Sounding Cold

30.01.2016

Explanatory Notes in Miroslav Srnka's score of "South Pole"
Explanatory Notes in Miroslav Srnka's score of "South Pole"

When Miroslav Srnka's South Pole opens this winter, audiences will experience the thrill of a race that is nationalism in motion; they will see a vast expanse of white on a split stage, and will hear voicings of personal struggle, both internal and external. They will also hear the sound of cold.

Prof. Barry Smith, director of the Centre for the Study of the Senses at the University of London says that most people can easily identify the sound of cold-at least when it is the sound of a cold, as opposed to hot, liquid being poured into a cup. But, what do hot and cold have to do with music? If you ask composer Miroslav Srnka, practically everything: "Most words to describe music come from the visual realm-high, low, bright, dark-and yet if you talk to musicians long enough, sooner or later they start saying things like, 'that cellist has a warm sound,' or 'the soprano was chilly.' When people use these terms they usually have in mind the special sound quality of tones in relation to their harmonics, especially their richness and purity." And so Srnka refers to something he calls "the temperature of sound."

Around 1600, composers discovered that they could use a combination of short and long range dissonance to create a sense of forward motion that corresponded to the kinds of moments of high drama we hear in Monteverdi's Orfeo. And at the same time they figured out that if they took out all those dissonances they could create the timeless world of consonance that became known as the pastoral: "Spring" from the Four Seasons or Corelli's Christmas Concerto; Silent Night and almost every cowboy Western. In much the same way, and at around the same time, composers started thinking about questions of sonic temperature and how to create warmth. In Srnka's words, "warmth comes from a kind of natural dirtiness which we put into the sounds whether by vibrato or some expressive distortion. This makes the sound seem rich and colorful and it feels warmer."

Over the last 400 years or so there has been a good deal of cold music written and it turns out that the recipe for making it parallels that of the pastoral: take some warm music and then remove all the signs of warmth! Even before the advent of motion pictures we can hear this in the starkness of William Byrd's "In Winter Cold", the dissonant, minor key opening of Thomas Weelkes' "Cold Winter's Ice is Fled and Gone," the gloominess of Purcell's "What Power Art Thou?" from King Arthur, and the ashen dryness of Vivaldi's "Winter". Attempts to paint cold continue with Haydn's mists and fogs from The Seasons, Janáček's stark "Voice From the Steppe" in House of the Dead, and the wind machine from Strauss' Alpine Symphony.

But creating musical cold did not become a cottage industry until the movies. As early as 1925 Erno Rapee has an entry for "Frozen Scenes" in his Encyclopedia of Music for Pictures where he refers readers to such "appropriate" cold weather pieces as Edvard Grieg's Brooklet and his own Frozen North. Over the next decades, according to film music scholar William Rosar, "Composers developed a musical vocabulary through trial and error that typically involved string harmonics to suggest the whiteness, stillness and glistening of snow and ice, the 'cool' sound of flutes, the 'open' harmonic intervals of the 4th and 5th sometimes described as 'cold,' instrumental tinkling on the harp, glockenspiel, celesta, chimes, and triangle, all along with the liberal use of string tremolo to suggest shivering." Some of these can be heard in the score composed by Heinz Roemheld for the 1929 silent film White Hell of Pitz Palu starring Leni Riefenstahl, with cue titles such as "light snow flurries," "snow storm theme," and "blizzard theme." 

By the mid-1930's, film composers had mastered the art of cold. We can hear it in the film adaptation of She, where Max Steiner's orchestrator Bernhard Kaun ghost-wrote the music for one sequence in which he employed the whole battery of effects in depicting the frozen expanses and mountains of an arctic landscape (especially minutes 10:00, 15:55, and 19:40).
As Rosar notes, Kaun was working with these kinds of musical sonorities a full decade before Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote the music for his the film docudrama, Scott of the Antarctic, which later became his Sinfonia Antartica, perhaps the most famous piece of frozen music.

The techniques of cold painting have continued, and over the ensuing years the following things have been used to suggest it: glass harmonicas, wind machines, high "clean" sounds of all kinds, including glockenspiels, harps, piccolos, and the top octave of the piano; wordless choruses, all manner of bells, col legno bowing, native flutes, Japanese flutes, high violin harmonics, wolf howls, African drumbeats, Tuvan throat singing, skua calls, marimbas, seal cries, a complete range of computer generated sounds, and more recently such things as biscuit tins, scaffolding, brandy glasses, glissandi, creaking sounds, and echoes.

At this point we should probably ask why music has come to play such a central role in the depiction of cold at all. In one sense the answer is simple: With a story like the race to the South Pole we have ample visual images and verbal descriptions to recreate the appearance of Antarctica. But all the expedition diaries mention incessantly the combination of cold, wind and blowing snow. It would be one thing if (weather cooperating) the directors of the Bayerische Staatsoper could simply turn off the heat and open all the doors to the outside so the audience could get a real feel for the discomforts of bitter cold, but that seems unlikely. So as much as anything, it is up to sound to recreate the sense of such things as frigidity, danger, and purity.

In order to do this, Srnka could easily have drawn on a subset of cold sounds we have already mentioned and others we might call "Antarctic music." And yes, there really is such a thing. Take a look at the website "Antarctica Experienced Through Music", compiled by Valmar Kurol and you get a sense of the scope and richness of Antarctic composition. Here, among the hundreds of titles you will find such things as: Sinfonia Antartica, Iceblink, Terra Nova Concerto, Seventy Degrees Below Zero, Penguin Dance, Terra Incognita, Shackleton's Antarctic Adventure, and The Last Place on Earth (and let's not forget Das Opfer, by Winfried Zillig, an opera about the Scott expedition with a chorus of penguins, premiered in Hamburg in 1937). 

Like the pastoral realm, Antarctica has often appeared still and timeless to its visitors, but also as an alien world. So much of this music is characterized by the static, long held sounds we hear in so many films and documentaries about Antarctica, but either through range, harmony or instrumentation, there is always an attempt at a kind of strangeness.

Kurol wrote me recently characterizing the range of Antarctic music: "A lot of heavy metal artists have done Antarctic tracks to show the brutality of the cold and the monsters that may lie underneath. Ambient artists tend to show the mysterious and colder, creepy side. Those involved with the Shackleton story usually write Celtic, upbeat music. Those writing about Scott's journeys tend to have slow, agonizing, soul-searching music. Environmental-Scenery music can be more grandiose or lyrical."

Though all of this might suggest that the sonic possibilities of Antarctica have been well-mined, Srnka has found some ingenious ways to invoke a fresh sense of place. "One of the reasons I was fascinated by Antartica is that even though it is a completely real place, it feels completely surreal to human beings. In fact, in that way it is close to the utterly stylized world of the opera stage. It is a kind of white place that actually exists, but already feels like an abstract stage in a certain way. I was looking for a kind of music that would both evoke this sense of hugeness but also suggest a world so far from reality that it cannot be grasped. The word which kept coming to mind was the French grandeur."

In order to convey this Srnka has experimented with musical form, general sonority and even the articulation of individual tones. To achieve the sense of space he has thought deeply about "how to form swarms of sound that have some shape and move in such a way that we recognize the product as an organic movement." Another technique involves a dialogue between recorded and live music. Noting that people often describe electronic sounds as cold, Srnka flips the process by using old gramophone recordings that are all middle range and have "warm" associations with home, Europe and civilization. To "lower" the temperature though, Srnka has eviscerated that same middle orchestral range, leaving only the high and low sounds. This is necessary because he believes that "It is not only human beings who freeze in this story, the orchestra freezes too. And the cold is not only in the weather; there are other kinds of cold that bring the characters to disaster, the consequence of their human choices." But this work of creating cold also exists on a kind of micro level. Srnka has included a glossary of articulation practices and markings at the beginning of his score that ensures that this kind of shaping is taking place even when it comes to individual pitches: "The orchestra stream technically consists of tones that flash in and out without being noticeable as having a beginning or end (if you do this with brass instruments, for example, you can create an overwhelming sound, the effect of something massive without edges). This makes it much easier to create the sound clouds I spoke about, and this is how I have tried to create the special world of Antarctica. Translated into the terms of music this means: grandeur and lack of grasp."

As the drama unfolds we hear cold in other ways. A blizzard hits and the tempo accelerates; the sound grows from ppp whispers to a brutal ffff. Amundsen's tragic Landlady is accompanied by a chilly bowed Japanese bowl. The keening of women's voices in the upper registers has the effect of ice. When I ask Miroslav Srnka about this he nods, "Yes, women singing in in their upper register a second apart." He pauses for a second and then says "That's really freezing!"

Der Komponist, Musikwissenschaftler und Autor Michael Beckerman gilt als einer der führenden Experten für die tschechische Musik, schreibt aber auch über Filmmusik, die Musik der Roma, Mozart, Brahms und die Musik in Konzentrationslagern. Nach Publikationen über Dvořák, Janáček und Martinů arbeitet er an einer Studie über Gideon Klein und hat mehrere Artikel über das Thema Musik und Antarktis veröffentlicht, für wissenschaftliche Zeitschriften ebenso wie für die New York Times. Er ist Laureat des Tschechischen Musikrats und wurde mit der Janáček-Medaille des tschechischen Kulturministeriums und zweimal mit dem ASCAP Deems Taylor Award ausgezeichnet. Zu seinen eigenen Kompositionen zählen das Ballett Asolando Suite, eine Schauspielmusik zu The Tempest und die Dark Woods Variations. Er ist Carroll and Milton Petrie Professor of Music an der New York University und war außerordentlicher Professor für Geschichte an der Lancaster University. Die Palacký-Universität Olmütz hat ihm den Ehrendoktortitel verliehen.


Dieser Text wurde geschrieben für das Programmheft zur Uraufführung von South Pole und erscheint dort in deutscher Übersetzung

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