No. 227

Requiem for the Polar Regions

By : Lou Sheppard

Entrant’s location : Canada



Requiem for the Polar Regions is an aural record of the shifting masses of sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic oceans, both the annual melt and reformation of ice, and the long term decline of ice in the Arctic. Using the data provided by the National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Colorado this automated program generates a musical score based on the perimeter and concentration of sea ice in the Arctic and Antarctic. The program maps the coordinates of the ice imagery to a musical scale, generating a distinct composition each day. Ice which reaches closer to the poles sounds as lower notes, while ice that sits further from the poles sounds as higher notes. The music produced by the program is discordant and jarring, the imperfection of the translation itself pointing to the disorientation and loss of climate change. The project exists as an online installation, a gallery installation and a series of live performances. It has also been played over radio.

What did you create?

Requiem for the Polar Regions is an online program that translates daily polar sea ice data,

Why did you make it?

I created Requiem for the Polar Regions after traveling to Antarctica with the Antarctic Biennial, an art event that took place in Antarctica. I was curious about the phenomenon of melting sea ice, and the disconnection between the data that we gather about a place and the experience of that place. Not only is sea ice crucial for people and animals who live in the Arctic, and for the animals that overwinter in the Antarctic, but the ice is key for maintaining Earth as a habitable environment for humans. As more reflective ice melts more sunlight is absorbed by the ocean, shifting global ocean temperatures, ocean salinity and changing ocean currents. These shifts, in turn, change weather patterns, which are being felt around the globe. I wanted to speak to the disconnection between this crucial issue and our ability to comprehend it through data. Translating the spatial data to a musical scale Requiem for the Polar Regions is a means to "sound" the data in a more emotionally resonant language of music. Within the Catholic tradition a requiem is a celebration of life and a memorial to something that has been lost. I named the work Requiem for the Polar Regions to acknowledge the loss in these regions and to create an ongoing memorial to what remains.

How did you make it?

Requiem for the Polar Regions works with daily sea ice images from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre in Boulder Colorado. The NSIDC makes these images available for free on their website each day. I mapped these images onto a polar graph, which corresponded to music notation. Where each point of sea ice fell on the graph corresponded to a musical note. This way I was able to track changes to the sea ice each day as musical notation and hear these changes in each day's musical score. I worked with programmer Kenny Lozowski to automate this process. Together we wrote a program that would gather the sea ice data each day and use my criteria to create a musical score, then played online. The program allows me to download midi files of the musical translations corresponding to any day since the data became available on January 1 1990 to present. I can then turn these files into musical notation to be played live by musicians. I can also compare changes to sea ice over time by looking at the differences in the music notation.

Your entry’s specification

The project creates one 15minute composition every day. In a gallery setting this composition is usually looped and plays in the gallery space. The project updates overnight. To exhibit the work requires a strong internet connection, a projector, computer and set of speakers. Size etc. is variable depending on the space. If the work is to be performed live any combination of dates can be played by musicians.