Scholar, composer shares wisdom from research trip in Antarctica

One of the first lessons distinguished scholar and composer Glenn McClure learned while out on the Antarctica ice was to stand still and listen actively. 

McClure currently serves as an adjunct professor of English and music at Geneseo, an adjunct professor at the Eastman School of Music and Scholar-in-Residence at Paul Smiths College. At this time last year, however, he was exploring sound in Antarctica. 

McClure spoke about his experiences researching sound in the southernmost part of the world during October and November of 2016 as part of the All-College Hour lecture series in the MacVittie College Union ballroom on Wednesday Oct. 11.  

Born with a stutter, McClure received speech therapy at the Harold B. Starbuck Memorial Fluency Enhancing Clinics in Geneseo, where speech therapists taught him how to consciously control his speech muscles.

“The speech pathologists here tell me that when I use that skill at the highest level, my speech is actually better than yours,” he said. 

As a child, the only time that McClure could speak comfortably was when he was singing. 

“Music became very important to me as a kid. It allowed me to take this speech mechanism that was locked up, that was frozen in me, and allowed me to express myself through song,” McClure said. “I would argue this is one of the reasons why I’m attracted to looking for voices in the silence of the ice, in the silence of data––it resonates with my experience trying to find my own voice.”

McClure traveled to Antarctica through the National Science Foundation, which sponsors artists and musicians travel and conduct research in Antarctica to function as a bridge between scientists and the public. McClure spent 40 days researching sound at the American McMurdo Station.  

Active listening began as a survival tactic, but evolved into a more broadly applicable skill, according to McClure.The first 10 days that he was in Antarctica, McClure was required to take a survival-training course. 

“One of the most interesting things in these survival classes is that all rank, all discipline, all socioeconomic divide, any way we divide ourselves on the rest of the planet, vanished,” he said. “Our job first was to keep ourselves alive and our second job was to keep the person next to us alive.”

 “We had to cease motion in our lives in order to hear the things that would keep us alive,” he added. 

During the rest of his time in Antarctica, McClure used these skills to find new ways to listen to the planet. He showed a video of himself diving under the ice and swimming with Weddell seals. Following the impulse to become immersed in the sounds of nature, McClure also flew out to a penguin colony, where he witnessed male adélie penguins singing and dancing to attract mates.

“When we think of Antarctica, we think of a barren snowscape,” he said. “Turns out—once you get under the ice—it’s like Manhattan down there.”

The focus of McClure’s trip was going to the Yesterday Camp at the Ross Ice Shelf, one of the most desolate places on earth. There, he helped a team of seismologists collect data from seismographs. From this data, he composed music from the numbers through a process called sonification. Some of his compositions will premiere at Geneseo.

“[Visiting Yesterday Camp] is disorienting,” McClure said. “It’s the closest thing you can get to going to another planet while staying on this one.” 

McClure concluded with a lesson on how to listen closely in everyday life. He emphasized that his experience in Antarctica taught him the value of close listening, and we as a society need to embrace this crucial lesson. 

“Listening is an act of hope,” he said. “It’s the act that tells everyone that we believe, as individuals and as nations, that we can be better.”