The cryosphere is any part of the earth made up of frozen water – from glaciers to lake ice, to permafrost, to ice crystals in the atmosphere. Cryophonics is a term I use to describe any sound produced by the cryosphere – “cryo” being the Greek word for ice and “phonics” meaning sound. I have spent the last 7 years actively listening, observing and recording the ice around my home, Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada and currently I am using cryophonics, ice sounds, in my musical compositions.
I must note that this is not a widely-used term. (In fact the only other sonically related use of the word “cryophonics” that I have discovered is a SoundCloud identity with 2 tracks of dubstep music from Dusseldorf Germany.) I feel cryophonics accurately describes the sound world of ice, and in this context I am using it to describe naturally occurring ice sounds. For my compositional purposes, it does not include sounds made by instruments made of ice, nor does it include sounds made by naturally occurring ice manipulated by humans, such as icicle performance.
Cryophonics can include cracking lake ice, icebergs calving or grounding, Arctic ice floe grinding, glacier calving or cracking, snow falling, snow squeaking, avalanche rumbling, Antarctic ice-sheet breakup, and even booms from ice quakes that occurred in the ground! The majority of cryophonics that I have heard are made by the seasonal lake ice of the Canadian sub-Arctic, and includes sounds made by cracking of the thick mid-winter ice, and the very different sounds made by during freeze-up in the fall, and break-up in the spring.
Cryophonics – history/research
A substantial amount of research on ice sounds currently exists, although the term cryophonics is not used. Generally initiated by some type of industry, existing studies include: the speed of sound in ice, neutrino detection in ice using acoustics, how sounds of ice may affect marine life, ice sounds interfering with underwater communication, and the sound of melting ice heard as a herald of climate change.
Historical reports from European explorers and whalers offer descriptions of cryophonic activity during the winters their ships were frozen into the Arctic ocean. Oral traditions also share information on the sounds of ice – what they mean, and how they affect human activity – from Inuit peoples of northern Canada to truck drivers working on the ice roads of the Arctic and sub-Arctic.
Cryophonics – the spirit
This type of sound is very particular to specific ecosystems and to specific seasonal cycles – it is the soundmark of cold places and cold times. In my experience it also connects the world of living creatures such as humans with elemental, physical, and chemical forces of nature that may seem – at first experience – unconnected. My approach to cryophonics is based on a belief that naturally-occurring ice – for example ice covering a lake – exists as a quasi-biotic phenomenon, one that embodies a spiritual bridge between living and elemental forces, a belief that has arisen from my own experiences of being on the ice as well as through the influence of the Inuit and Dene First Nations cultures.
Basically, I feel the lake has a spirit, and the ice is a part of that spirit that interacts with the rest of the environment. Consequently, I feel the environment is performing these cryophonics as a form of music, and I am re-performing them in my works.
Even if you do not share this belief in the ecological spirit, it is difficult to deny that the ice interacts with the environment. Temperature, pressure, wind, gravity, laws of nature, human interaction… these forces all weave a complex web of interactions. And I have transformed the result of these interactions – cryophonics – into my own music.
Below is an unaltered sound of my favourite cryophonic example – candle ice!