Music of Antarctica

Photo Courtesy of National Geographic

Leonard generates her music from the rocks, shells and general debris that she finds.

For most people, the term “Antarctic music” most likely brings to mind the peaceful or haunting sounds of the piano, flute or violin to reflect the barren yet beautiful nature of the Antarctic landscape. Or maybe thoughts stray toward the jazzy tunes of particularly rhythmic penguins, for those who are familiar with the Happy Feet franchise. But such modern methods of musical expression simply will not make the cut for composer Cheryl E. Leonard, whose work with Antarctica has taken the concept of nature music to the next level. Essentially, rather than trying to capture the essence of our planet’s southern-most continent through conventional instruments or lyrical melodies, Leonard generates her music from that essence itself in the form of the rocks, shells and general debris that she finds strewn across the frozen land.

A native of San Francisco, Leonard has made it her lot in life to travel the globe, giving a musical voice to the essence of each location she visits. Natural materials are her specialty; driftwood wind chimes and pinecone percussion lines are only a few examples of the ways in which nature is directly present within her compositions. In order to create her 2009-2012 compilation Antarctica: Music from the Ice, Leonard ventured into what was perhaps the most outlandish terrain she had yet encountered: the icy continent itself. The collection includes such uncommon titles as “Lullaby for E Seals” and “Meltwater,” but as with the rest of Leonard’s work, it is the instruments that shine with the most originality. For example, in order to recreate the “popping, snapping sounds” that are so often associated with Antarctic ice, the composer knocks penguin leg bones against rock slabs and limpet shells. In fact, penguin anatomy seems to be a theme on this particular album; one of Leonard’s instruments is composed of several avian vertebrae and can be blown like a flute, while another consists almost entirely of a penguin sternum bone. Of course, Leonard should in no way be thought of as a bird-killer. The bones she uses are a part of the flotsam found on the Antarctic coast, and therefore are as much apart of the barren landscape as the rocks and shells that surround them. Leonard sees them as the perfect instrumental tools to use in her campaign to harness the Antarctic spirit.

On the whole, Leonard does not pay too much attention to hipster lyrics or rock solos, and her songs may not be headlining the Top 40 anytime soon. But they are definitely more than a collection of sound effects. They seek to interpret the spirit of the land using the tools that come most naturally with the land itself. According to the artist’s official website, she “uses microphones to explore the micro-aural worlds contained within her sound sources and develops compositions that highlight the unique voices they contain.”

The continent of Antarctica has been audibly captured.

Clearly, in order to capture the wild essence of Antarctica, Leonard focused as much on symbolism as on the use of physical material. Her instruments could have been completely well-known and professionally made, and would undoubtedly have yielded an equal if not better sound if that had been the case. But quality of sound, at least in the conventional sense of the term, is not necessarily the main goal. By choosing to express her Antarctic music through a strictly natural medium, Leonard’s compilation bonds with the landscape in a way that borders on spirituality.

Perhaps this method is the most effective way to truly grasp the spirit of a land, or perhaps a more conventional approach would have been preferable. Regardless, the continent of Antarctica has been audibly captured in a way that could signify great things in store for the musical world. Music with penguin bones, rocks and shells may just be the first steps.