blue and white abstract ice cracks

The Exchange: Elori Saxl and Lucas Zoet discuss sounds of cracking ice in the Great Lakes and snatching music from nature.

The Arts and Sciences used to share much of the same intellectual space. Only recently have they diverged to the degree that they seem diametrically opposed. The Exchange is our attempt to rekindle some of the dialogue that occurred between the two fields.

In this installment, we’ve brought together Elori Saxl and Dr. Lucas Zoet for a quick discussion about music, nature, and sound.

Elori Saxl creates gorgeous soundscapes as well as films. She has composed music for classical ensembles, Patagonia, Google, Poler, Dove, the New Yorker, This American Life, Public Radio International, SFMOMA, and more. She has also directed films for the New Yorker and Slate.

Saxl’s debut album, The Blue of Distance was released in January 2021 and received glowing reviews. According to Pitchfork, “The Blue of Distance is unusually beautiful, drawing on the gushing orchestral minimalism of 1970s Steve Reich (‘Blue,’ ‘Memory of Blue’), the dramatic harmonics of Philip Glass’ Glassworks (‘Wave II’), and even Matmos’ flair for found-sound samples.”

Lucas Zoet’s primary interest is in glacial processes.  He studies glacial process through a combination of glaciology and glacial geomorphology, using tools from geophysics and glacial geology to study processes in the field and computationally.  He also employs tools from rock mechanics and geotechnical analysis to investigate glacial processes in a laboratory setting.  

Zoet conducts fieldwork in places like Antarctica, Greenland, Iceland, Norway and the upper Midwest to understand how glaciers interact with their beds.  He also investigates the mechanics of sliding and what types of glacial landforms are left behind once the glaciers retreat.  He is dedicated to combining quantitative field data with laboratory data in order to test and develop theoretical treatments that can be applied in the fields of glaciology and glacial geomorphology.

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ELORI SAXL: I’ve spent a lot of this past year on an island in Lake Superior, and when the ice freezes, there are really crazy sounds that come from under the ice that sound sort of like laser space guns or techno being played far away and at varying speeds. What is causing these sounds?

LUCAS ZOET: Those sounds originate from something called dispersion.  All things being equal sound waves travel at different speeds depending on their frequency.  High frequency waves, like treble, travel faster than low frequency waves, like bass.  Somewhere out in the lake a crack formed and it generated a wide range of frequencies at one instant.

The cracking often occurs from big temperature changes and small amounts of insulative snow cover. Those sound waves start travelling through the ice and the water towards you. The higher frequency waves raced out ahead of the lower frequency waves, which is the process of dispersion. 

So, if you’re standing some distance away from the crack the high frequency waves will get to you a split second before the low frequency waves. If you were standing further from the crack the sounds would be even more separated in time. It’s sort of like how white light can be split into a spectrum of colors and form a rainbow.  So, those sounds are like the audio equivalent of hearing a rainbow. 

LUCAS ZOET: Are all the sounds in your song’s computer generated or do you ever record sounds and manipulate them? How do you choose the specific sounds in your songs?

ELORI SAXL: None of the sounds I use are computer generated. In The Blue of Distance, all of the sounds are either coming from acoustic orchestral instruments, analog synthesizers, or recordings of wind and water that I have manipulated.

The process was: I took the recordings of wind and water, then I would use a computer to slow down the recordings, change the pitch of them, loop small sections, and then highlight certain frequencies until melodies in the recordings started to emerge. So computers are involved, but all of the sounds are generated by wind and water. 

I generally start musical projects with a conceptual idea or question, and that ends up dictating which specific sounds I use. For example, with The Blue of Distance, I began with a question about how technology is affecting how we relate to land, people, and memories. So it made sense to me to use recordings that were literally taken from the land and also to use very new (and everyday) technology to manipulate those recordings such as computers and iPhones.

Sometimes it’s much more thematic or expressive–certain instruments and ways of recording those instruments just have super heavy associations that even if you think you don’t know about, you will likely be subconsciously influenced by (like synths from certain eras or drums mic’d in styles common to certain genres). So sometimes it’s just about leaning into those associations. And other times it’s just about trusting my intuition on what sounds good in the moment and not thinking too far beyond that. I’m always using the sounds that are interesting to me at the time, but what I find interesting one day may be quite different the next.

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