Harpist to soothe Antarctic chill

By Kate Evans Fri Dec 17, 2010 8:10am AEDT
Original article here

Alice Giles will perform a range of music for the residents of Mawson Base when she arrives in February.

Alice Giles will perform a range of music for the residents of Mawson Base when she arrives in February. (ABC News: Kate Evans)

Harpist Alice Giles dreamed of following in her grandfather’s footsteps – but those footsteps lead rather far away.

The internationally-renowned musician lives in Yass, near Canberra, and teaches at the Australian National University School of Music.

She has always been curious about Antarctica.

Her grandfather, Cecil Thomas Madigan, was an explorer who travelled with Douglas Mawson on the first Australasian Antarctic expedition from 1911 – 1914.

“At 22, he was away for two-and-a-quarter years, which is a huge chunk of a young man’s life,” Giles said.

“He had a fiancee, my grandmother, waiting for him at home.

“It was always part of my childhood to hear about this hero grandfather I had.

“So there’s always been a fascination for me with kind of making a connection somehow.”

In February, she will realise that dream, travelling to Antarctica on an Australian Antarctic Division Arts Fellowship, to play and record music at Mawson base.

The trip will take more than a month – but the sea voyage is so long she will only have eight days on dry land.

Giles plans to perform a range of music for the residents of Mawson Base, including well-loved hymns like Abide with Me from the 100-year-old Scottish Students’ Songbook mentioned in her grandfather’s diaries.

She will also play a series of new works composed especially for the journey by Australian composers, including Larry Sitsky and Jim Cotter.

Martin Wesley-Smith has composed a work based on the diaries of Cecil Madigan, reflecting Giles’ relationship with her grandfather; while ANU composition student Joshua McHugh has written a piece entitled Billions of Penguins.

She is taking two harps – her full-sized electro-acoustic harp to play inside the base, and a hardy smaller harp she hopes to play outside and record.

“There’s also something very appealing about the harp and how it reacts with the environment, because it’s a very direct instrument. Just the touch of your fingers or even the wind can create a sound,” she said.

“Mawson’s hut in Commonwealth Bay is meant to be the windiest place in the world, you can get really high blizzard winds, so that will be pretty exciting.

“‘When that goes through the harp it will make a beautiful sound.”

She will also record sounds from the Antarctic environment – penguins, cracking ice, and those wild winds.

“It’ll be a bit of an adventure because I won’t know what the conditions will be,” she said.

“It’s kind of an experiment, as most things are to do with Antarctica.”