AinA concert live

For those who have been patiently waiting to finally see a full version of the concert I played at Mawson Station: I played the concert with the addition of film footage I took and edited from the voyage, plus the song composed on the ship, and some of the outdoor clips, at the School of Music Llewellyn Hall for a live webcast last week. Here’s the link:

It will be up for awhile so you can dip in when you have time. If you want to skip the speeches you can start at slide 5 (although Tim Bowden’s talk and lively ukelele playing leads us neatly back in time over the history of Australians in Antarctica). Tegan’s beautiful singing, and Hannah’s behind the scenes score reading for the webcasting producer demonstrate what a versatile harp area we have at the ANU. It was certainly a team affair with the School of Music audio-visual production team in full force. Thanks to all! but most especially to the composers – Larry, Jim, Martin, Joshua and Nigel, who composed such wonderful works for this program.



Thanks to all the bloggers who have left lovely words of appreciation on the site. It has been very encouraging to hear how interested you have all been. During the journey back I have had regrets about the short time I actually had to do the things I wanted to – the narrow windows of good weather and the resupply organisation priorities meant that I had no time to review my recordings and work on getting the best sound, and wind has marred a lot of the sounds I was looking for. So I am happy that even the small amount of what I have achieved has been stimulating for the imagination. I will now be spending time going over the material I have to see what I can make of it. Certainly the Centennial program is something that would not have happened without the focus and meaning of the voyage itself, and that is something I hope to build on and present many more times at home during the next few years of the celebrations.

We are rolling home quite speedily now, but will not make up the two days we lost due to the poor visability and blizzards at the end of resupply at Mawson. Most of the people on board are in a kind of let-down or relaxed holiday mood after a strenuous season of work, or they are busy catching up on paper-work and writing articles. We are losing one hour each night for six nights, which is a most peculiar adjustment and turning up for meals has become rather haphazard.

Bird life is still quite active, with a large albatross seen this morning around the ship for a couple of hours. Yesterday I marvelled at the dipping of the small shearwaters – they use the wind from the waves and swoop suddenly so close, making my heart leap as they disappear from sight for a moment as they change angle. I learnt that these little birds can dive up to 60-70 meters underwater to catch their food which I think is quite extraordinary. As the size of the sea birds increases, their diving depth decreases – the largest albatross might dive up to 2 meters – their wings are heavy to move underwater. Other small birds get up to 20 meters.

Westlake at Mawson

westlake at mawson

The following recording is from the Mawson concert Alice gave last week.

Nigel Westlake “Antarctica” with some reading of C.T.Madigan’s Diaries from the 1911 – 1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition led by Sir Douglas Mawson.

Alice will be playing the complete Mawson program at the Antarctic Music Festival on June 26th 2011 at the ANU School of Music.

“At sea and reflecting”

We are well and truly on our way home now, rolling on the swell, and this morning left the last distant sight of icebergs behind us. On reflection now my Antarctic experience already takes on a dream-like quality – so short the number of days on land compared to the sea adventure.

I feel though that I have seen the continent in its two guises: when it is cloudy and blizzardy then I felt an overpowering sadness and a sense of age beyond my comprehension – as though the ancient rocks have been abandoned by the other continents seeking more verdant climes millions of years ago, and Antarctica has been left in a bandwidth beyond the human scale of life, smothered in desolation under extraordinary deep layers to wait or to hold frozen forever; on sunny clear days, beauty sparkles, pastel colours dance reflected, and the splendour of the ice and snow cover has a beguiling seductive smile that makes one blissfully comfortable and at peace with being there on sufferance, a tiny insignificant outsider.

Last night I spent hours gazing through the little hole right in the front of the ship, the place from which I took the icebreaking movie on the voyage out. Sheltered but pitch dark and solitary, I saw the ghostly icy blocks and ‘pancakes’ looming towards us and grinding under the ship, with the 3 search-light beams ahead watching for bergs and  ‘bergy bits’. Mesmerizing, and a magical way to farewell the quiet Antarctic waters. Today has mostly been spent sleeping and reading, although I do confess to a small amount of practice and – writing a small piece inspired by the Mawson Station landscape.


Elephants Seals and Larry Sitsky’s music at Davis

“The A factor”

Alice in Mawson

Back aboard the Aurora Australis, Sunday, I can start to assimilate and look back on my experience.
Friday was again too gusty to fly or go outside much, but Saturday was fine and clear, and helicopter operations got into full swing. Highlight of the day was a very adventurous photo shoot – an opportunity we didn’t want to miss with my blue harp on the ice. Concerts over, I thought it worth the risk: a once in a lifetime opportunity. Temperature was around -7C, and by the time we got going the wind was 30knots, which equals a Windchill factor of about -20C! I put my thermals on under the evening gown, a scarf, woollen gloves and snow boots with boot chains while Tom and Martin researched a suitable ice shelf on the edge of the bay. Then Chris gingerly manoeuvred the ute with harp on down over the rocks. Everything went pretty quickly because I wasn’t sure how the harp would handle it, and my ears started freezing off, but I am looking forward to seeing the shots. Later in the day the winds eased back again considerably, and I would probably have really been able to play out there – but in Antarctica you have to take the windows of opportunity offered and not count on anything as it’s never exactly what you expect. They call it the “A factor”. I hardly dared check on the harp once we got it back – I let it acclimatise in the cold room first and got myself a cup of tea – but when I checked the tuning it was bang on pitch – not a bit sharp and seemingly unconcerned!
In the afternoon the ceremony for the interment of the ashes of Phil and Nell Law was held – unfortunately inside because of the gusty weather, but it was a nice ceremony in the same location as I had presented my concert, with the view of the bay behind. I played Sitsky’s Fantasia ‘Antarctica’  and ‘Dark Eyes’ which was Law’s favourite piece to play on the accordion.
Later I was treated to a trip up towards the plateau behind the station in a Haaglunds (Haags for short) a mixture between a tractor and a snowmobile. The sun melting the top layer of snow and the cold wind meant that the vehicle soon started to slip and slide, and eventually we got out before the summit for a walk. The surface was very beautiful, with glimpses of clear blue frozen water beneath the white surface. Tricky to walk on even with boot chains (these are like car snow chains and fit snuggly over the bottom of your snug Canadian snow boots), in some parts the surface was sheer ice with only little ridges to keep one from slipping down the large sweep to the bay below, or so it seemed. A sensational view over the icy bays and rocky outcrops in the only sunny day of the stay, the icy bay reflected blue as though it were melting.
All my bits and pieces of equipment and harps were to travel on the helicopter back with me, but when I turned up with the big harp on the ute we discovered the area for the harps had been filled up with luggage, and there was no time to rearrange. So I had to leave both harps behind and fly off into the sunset feeling a little fickle. I have been assured they will arrive on the next flight, but that “A factor” is a little worrying; today the flights have again been cancelled due to snow…

Air Resupply

From the Mawson Station Web info – This week at Mawson: 4 March 2011
Expeditioners take cover from a landing helicopter(Photo: Dave Morrison)
Well, it’s resupply time at Mawson. With an iceberg causing the sea ice to remain intact this year the Aurora Australis was forced to remain thirty nautical miles offshore and commence resupply by helicopter.  This method of resupplying the station creates more than its fair share of problems, however with exceptional efforts from the AA team, all expeditioners aboard, the helicopter crews and everyone ashore at Mawson we now have station shelves that are looking nice and healthy in all departments.  At the time of writing the weather has forced a break in proceedings, but it is expected that we shall resume again soon.

Helicopter taking off in a halo
(Photo: Dave Morrison)

The AA stuck fast for resupply in the ice
(Photo: Dave Morrison)

Loading the helicopter with station supplies

(Photo: Dave Morrison)


Mawson concert hall

Dawn Concert at Mawson
From the Mawson Station website – This week at Mawson: 4 March 2011

This week we saw Mawson station transform into Mawson Concert Hall as Alice Giles fired up her harps for our entertainment.  It really was something to behold.  The program went for about an hour and there were plenty of eager listeners who showed up to experience this unique Antarctic concert.

red shed – concert venue

view from the red shed window

Alice entertains Mawson Station.

(Photo: Dave Morrison)

“In limbo on the Icy Planet”

I have some very funny footage of my experiment with going outside in winds of over 55knots. Some of the fellows videoed me from upstairs as I attempted to move from the doorway down the steps – at the end Muzza came to the recuse like superman and I got a few meters before giving up while he went sailing off making it look all too easy. That was Wednesday – today is Friday, and although we were meant to be able to start helicopter flights back to the ship this morning, it looks now as though that won’t be until tomorrow or Sunday. The helicopter pilots need good horizon visibility as well as calmer winds. So I have all my equipment packed and am in limbo – “Hurry up and Wait” is one the Antarctic mottos.

Looking towards West Arm (that’s ice not water)
Luckily yesterday afternoon there was a slight lull in the winds, and a group of us walked out onto the West Arm of Horseshoe Bay, reached by walking over icy snow around the beach area to arrive at the smooth brown rocks of the arm. I think I was able to get some good recordings of wind through the baby harp strings in a sheltered and dramatic spot overlooking the icy sea and glacial cliffs of the other side of the arm, and continued recording and messing about until the weather changed – a light snow fall turning quickly to higher winds, and I struggled back with harp on my back over the ever increasing iciness. Walking in the high wind is a strenuous and exhausting experience, and I soon get very hot and puffed inside my warm down jacket. But rather fun too!
Theo has given us tours of his spectrometer lab – measuring air glow and aurora at high altitudes, and the cosmic ray lab – measuring rays from the air and from a cavern about 30 metres down in the bedrock. This is fascinating and mind-boggling (for the lay person) science at the edge of the human mind’s understanding – a creative venture which I am inspired to consider introducing into my Antarctic program in some way – finding expression for this science that goes beyond the visible world of the nature around us, just as music does. The invisible world is also what I feel most strongly about the Antarctic continent – the powerful rocky presence which extrudes, devoid of vegetation, is somehow more unexpectedly fascinating to me than the icy and changing cladding. I seem to tire very quickly here, and with the continual wind and being able to see only ice and rock with no other forms or life, it feels as strange as if we were on Neptune. A bare bones kind of experience.”

“Near disaster averted, and Goal achieved!”

Monday must rank as one of the most roller-coaster and challenging days in my career (running a tie with the day last year I missed my flight from Germany to Italy for a recital). Arose early to prepare for helicopter departure to Mawson Station. We were all ready to go on the helideck and I was just arranging for the harp to be carried down from the bridge when we received the news that all flights had been cancelled due to high winds and expected blizzard conditions. The voyage leader was also concerned that should weather get worse there would be too many people to get out of Mawson quickly before the ship would need to leave. So I had a very tense day in the knowledge that I had got so close but there was only a small chance I might actually ever get to Mawson at all. But late afternoon I was told winds had eased and I was scheduled to go out on the evening flight and return the next morning. Joy! – I was shaking so much with the relief I had to sit down in the ‘departure lounge’ to do a patience card game to get calm enough to walk to my cabin, repack for 1 day instead of 5, and try and have a nap. The harp was carried down from the heated bridge to a small sheltered alcove near the freezing helideck, where I was able to try and get it acclimatised to temp. -15C outside. The helicopter ride itself was spectacular – over 70kms of sea ice at sunset, with the beautiful mountains surrounding Mawson looming closer. The harp only just fitted into the helicopter passenger area (an S76 for machine buffs) and ended up half on the laps of the Korean film crew in the back, who were very charming about it. My heart was in my mouth when we arrived, as the wind was VERY cold, and the harp needed to be taken from the helipad by ute to the ‘Red Shed’. Once there I let it acclimatise in the ‘cold porch’ while I quickly unpacked and set up my electro-acoustic gear and the video and sound recording equipment. Without Rolf the very sweet and helpful incoming Met officer, I am not sure if I would have managed it all – one output on my Camac wasn’t working so I had to forgo the general output amplification and work with 3. The harp seemed fine apart from that, which was a relief. Just had time to tune and slip into evening gown, and ready to play at 11:15 pm, having had no warm up, not even a scale, all day! It was supposedly the last night at the Mawson Bar for the remaining Mawson Winterers (a few being already on ship) and they held the official changeover ceremony while I was getting organised. It was unfortunately dark outside already, but I was assured the morning would bring a beautiful view from the windows, so I arranged to do a repeat performance for early risers at about 5am. Just time to download and check my video recording, sleep for 2 hours and start all over again! But the view was indeed worth it, and it was beautiful to play in such a spectacular and special scene.

As I was packing up everything imagining I would need to be ready to leave with harps and my 13 packages of equipment at any moment, I heard that all flights had been cancelled for several days due to incoming blizzard conditions, and that I was to be staying in Mawson along with the other Mawson departing expeditioners and helicopter operators! Of course I had a moment of panic, imagining what it would be like if the ship found it had to turn around and leave due to the poor conditions and icy seas. I imagined also how my grandfather would have felt trapped in an icy bay knowing winter had arrived, aware of all that would be missed by not getting home. I have been assured that the ship will wait, and of course there are many more people than just me in the same situation. As I look out on the frozen bay from the warm and sheltered comfort of the Red Shed lounge I imagine also how different it is now from 100 years ago. Last night I had a gin and tonic at the Katabatic Bar – coming from a ‘dry’ ship this was an extra luxury – with Antarctic ice hammered off, a slice of orange cut by hacksaw. We considered the difference between the current hardship of Mawson water rations (shower every second day, 4 mins max) against the once-weekly tub soak in front of the stove in the freezing hut during night watch that was the lot the first expeditioners. I have a phone in my room, and have been able to receive direct calls from family as though I was in the next street – no failed telegraph connections and morse code for us. And yet we are still stranded and would continue to be until next summer but for the 3 helicopters – 1 from the ship and 2 from Davis that we picked up for this purpose. Travel to Antarctica is still almost like travel to the moon.

Today winds are gusting up to 75knots and I am not meant to go outside: apparently a gust that equals in knots your weight in kgs will push you over. But I will kit up and put my head out the door later on just to know what it feels like….. I have been promised a look at the spectrometer lab if winds die down a bit after dinner. Hopefully tomorrow I will be able to record some more of those special wind sounds with harp, and even though there will be no field trips to remote huts, this is also part of the Antarctic experience where nothing is ever quite as planned. I am very happy to have had the privilege of visiting and performing on the Antarctic continent.”