Disclaimer: This is transcribed using AI. Expect (funny) errors.
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 0:07
I’m Mindy Peterson and this is enhanced life with music. a holistic look at musics effect on our everyday lives. Today is April 28. And this week, April 22, we celebrate Earth Day. My guest today has traveled to Iceland to the largest glacier in Europe and use the various sounds of the glacier to compose a musical tribute to them. Charles van Kirk is a graduate of Berklee College of Music. He’s joining me today through the wonders of technology from Maine, where he is an audio engineer and composer. Charles award winning work has been featured on numerous media outlets, including ABC and W NYC, and has been used in advertising content produced for National Geographic, the United Nations, Google and Nike, among others. Welcome to enhance life with music. Charles,
Charles Van Kirk 1:02
thanks so much, Mindy, for having me on. I really appreciate it.
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 1:05
Charles, I love the opening sentence and your website’s about page. It says My job is to tell stories with sound.
Unknown Speaker 1:14
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 1:15
elaborate on that description a little bit and then explain how you ended up telling the story of glaciers through their sounds and music?
Charles Van Kirk 1:25
Yeah, absolutely. So to start with the with the first line in the bio, there’s a concept in the world of wine and food, called terroir, terroir meaning land or earth. And the idea is that a great winemaker will make a wine that reflects the terroir of the grapes that reflects the, the soil and the climate, and the place and the land. And when you taste the fermented grape juice, you will you will receive some some essence of that of that terroir. So, I’m trying to do something similar with, with sound and with music, to make music and to write songs with a sense of place. And, of course, that can be achieved through lyric writing, and through through storytelling with with words, but over the years, I’ve been spending more time trying to do that with the actual sounds themselves the sounds that make up the instruments of the track, or interact with traditional instruments in the track. And this trip to Iceland that I took in January of 2020. Before the world shut down, was a pretty clear example of of this this concept I wanted to to go to Iceland and record the sounds of glaciers, specifically the vatnajokull Glacier in southern Iceland and to make a piece of music using exclusively those sounds and to really try and tell tell a story and and make a make a sonic tribute to the ice.
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 3:08
And I understand that this was sort of generated with some inspiration courtesy of your mother is that right?
Charles Van Kirk 3:17
You heard right yes. Yeah, this this project actually began with my mom sending me a Facebook message Believe it or not, and the the message link to a video of some folks in Siberia playing these big sheets of ice with their hands and with mallets and other other implements and these ice sheets had gorgeous tones. Almost like marimba ask tones but with a with a unique Tambor, and I’ve been doing a lot of work with a company called splice, which is a wonderful audio company based in New York City. And I propose to them that we record the sounds of ice somewhere in the world, and use the project as a vehicle to talk about climate change with regard specifically to glaciers. So we started discussing this project together myself and a collaborator at splice called Josh Robertson.
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 4:13
And was this just going to be sort of a pro bono type of a project?
Charles Van Kirk 4:16
No, actually, I’m very fortunate that splice is a viable business. They’re doing very well, as far as I understand. And they they support projects like this. And they’ve they’ve been supporting more and more projects that are exploratory in nature, they have a lot of a lot of great sounds on their website, samples and loops that are used by composers and producers in the worlds of, you know, pop and hip hop and even composing for visual media and such. So they have a lot of different sounds on their site, but they’ve been branching out more in terms of the types of sounds that they’re gathering and the kinds of stories that they’re, they’re trying to tell around sampling and Sample gathering. So I proposed this as a field recording centric project for them.
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 5:06
Okay. And was the goal and the impetus and motivation for doing the project this tribute to glaciers, or was it tied in with a project with, say National Geographic or anything like that?
Charles Van Kirk 5:22
Yeah, so that it’s what started first as just a sonic curiosity with me watching this video of the Siberian residents playing these sheets of ice morphed pretty quickly into the proposal that I wrote for splice which was suggesting that we find a Glazier Some were in the world in in in Iceland or or otherwise, and talk about how climate changes is affecting these glaciers and how quickly they’re receding. And of course, how the how that is affecting geographically susceptible communities around the world and also a marine life in terms of the salinity levels of the oceans as more freshwater melts into the oceans. So once I sat down to really think about it, it things spiraled and I, I proposed this as the main intention of it.
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 6:12
Okay. So once the project was set, tell us about the experience. You had professional guides who are taking you through this glacier, right?
Charles Van Kirk 6:20
We did, we had a wonderful guide, named odour. Odd, you ours, the spelling of his name, he and his partner have a company called Mel rocky adventures, based near the vatnajokull Glacier. So if anyone listening wants to visit this glacier, you should you should reach out to, to them. They’re wonderful, so adore took us up onto one of the outlets of the glacier. It was just my collaborator, Josh and I, and one other couple on this on this trip. And we put the crampons on, and we went on about a 10 kilometer hike or so up onto the face of, of, of the ice, and went into a couple of different ice caves and did some singing in in one of them. But yeah, that it was very important to have to have guides and to undertake this safely because a tour would would stop us at various points, for example, through our hike and point to a little channel, a little dip in the ice, let’s say just a foot or so below where we were walking, after having given us an instruction to you know, follow me strictly follow my exact footsteps through this passage. He said, you know, what do you think is in this in this channel, and it didn’t really look like much of anything, just a slight depression and he stuck is ski pulled down and it just disappeared like a five foot long ski pole and there was just a crevasse or a glacial river that was running right below us that we couldn’t hear or it’s just covered slightly by snow. So it’s not a safe place to go strolling about by yourself, but a very magical environment with the right guidance.
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 8:05
So tell us about some of the sounds you did hear you said you didn’t hear that river that was running right under there. Hmm.
Charles Van Kirk 8:11
Right. Yeah, there was a pretty significant amount of water flowing in that in that one spot. But we couldn’t hear. But we could see once he once he punctured the surface. So there were so many sounds that we captured. I mean that one of the most dramatic things to happen was that a large cerachrom an enormous piece of an ice Cliff cleaved off of the side of this cliff while we were hiking, thundered through the valley. Oh, wow. Yeah, it was it was tremendous. It sounded literally thunderous. And I was rolling the entire day I was walking. I was
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 8:49
just gonna ask, do you have like the microphones going the whole time just in case something unexpected happened like that? I
Charles Van Kirk 8:55
did. I did.
Yeah, it was a lot of material to go through. After the fact there’s hours of just footsteps of crampons on on ice and snowy ice. But everyone with us kind of knew that knew the sonic mission that we were on and was was totally game to just stop in their tracks and be quiet anytime something interesting happened sonically. So that ceramic falling off was was pretty remarkable and made more so by the natural acoustic environment of this glacier, tongue or, or outlet as they said, there were very large rocky cliff walls on well on one main side of us, so it formed a bit of an amphitheater, with with the reverberations. And these, these cliffs of, of rock were formed previously by the glacier by the glacier literally just pushing through the rock pushing through the mountains, out toward the sea. So we See the lines and the rock where where the glacier had been in the past and where it’s since melted down from, but also those reflections sounded really beautiful. We did some, you know, yelling and clapping, to hear the, the natural echoes off of these rocks. And, you know, listen, listen to birds and other creatures that were that were making making noises.
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 10:24
What Tell me about some of the other sounds that the glacier itself makes in terms of ice creaking or anything like that?
Charles Van Kirk 10:32
Sure. So one of the more notable stops on the trip was a glacial lagoon called yoke of Cylon. And I climbed down to the edge of this Lagoon, and there were icebergs floating out in the middle of this water, and the glacier in in the distance on the other side of the water from where we were standing. And I put my microphone down into some of these icy hollows, just small, natural little, I guess you could, you could say caves that had that had formed and had their own weirdly reflective little, little environment. So there was there was all sorts of gurgling and creaking and squeaking that that ice does, you know, as it’s melting in the sunlight, and then freezing again as as the sun goes behind, clouds or, or sets for the day. So there were lots of lots of fun things to listen to and play with.
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 11:31
The method that you used for capturing the sounds, was there anything especially notable about that, that we should know about? I mean, was that recording? would you use the term recording? Or is there some difference with the term capturing? Was it like buying our old sounds? or How did that work?
Charles Van Kirk 11:50
I use the terms recording and capturing interchangeably. Oh, yeah. So I used a surround microphone of 5.1 surround sound microphone, meaning they’re actually six capsules in this one, microphone. left, center, right, left surround right surround and sub low frequency capsule. So six channels of audio, which is pretty wonderful to have in, in, in one package that enabled me to hear things from from all sides. And if something exciting happened, that was behind my head, or this this thunderous surfac cleaving off the cliff, for example, I didn’t have to, I didn’t have to move the microphone a lot. I could sort of just stop what I was doing and leave it set in in one place. But it also allowed for really interesting imaging in terms of the panning spectrum of things like I would set the microphone down on a stand and I would slide pieces of ice across a frozen pond, for example, right underneath the microphone and get this the sweeping image of the ice, no sliding sliding by your head. So it’s not a binary microphone, but it it does have a lot of flexibilities and capabilities.
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 13:11
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Charles Van Kirk 14:36
Right yeah, so the whole second phase of this this project was was taking the sounds that we recorded naturally, as you said and translating them into something musical and the way that I did that first. It’s quite a tedious process to go through and chop everything up and pick the you know, the favorite favorite moments of the whole trip and stuff. To start to gather them by by category and all that, yeah, when
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 15:03
you describe as you’re describing that process, I keep thinking that it reminds me of going through photos, you know, like, say personal photos, like, Okay, what photos did we take as a family in January, February, you know, and it’s interesting because you’ve used that comparison before, where you kind of compare the sounds to like a snapshot of a moment in time, and how the glacier may not sound like this again. So I just had to quick stick that in there. Because as you’re talking, I’m like, man, it just sounds like photos.
Charles Van Kirk 15:35
Absolutely, yeah, the digital organization side of this whole process is not the sexiest necessarily, but very important. When I have 500 individual sounds that that came out of the trip that I delivered to, to splice as part of the sample pack, I started to pick, which were some of the sounds that I wanted to turn into a song to turn into a musical track. And so using a tool called sensory percussion, which is made by a company called sun house, pretty revolutionary tool, there are these sensors that I can attach to, to my drums, and trigger the samples by playing the drums. And for each drum, there are actually 10 different zones on that drum, that can, where you can assign a unique sample or series of samples to each of those zones. So the rim, the side, the center, the you know, the shell, those kinds of things. So it’s remarkably flexible, and musical way of of taking these field recordings and interpreting them and creating creating beats creating melodies, even even out of them. So
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 16:46
and you’ve made these sounds available to other people, is that right?
Charles Van Kirk 16:50
They’re all available on splice, yeah, which is a fun part of this, that I recorded them and made a piece of music out of them. And now they are they’re available for anyone any splice user to download, and stretch and pitch up, pitch down to manipulate us however they see fit. I’ve actually gotten some fun emails and messages from folks all over the world. Most recently, someone in St. Petersburg sent me a song that they had made using a couple of the the, like chordal pad and drum loops from the Iceland trip. This is, you know, a year after the fact. So that’s very cool.
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 17:29
Sure. It was there one specific kind of crowning glory composition that you put together as sort of the tribute to glaciers? Or is this just a combination of many, many projects where you’re using all these found sounds to bring attention to the glaciers?
Charles Van Kirk 17:50
Well, it’s really just this this one trip and this one project is focused on on glaciers and in the scope of of my work. So there’s the the the one piece of music that I sent to you that I think we might hear, listeners might hear that, that is the the culmination of this particular week, one week that I that I spent in, in Iceland in 2020. And it it’s I think it occupies a disproportionately large slice of my, my, my brain and my thoughts these days, still just this one this one week, and it’s launched a number of other ideas that I’ve been developing as a result of how, how much fun I had on this trip and how humbling it was to be on the glaciers and based on other folks responses to, to the music and to the sounds. I’m in the middle of some other environmental projects now that are not glacier specific, but are along, you know, similar similar lines. Yeah, tell
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 18:46
us a little bit about some of the attention that has been drawn to this project and how it’s been used as a vehicle to address climate change.
Charles Van Kirk 18:55
Sure, well, for me, climate changes, there are an overwhelming series of problems, of course, you know, we’re releasing these greenhouse gases into the atmosphere that are trapping heat, and causing all of these, all of these issues and causing the glacier glaciers to melt faster than they ever have. before. And I have been trying to think of ways to to make that problem and series of problems less overwhelming. And Music is my natural responses. It’s my favorite language, so to speak. And this is a way to, to address that or to just start thinking about it really, on my terms from my perspective. So I mean, now I’m the next thing some of the next projects I’m thinking about are biking across the country and raising money for the National Resource Defense Council, for example, that’s when the pandemic is, is over and it’s it’s safer to travel but kind of thinking of things like things like Like that manager, where’s that that feel manageable for me to at least talk about climate change and maybe raise some money to some of the folks who are pursuing litigation and, and public policy that that will help reduce our carbon emissions and greenhouse gases and, and all of that.
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 20:18
I love what you said at the beginning of that where you said, you’re just looking for ways to make the problem less overwhelming. That’s the first part I loved. Because I think so many of us feel like why it is such an overwhelming situation, whether it’s climate change, or something else. And we feel like we can’t, if we can’t do something huge and world changing, we can’t do anything. And that’s just not the case. It’s all of us making doing some what we can, with the tools that we have to make the problem muscle loss, overwhelming is key. And I the second part of what you said that I loved was your first responses to use music. And I just love seeing music in action like that. And it is a language and it can be used for so many things beyond entertainment.
Charles Van Kirk 21:07
Yeah, absolutely. And speaking of music, and of specifically the national resource Defense Council, there’s a quote on their website from Pete Seeger, which is, if there’s a world here in 100 years, it’s going to be saved by 10s of millions of little things, which is helpful to meet to break any problem down into into smaller things into Okay, what’s, what are the first couple of little steps here that that we might be able to take?
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 21:33
Absolutely love that. Tell us about some of the other environmental sources you’ve created music from and just your thoughts in general about the musicality of nature’s sounds?
Charles Van Kirk 21:45
Yeah, so this all kind of started for me my interest in found sounds and sampling began. Shortly after college, I was working at a music studio in Brooklyn, in New York City, and I decided to do an experiment in which I recorded one sound from my environment every day for a year. And that could be something on my phone while I was biking to work could be something in the studio that was a non traditional instrument, you know, recorded with good microphones and preamps.
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 22:17
I like that experiment.
Charles Van Kirk 22:20
Yeah, it was it changed the way that I listen. And at the end of the year, I spent one day and I made a track, like a short piece of music using the sounds Oh, that’s awesome.
Yeah. And I wasn’t able to use every one of the sounds from the year and the track, of course, but I picked some favorites at the end of it, and some of them were recorded beautifully, and some of them were recorded poorly and it didn’t matter I you know, it just, it just recalibrated the, my attention when I’m when I’m out and about and in public, in a city and in nature or wherever. Just thinking that Alright, what’s, what’s the sound going to be today? All right, it’s gonna, you know, it’s gonna be this old freight elevator, creaking and slamming closed or whatever it may be. So that was where that that interest began for me. And a lot of what came out of that was inspired by by people like the books Nick somoto, for example, who are famous for using weird found sounds and making kind of collage music out of them. Or people like Steve reisch with it’s going to rain wasn’t was an early, early inspiration for me thinking about the musicality of, of speech and the psycho acoustical phenomenon of just being really drawn to finding melodies within something that is that is looping. It’s incredible how quickly taking a short fragment of speech and looping it, we hear it start to hear it as a as a musical phrase. I love I love when that happens. So those were Yeah, those were some of my my early inspirations on that front.
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 24:00
Oh, interesting. Well, I asked all my guests to close out our conversation with a musical ending acota by sharing a song or a story about a moment that music enhanced your life, you referred a little bit to the song that you’re going to be sharing with us tell us about the song is kind of the culmination of your your projects there with the glacier. Exactly, yeah, this
Charles Van Kirk 24:21
is the the song that I made. As soon as I got back to New York from Iceland, my mind was very much filled with with the images from standing on the glacier and just being I think, as I mentioned, before, humbled by it, trying to capture that that sense of of awe to the best of my ability, to the extent that it can be represented musically. So yeah, this is using almost exclusively sounds from the trip from the glacier itself. And obviously there are vocals as well using my voice And vocals from dear friend of mine Julia Easterlin who sings that the second verse of the song.
So see you
if you could see the mountains
Unknown Speaker 26:12
you can see the glacier.
Mindy Peterson, NCTM 27:32
Thank you so much to Charles for sharing this experience and musical tribute to glaciers that with us today. You can download and use these ice and glacier sounds from Charles Sonic exploration. They are on splices website there is a link in the show notes as well as lots of other links from our conversation, including the sensory percussion tool, the Icelandic tour company that Charles mentions, and of course ways to learn more about Charles and his work. I am experimenting with an episode transcription service. You can view a transcription of this episode on the show notes. Today’s show notes are at n Peterson music.com slash podcast slash Episode 91. I would love to hear from you. You can connect with me on Facebook and Instagram at enhanced life music. I’m also on Twitter at music enhances and thank you so much for joining me today and for sharing the show with your friends and family. Until next week, may your life be enhanced with music
Transcribed by https://otter.ai