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Iceblink: Poetry in Sound and Image

by Karen Moorman

The land of ice, and of fearful sounds where no living thing was to be seen.
From Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

April 27, 2008, Raleigh, NC: Brooks de Wetter-Smith's lifelong dream of traveling to one of the most remote and exotic locations on earth was at last realized with his 2006 trip to Antarctica. Collaborating with composer Allen Anderson, the two worked together, assembling the composer's work with stunning images photographed by de Wetter-Smith and culminating in a breathtaking artistic work. Presented at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, the world premiere of the featured work, Iceblink, commissioned by the Raleigh Chamber Music Guild, was performed as the final concert on this season's Sights and Sounds on Sundays series.

Immediately enticed by the program cover, a photograph titled "Inverted Ice," audience members were absorbed in a pre-concert talk by flutist and Distinguished Professor Brooks de Wetter-Smith and composer and Associate Professor Allen Anderson, both of the Department of Music at UNC-Chapel Hill, discussing the creative process.

De Wetter-Smith's voyage as part of National Geographic's research expedition provided a rich source of visual inspiration for Anderson. And Anderson, who preferred to do his trekking on warm, dry land, scouted through the collections at Davis Library for appropriate texts. Drawing from the romantic work of Herman Melville, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (inspired by the Surrealists), and others, text was selected to be narrated by Tonu Kalam and sung by soprano Terry Rhodes. The chamber players who performed were Brooks de Wetter-Smith, flute, Donald Oehler, clarinet, Jacquelyn Bartlett, harp, Hsiao-Mei Ku, violin, Hugh Partridge, viola, Timothy Holley, cello, Martin Stam, double bass, and Peter Zlotnick, percussion.  Michael Votta, Jr., wearing white gloves so his hands could be seen in the dark hall, conducted.

The program began with Igor Stravinsky's delightful Trois pièces pour clarinette seule (1919). Composed during the period between L'Histoire du Soldat and the Pulcinella Suite, the composer's language is concise; as guest clarinetist Donald Oehler writes, "each short movement [represents] an assignment in sound exploration." Oehler's impeccable performance made for the perfect opening to a wonderful afternoon. With a brilliant little ascending flourish at the close, the performance won approval with laughter and warm applause.

Debussy's Sonata for Flute, Viola and Harp (1915), played on this occasion by de Wetter-Smith, Partridge, and Bartlett, reminds one of his lasting influences. Like Monet, who created luminous colors using limited available pigments, Debussy incorporated imaginative combinations of instruments, in this case the harp. Jacquelyn Bartlett's performance was stunning. Calling for perfect unisons with elided entrances, there were moments of scintillating beauty throughout. Perhaps sounding more at home in the art museum, the piece genuinely fit with the visual images that followed.

Emotionally evocative, Anderson's atonal language underscores the ominous, tumultuous seas of the Drake Passage and mysterious beauty of the icy terrain of the continent. Movements or sections, seven in all, were carefully crafted to synchronize with images created from still photographs. "The sixth" (Scherzo), said Anderson, "is the only movement that is self-standing." A stylized version of de Wetter-Smith's tape of a penguin colony reflects the cacophonic chatter without the humorous, condescending background music produced for general consumption, which I rather appreciated. As part of four connected sections, "Loneliness and Fright" was inspired by images Anderson described as "...almost blank ice...; this is not the world that you know." And de Wetter-Smith advised that the composition "is not [programmatic] film music... but rather a meditation."

The narration was splendidly performed by Tonu Kalam, whose intelligible speaking voice is deep and resonant. And soaring like the albatross shown at one point on the screen, Terry Rhodes' voice carried beautifully, buoyed by superbly performed instrumental work beneath. In all, the ensemble performed with precision and balance. Closing with a solo harp, we are left with an indelible image that Anderson refers to as a "sanctuary," entitled "Ice Cave." My only regret is that the photography, in "stream of consciousness" and so artistically edited using digital technology, was so visually seductive, that I immediately wished I had the opportunity for a second listening. I'm happy to know that this is a real possibility, for a recording session is planned and bookings elsewhere are being sought. (For more information, see

The multi-media program Iceblink should travel across the United States in an effort to inform through sight and sound and, as the creators say, "put a face" on Antarctica. The project received support from the University of North Carolina, the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, Linblad Expeditions, National Geographic, Canon USA and Southeastern Canon. Davis Stillson and Will Bosley converted the production into High Definition tape and Blu-ray DVD, from which the images were projected.

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