annual music festival known as Icestock. Held in January each season, which is normally the warmest month, the 2009-2010 Icestock Festival featured 12 bands, several solo acts and mock combat between robots and ninjas.

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