It is hard to imagine anything colder than a Canberra winter. Mercifully, it doesn’t ever get down to -60 degrees, a common temperature in Antarctica. For those of us interested in the frozen continent to our south - but not enough to brave the weather - June will see the ANU School of Music play host to a five-day celebration of Antarctica that offers a taste of the continent, minus the icy temperature.
THE ANTARCTICA MUSIC FESTIVAL AND CONFERENCE celebrates the centenary of the 1911-1914 Australasian Antarctica Expedition. The expedition, famously led by Sir Douglas Mawson, has since become what Artistic Director and Conference Convenor, Arnan Weisel, describes as “an important part of the Australian psyche”. And this importance is not being underestimated, with a number of centenary events being staged around Australia and New Zealand. As the theme of the music festival and conference suggests, these events are not isolated to the sciences, reflecting the broad appeal of the Antarctic. Weisel’s own interest in the connection between the creative arts, Antarctica and history is shared by those featured in The Antarctica Music Festival program, and come together in the first conference to examine Mawson’s expedition from this perspective.
The five-day extravaganza presents a 21st century interpretation of Antarctica, viewed through the lens of the creative arts. The music festival kicks of festivities on Saturday June 25, running for two days prior to the three-day conference. The relationship between the arts and Antarctica may be a new idea to many. Although Mawson’s expedition is ingrained in Australian folklore, music is absent from this story. In fact, Antarctica is associated with science and silence, not music and performance. But this absence is not lost on Weisel. A professional pianist and Head of Keyboard at the ANU School of Music, he is keen to showcase the creative expressions inspired by the continent, especially sound and music. At the same time, the festival is also aimed at expanding knowledge of the 1911 Mawson-led expedition.
The relationship between Antarctica, music and history has personal significance for Weisel. His wife, Harpist and Head of Harp at the ANU School of Music, Alice Giles, is the granddaughter of Dr Cecil Madigan, a geologist who took part in the 1911 expedition. Earlier this year Giles visited the continent. While there she paid homage to her grandfather and performed as part of her Australian Antarctic Division Arts Fellowship. Her husband shares her interest in the lesser–known aspects of Antarctica’s history. Although Mawson is a familiar figure for many Australians, Weisel hopes the Antarctica festivities will “highlight the interesting personalities” that took part in the expedition, including Dr Madigan.
Fulfilling Weisel’s ambition, the music festival consists of an impressive program that draws on history and the arts to explore the Antarctic. The National Gallery will host the opening event, where James Turrell’s Skyspace will be the backdrop for a free dawn percussion concert. Offering a taste of the innovative program, the concert is followed by jazz, choral and harp performances. These musical events are complemented by a range of dance performances, art exhibitions and film screenings. A highlight will be the exhibition of Dr. Archibald McLean’s photographs from the 1911-1914 expedition, to be held at the School of Music. The historic photographs will offer viewers a window into the experience of Antarctica a century ago. Adding a contemporary perspective of similar regions, local artist Genevieve Swifte will exhibit a series of photographs and drawings from Northwest Greenland at the School of Art.
The diverse program of The Antarctica Music Festival and Conference reflects the widespread appeal of the continent. When organising the festivities, Weisel sought out a number of musicians, artists and academics who shared his interest in Antarctica, and other icy places. As a result, a mix of Australian and international personalities will contribute a wide range of perspectives to the program of events. One of these is acclaimed Norwegian sound artist Terje Isungset, whose participation in the music festival and conference is a big coup for organisers. Famous for crafting instruments from ice, Isungset’s unique musical performance is sure to be a highlight. Those interested in more traditional (and long-lasting) musical instruments will enjoy Giles’ Antarctica-inspired harp performance. Images from her recent trip to the continent and readings from her grandfather’s diaries will be featured alongside the performance, creating a sensory experience of the continent’s unique natural environment that is set to be a wonderful finale for the music festival.
This interest in Antarctica’s environment is a common thread running throughout the program of events. Despite the fact that it has been one hundred years since Mawson’s expedition, Antarctica remains what Weisel describes as a place that has “harsh and mysterious connotations”. He goes on to suggest these attributes make it the ideal place to explore music and other art forms, as creative artists are drawn to the continent’s extraordinary climate. This interest is, however, not limited to the arts. Astronomer Professor Fred Watson will present the keynote address at the conference, contributing another unusual angle to the exploration of all things Antarctic that the events promise. On that note, the last word is left to Weisel, who contends that The Antarctica Music Festival and Conference offers “the chance to be immersed in the environment of Antarctica”. That does sound pretty cool - literally.
The Antarctica Music Festival and Conference runs from the Saturday June 25 – Wednesday June 29. Tickets for the conference and music festival events can be purchased through www.music.anu.edu.au.>