In opera ‘Antarctica’ the ice water bubbles and the plankton choir sings

On October 9, 1929, the German philologist Gustav Adolf Deissmann makes the discovery of his life. In the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul he came across a yellowed piece of parchment, ninety by sixty centimeters in size. It turns out to be a fragment of a world map, written by the sixteenth-century Ottoman admiral Piri Reis.

There is something wonderful about Piri Reis’ mappa mundi† Take a look at Wikipedia: we see the Atlantic Ocean, surrounded by coastlines. Right Spain and Africa, complete with elephants and ostriches. Left North and South America. At the bottom, the contours of what looks suspiciously like Antarctica. Mystery: Piri Reis completed his map in 1513, while Antarctica was not officially circumnavigated until 1820 by the Russian expedition of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev.

2022, a morning in May. Via an image link, the Australian composer Mary Finsterer (59) tells about a conversation in the Muziekgebouw, four years ago. Over a cup of coffee with Fedor Teunisse, artistic director of Asko|Schönberg, plans arose for a chamber opera. What followed was a long search for a suitable theme, until she read about the Piri Reis map. Finsterer intuitively sensed that she was up for grabs, especially when her librettist, Australian playwright Tom Wright, also showed enthusiasm. One thing led to another: On June 5, Asko|Schönberg will bring Finsterers Antarctica premiered during the Holland Festival.

The story in a nutshell: A modern expedition team laboriously plows through an inhospitable arctic landscape. The group finds a girl half buried in the snow, more dead than alive. When she regains consciousness, she tells about a cartographer, a natural philosopher and a theologian. Centuries ago, inspired by a yellowed map, the trio set course for suspected southern shores; to boldly go where no man had gone before† They found drifting ice masses, an enigmatic primordial creature called the Prima Creatura, and an inevitable death.

Piri Reis World Map from 1513 by the Ottoman admiral Piri Reis. with Antarctica. Photo Bilkent University, Ankara

„Actually, Antarctica a modern fable”, explains Finsterer. “At first glance, the opera is about a journey of discovery, but gradually more fantastic elements creep into the story. Just like in classic fables, the animal kingdom and the elements of nature are given a voice. And just like classic fables touches Antarctica to moral issues. At its core, the opera is about human motives. What are our ambitions? Why do we pursue them? And above all: what are the consequences of our aspirations?”

The second act, ‘The Journey’, is exemplary. Once at sea, the cartographer, the philosopher and the theologian have a vision. A mysterious female figure, The Visitor, asks each of them a question of conscience: not what are you looking for, but why are you looking for it? The natural philosopher appears to be driven by a genuine curiosity about the source of life. The theologian hopes to find God in a continent devoid of man. And the cartographer? He mainly fantasizes about land grabs and drawing borders, so that the newfound continent can be monetized as quickly as possible.

Finsterer: “In a sense, the cartographer represents the human failure to understand the importance of preserving the earth. He embodies the idea that we can control and exploit nature with impunity for our own prosperity.” Hold that thought for a moment.

second home

Something else. Speaking of ambitions and motives: why did Finsterer become a composer? “After high school, I initially wanted to study fine art at the academy, but in the end it was the elusive nature of music that appealed to me the most.”

It became a composition study with Brenton Broadstock at the University of Melbourne. After her bachelor’s degree, she came to The Hague to study with Louis Andriessen. It was the beginning of a close bond with the Netherlands, says Finsterer. “Amsterdam feels like a second home, and I still have many friends in the Netherlands.” In addition, she remained involved in Dutch musical life. She wrote for Orkest de Ereprijs, judged at the Gaudeamus Muziekweek and has composed for Asko|Schönberg before. In 2009 the ensemble brought her In Praise of Darknessafter the poem of the same name Elogio de la Sombra (1969) by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, premiered. Even then during the Holland Festival.

How Finsterer looks back on her lessons with Andriessen? “My classes with Louis were refreshingly candid. We discussed philosophy and how it related to technique and style. My training in Australia had until then been very focused on serial composition. An excellent lesson, but after a while I wanted to look further. Louis gave me ample opportunity to do so. His knowledge of early music, his thinking about harmony and form, his ideas about musical theater and the way in which he incorporated diverse styles into his work, all of this broadened my horizon enormously.”

Photo Andrew Peacock/Getty Images

Between modern and old

Slowly but surely, Finsterer’s own idiom began to shift, such that she now distinguishes between her ‘early’ and ‘later’ work. Put it to the test and listen to an ‘early’ work as Constant (on YouTube for example), written in 1995. We hear a composer who knows her modernist Pappenheimers: dissonant sound, multiple layered design, cleverly elaborated contrasts between dynamic and static passages. In the line-up (including saxophones, brass instruments and electric guitar) the jazz-inspired Andriessen sound resonates.

Fast forward to Finsterer’s first opera, Biographica (2017, also on YouTube), about the life of the universal Renaissance man Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576). Here a completely different sound world: harmonies based on triads, clear vocal lines, echoes of medieval and renaissance music, all that corrupted into a tonal language that sounds archaic and contemporary at the same time.

The love for early music has always been there, Finsterer explains the stylistic amalgam of Biographica† “I come from a Catholic background. The beautiful music that has been written for the church has been instilled in me from an early age. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to understand how to connect that legacy with twentieth-century innovations. Opera is a dream laboratory in that respect, because the music there serves a narrative. I draw on different styles and composition techniques to support that narrative as well as possible.”

Between art and science

Also in Antarctica Finsterer uses a broad stylistic palette. Influences from early music go hand in hand with freely applied serial techniques and electro-acoustic sound experiments. Take the ‘Prologue’. Against a background of electronic hiss, the harpist lets a hypnotic scale motif bubble up. Air bubbles in languid heaving ice water. Up above, a signal of unearthly beeps repeats itself. “Multibeam sonar sounds,” says the composer.

It was at the Opera Antarctica Symposium, hosted by herself in 2019 at the University of Tasmania, that Finsterer was introduced to the technological principles of multibeam sonar scanning. Think: high-frequency sound waves that scour the seafloor for drag marks from millennia-old icebergs. It was one of many aha moments during the multi-day conference, where a group of geologists, ecologists, oceanologists and glaciologists presented the latest insights about the South Pole.

Scientific concepts have become an important part of opera

Mary Finsterer

“That symposium has been vital to the emergence of Antarctica”, says Finsterer. “Every morning I went with my librettist through the wealth of information that had been poured out on us the previous day. Ultimately, those scientific concepts became an important part of opera.”

What is called: you would Antarctica can call a music theatrical geography with a little imagination. Large parts of both music and text are directly borrowed from the Arctic landscape. For example, Finsterer distilled melodic material from analyzes of ice cores, translated tidal graphs into rhythmic cycles and wrote a choral scene for the krill that forms the basis of the Antarctic food chain. In his libretto, Wright descends to the subglacial lakes and rivers of Antarctica, and he pays tribute to the ice that covers the South Pole with an average thickness of two kilometers.

no pamphlet

About that ice cap: In his book Underland, a Deep Time Journey (2019) British author Robert MacFarlane attributes ‘memories’ to the Arctic ice. Something about chemical changes in the atmosphere that leave their traces in the ice in the form of tiny air bubbles and particulate matter – year after year, snow layer after snow layer. It’s a phenomenal memory, MacFarlane writes. A volcanic eruption during the Pliocene (about 2.5 million years ago); sea ​​level fluctuations at the beginning of the last ice age (110,000 years ago); a massive forest fire in the year 30,000 BC; the Arctic ice remembers it vividly.

They are dizzying spaces of time stored in the ice, far beyond our human imagination. And yet, according to a growing number of climate thinkers, we will have to learn to think in such geological timescales if we are to fundamentally confront the ecological crisis. The Australian Philosopher Roman Krznaric expresses it aptly in his book The Good Ancestor (2020). In the face of global climate disruption, a temporal horizon of quarterly quarterly figures and four-year election periods is not enough. What we need, he writes, is a radical long-term perspective.

It’s tempting to Antarctica – by design itself to interpret an accumulation of centuries of music history, mythological references and historical references – as an exercise in such a temporal increase in scale. And, in contrast to the cartographer’s anthropocentric land-grabbing fantasies, Antarctica with its plankton choir, resounding tides and ice meditations does not extend to a more-than-human perspective anyway?

Finsterer: “Certainly. And yet I didn’t want to write an eco-pamphlet. If there’s one thing I don’t want, it’s preaching. Antarctica is primarily a fictional space, in which the public can discover for themselves the beauty of this breathtaking continent. If that inspires you to think about environmental and geopolitical issues, so much the better. Because, of course, the state of our earth is of fundamental importance, and that is now more apparent than ever. And closely intertwined with that issue is the question of what drives our actions.”

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