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Why Antarctica is cool for composers

by Cherie Cooper

The frozen continent's allure was particularly potent in the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, when intrepid travellers would return with stories of its beauty and mystery, which in turn inspired works of art, literature and music.

Dr Carolyn Philpott, Lecturer in Music History and Musicology at the University of Tasmania's Conservatorium of Music, is fascinated by the significance of Antarctica as an inspiration for composers.
Her research looks at the ways composers have represented aspects of the Antarctic landscape and environment in their music.

Dr Philpott has examined the Antarctic-inspired symphonic works of British composers Ralph Vaughan Williams and Peter Maxwell Davies, and Australian composer Nigel Westlake, as well as the soundscapes of American Douglas Quin. She spoke about her research at the annual meeting of the Hearing Landscape Critically research network at Harvard in January.

Dr Philpott gave guest lectures at Florida State University, Syracuse University and the prestigious Eastman School of Music (University of Rochester), sharing her work with an international network of musicologists. She said Antarctica was "still very much a continent for science, but its impact on the arts is undeniable".

"My interest in Antarctica's connection to music grew out of a personal preoccupation with intersections between music, place and nature that began in childhood," she said.

"Studying musical responses to Antarctica (as well as other forms of artistic and literary responses) can play a significant role in enhancing human knowledge of, and appreciation for, the southernmost continent and the various challenges that it presents to us today. While I initially knew only a few key musical works, such as Ralph Vaughan Williams' Sinfonia Antartica and Nigel Westlake's Antarctica suite, soon after I began researching the topic I had amassed a long list of works dating from the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration in the early 20th century to the present, in a diverse range of musical genres and styles.

"This list has only continued to grow in recent years as more composers are gaining access to Antarctica through visiting artist and writers programs, and as issues relating to climate change are attracting more public attention."

Scores of Great Influence

Gerald Doorly
Songs of the 'Morning' (1943)
The Trinidad-born master mariner, musician, singer, light composer and author was a junior officer on SY Morning, which was sent to resupply Robert Falcon Scott aboard ice-bound Discovery during the British National Antarctic Expedition 1901-04.

Ralph Vaughan Williams
Sinfonia Antartica (1949-52)
The English composer provided the music for the film Scott of the Antarctic in 1948 and was so inspired by the subject he incorporated much of the music into a symphony.

Nigel Westlake
Antarctica: Suite for Guitar and Orchestra (1992)
Derived from the score he composed for Australia's first IMAX film, Antarctica, his suite evokes the beauty and grandeur of the southernmost continent. Voted No.29 in ABC's Classic 100 20th Century Countdown in 2011.

Douglas Quin
Antarctica (1998)
A soundscape recording created by renowned New York-based sound designer, naturalist, public radio commentator and composer.

Peter Maxwell Davies
Antarctic Symphony (2000-01)
Result of a commission by the British Antarctic Survey intended to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Ralph Vaughan Williams's score for the 1948 film Scott of the Antarctic and the subsequent Sinfonia Antartica.

Jay Needham
Chronography: Animal (2012)
Sound artist, electro-acoustic composer, teacher and scholar, Needham uses sound sources including amplified gramophone horns, springboard and field recordings from Antarctica in his compositions and live performances.

Scott McIntyre
Fire on the Snow: An Opera in Two Acts (2012)
Based on the Douglas Stewart radio drama, which recreates the dash to the South Pole by the tragically flawed British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-13.

Joe Bugden
The Call of Aurora – A Chamber Opera (2013)
Hobart-based composer's "story of love, death and madness", based on Douglas Mawson's 1911-1914 expedition to Antarctica.