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sound compositions fire pattern (2007) and frost pattern (2006)
describe the extremes of hot and cold. Almost identical in terms of
their formal structure, the twin pieces reflect the acoustic impact of
the energies unleashed by fire and ice, from the loudest sound event in
each case – the eruption of a volcano and the collision of an
iceberg – through to cooling or melting in a more moderate
As elementary forces, fire and ice have always been used to symbolize opposites like passion and apathy, or change and rigidity. These extremes of hot and cold mark the borders of the intervening range of temperatures where life is possible. Nonetheless, human beings are magically drawn to these outer reaches of what they are capable of tolerating. Whereas Dante Alighieri saw sinners subjected to eternal punishment in seas of fire and ice, countless explorers later set off for hostile regions of Arctic ice deserts and volcanic landscapes in pursuit of this fascination. Such locations seem to epitomize this ambivalence of beauty and terror; some of the most violent forces of nature and the loudest sources of sound on Earth derive from volcanic eruptions and colliding icebergs. “We call that sublime which is absolutely great, (...) what is great beyond all comparison.” This is how Kant describes the experience of mighty natural forces, giving examples including overhanging rocks, thunderclouds, volcanoes and the boundless ocean. Nature becomes a treasure trove of metaphors, and our imagination projects archaic and romantic images into the remote marginal zones of our uncertain existence.
But what happens when we free fire and ice of these images, when we regain access to a state of awed listening and focus on the inner quality of hot and cold sounds? The English writer William Temple popularized a term that describes a fascination with unordered and random structures that unexpectedly lead to an aesthetic and transcendental perception of an everyday situation: the sharawadgi effect. In the field of acoustic phenomena, sharawadgi characterizes a strange sound coming from an unknown or uncontrolled source that suddenly opens up a new acoustic horizon and enables an aesthetic experience amidst the undifferentiated mass of everyday noise (Jean-Francois Augoyard and Henry Torgue in Sonic Experience). When the ice on a frozen lake suddenly gives off strangely synthetic sounds and we no longer feel safe on its vibrating surface, we might call this a sharawadgi effect. Volcanic eruptions are a classic example of a hidden, mysterious source of sounds which, although we can explain them in scientific terms, fill us with terror and awe on account of their physical energy. The same is true of the mysterious ice sounds recorded by the Alfred Wegener Institute with its underwater microphones beneath the Antarctic ice shelf, the source of which has yet to be identified. All these sounds are strange “by nature” and have yet to enter our acoustic normality; as a result, they can only be given a metaphorical charge via a process of active listening and subsequent inclusion in the catalogue of commonly known sound objects. Hearing these sounds “blind”, then, may come close to a direct, physical experience that allows the energies unleashed by the heat and the cold to be felt, focussing more on processes than on the narrative potential of these sounds.
The formal structure mirrored in the two pieces is the vessel into which the inventory of hot and cold sounds was poured. The aim here was to find a balance between influencing the sounds in compositional and acoustic terms, and leaving them in their original context. Ultimately, both pieces involved a great deal of compositional work on the micro-level, most of which remains hidden to the listener as it was often a case of “recomposing” natural behaviour – assembling and compressing lengthy processes of freezing or heating up. The contrast between the loudest and the quietest sounds opens the twin pieces; the loudest event (volcanic eruption, iceberg collision), giving rise to sustained droning or “singing” tones, is juxtaposed with the quietest sound phenomenon (evaporation of water drops, falling snow). After this, various states of heat and cold are passed through, describing a slow decrease in energy – in the case of fire, a gradual smouldering and cooling, and in the case of ice, a gradual melting and thawing. Towards the end of both pieces, rhythmic textures are woven in, translating the self-organizing structures in flame patterns and frost formations into acoustic terms and referring to the contemplative qualities of observing fire and ice phenomena. Ultimately, the differences in sound between hot and cold remain hard to define: the quiet crackling of burning coal or wood is similar in many ways to the tinkling sound of melting glacial ice, and even the mighty noises of volcanoes and icebergs seem deeply related.
Information on the individual sound phenomena: http://www.andreasbick.de/en/music/radiokunst/fire_and_frost_pattern.php
Translations by Nicholas Grindell.
Andreas Bick would like to thank Alfred Wegener Institute in Bremerhaven, the company of Fielax, Hanna Hartman, Kain Karawahn, Bastiaan Maris and Andreas Oldörp for their kind support.