Laura Bowler – Antarctica (World Première)

by 5:4
12 minutes read

To bring this year’s nature-focused Lent Series to a close, i’m turning to a major work by British composer Laura Bowler. Antarctica is a 50-minute multimedia piece for voice and orchestra that constitutes a very personal, and very passionate, response to a variety of issues affecting the natural world. As such, it’s not ‘about’ one particular issue, cause or problem, but something of a synthesis of many, channelled into an extensive love song and lament for nature, a celebration, a warning and a critique, encompassing intensities of wonder and rage. This is in keeping with the majority of Bowler’s fascinating output, in which – frequently as both composer and performer – she has often explored personal, painful subjects, in works such as FFF, Feminine Hygiene, Theatre of Cruelty and Damned Mob of Scribbling Women. In Antarctica, while Bowler’s attention is thrown as globally as it’s possible to get – encompassing all the world and all humanity within it – she nonetheless remains as personal and direct as ever. The ferocious cold of the bottom of the world finds a counterpart in Bowler’s no less ferocious, white-hot vehemence.

As such, in exploring the work here i don’t want to get in the way of her sentiments, either by trying to ‘explain’ Bowler’s music or, worse, by seeking to interpret its meaning. In both cases, i think it’s pretty crystal clear where she’s coming from and what she thinks about things; so i’ll be stepping carefully around it. The text is a mixture of elements, including stanzas from James Croxall Palmer’s 1843 poem Thulia: A Tale of the Antarctic, sea shanties, meteorological data, texts by Lavinia Murray and Bysshe Inigo Coffey, alongside passages created by Bowler herself.

The piece falls broadly into six lengthy sections. The first two focus primarily on the past, harking back to the earliest expeditions that travelled to Antarctica. Though generally lyrical, with a sparse, gentle accompaniment, there’s a distinct passion (to be unleashed later) underlying the softness. The lyricism is broken up by a device that features elsewhere in the work, Bowler catching on a particular phrase and causing its music to be repeated multiple times to drive it home – and make it feel increasingly uncomfortable. In this case it’s “intrude on the realm”, which, following on from the ominous delivery of “Not now for luxury or lore / Would man give up his Paradise” indicates early on the darker connotations of humanity’s venturing to this hitherto unspoilt region. The section ends with an, in every sense of the word, icy conclusion, carried by high violins using extreme vibrato.

The second section is similarly conflicted, tapping into both the fun and the danger of travel to the Antarctic. A canon on harmonics, leading to a sequence of overlapping sea shanties, is answered by a long episode titled ‘Drake’s Passage’, where a somewhat laboured horn solo traverses its way through a bustling, densely-encroaching and at times queasy habitat established by strings and low brass. The considerable length of this episode no doubt says something of the effort required and time taken to make it across Drake’s Passage – a notoriously treacherous sea – in order to reach Antarctica beyond. The horn solo isn’t conventionally ‘heroic’, though by the end of this 5-minute sequence its sheer tenacity seems like something of a triumph in and of itself.

The next two sections focus more on the present. There’s a distinct sense of both the blank, unfathomable enormity of the continent as well as the awe and wonder that one no doubt feels when actually being there. The third section begins with a long meditation for singing bowls with light percussive embellishments and, later, slightly plaintive wind solos. This yields to field recordings from Antarctica, including the sounds of moving ice and penguins, interwoven with portions of travelogue made by Bowler during her time there. It’s a striking contrast to the impression of imminent danger that preceded all of this, answered here by tranquillity, openness, calm and beauty.

Section four, heralded by a loud saxophone multiphonic squeal, plunges the piece into the effects of human activity, not just in Antarctica but globally. Morse code dits and dahs merge with snatches of news reports while the orchestra becomes filled with fidgety, frenetic gestures that ratchet up tension. This finds release is an angry explosion where words both advocating and denouncing fracking smash against each other, Bowler’s voice becoming polarised, veering wildly between measured corporate trufflewank and unchecked personal anguish, so fraught and desperate that at times she sounds like she’s about to seize up completely.

The final two sections look forward to the future. Section five, shorter than the rest, uses words by Lavinia Murray to paint an apocalyptic impression of weather effects and patterns. Again, passive complacency and active concern jostle side by side in a sequence where the vocalist, singing a cross between a chant and a lament, is surrounded by numerous recorded reports and vox pops seemingly beamed in from the (perhaps not too distant) future. The complacency is voiced by sharp staccato regularity, the concern with an increasing tone of desolation.

This reaches its nadir in the first half of the sixth and final section. In a terrible counterpart to the beautiful stillness of section three, a similar stillness is here filled with the sound of a voice withered and broken, falling apart, one minute barely able to articulate anything, the next unleashing a torrent of barely comprehensible exhortations and spasms. It’s a distressing sequence that only feels more painful when it leads to an unexpected, enormous, enraged eruption where Nature herself seems to turn on all humanity.

It wouldn’t have been surprising if Bowler had decided to end Antarctica at that point, but instead the work ends in a spoken epilogue, accompanied only by hovering tones and, at its end, a short solemn sax and trumpet valediction (again redolent of section three). Calm but insistent, Bysshe Inigo Coffey’s words don’t merely connect the piece back again to our everyday reality, but root it in it. From ice to soil; from the remote and intangible to the close and everyday; from then and there to now and here; from them to me. Antarctica is not just about Antarctica, it’s about everything, and everyone, everywhere.

The world première of Antarctica took place in January 2019, performed by Laura Bowler with the Manchester Camerata, conducted by Jessica Cottis.


(excerpts from Thulia: A Tale of the Antarctic, by James Croxall Palmer)
The braying penguin sounds his horn,
And flights of cormorants are singing
Their croaking welcome to the morn,
Athwart the frozen mountains gleaming.

With hopes elate, and hearts that spurn
All thought of fearing wind or waves,
The eager rovers southward turn,
To seek new space for human graves.

Had the primal sin, that bore
The doom of death, but made us wise,
Not now for luxury or lore
Would man give up his Paradise.

Between two icebergs gaunt and pale.
Like giant sentinels on post
Without a welcome or a hail
Intrude they on the realm of Frost.

They reach the last retreat on earth.
Where Nature hoped for solitude.

(Traditional Shanties)
Heave ya Ho and away we go, Heave ya Ho and away oh …

Haul on the bowlin’ early in the morning, Haul on the bowlin’ sooner we get goin’ …

The Antarctic is a barren land. It’s a land with little green
But there’s ice and there’s snow where the whale fishes blow,
And the daylight’s seldom seen in the drake …

(Fracking section)
Take Take Take consume consume consume
the material deterioration of the planet
Shale revolution
Bitumen Oil Tar Gas

Take Take Take consume consume consume
One trillion litres of toxic waste and growing
The oil sands are a powerful source of energy
moving us, heating us, creating jobs
No country would find one hundred and seventy-three barrels of oil in the ground and just leave it there


Cash in on America’s oil and gas boom
Stop counting barrels and start making profits
The lawless stream must obey
Curb it, Confuse it, Bully it

Take Take Take consume consume consume
the material deterioration of the planet
Bitumen Oil Tar Gas YES!

It is not I who will feel the loss nor I who will feel the guilt

It’s a shale bubble
Shale revolution

2048 is the long term prize
A race to exploit
A fight to own

Climate change – we don’t talk about that here
What you need is a good fracking

(Text for the Weather Woman and her Climate Changers by Lavinia Murray)

WW: What’s the weather like where you are?

Funny weather we’re having.

Oh Say Can You Say What’s The Weather Today

Everybody seems to be talking about the weather but nobody seems to be doing anything about it.

WW: snow flurries
-24 centigrade, wind chill makes it feel like – 36
visibility 5 kilometres
amount of snow 10mm
probability of precipitation 24%, humidity 68%, dewpoint – 28 centigrade
wind direction NNW, wind speed 19 knots
losing it’s identity
visibility — you’re not actually looking, are you or you’d
have noticed the plastic embedded in the shore?
pressure 978 millibars and falling

at the Earth’s axis on a shifting continental ice sheet thicker than thick, thick thick thick how could it ever thaw it’s that thick it would take the combined and concerted body heat of the entire earth’s population pressed against it for it to melt.

it’s melting.

the weather’s very wintery winter winter winter winter

one day there will be spring

spring at the elevation 2,835 metres
-28 in summer, -90 in winter
degrading, losing its identity
the increasing wattage of the Antarctic sun
Red warnings have been issued. It’s rising over the horizon now. The point of low pressure around which humankind will swill.

rain sun wind
something the weather’s concocted
oh but I am the weather, my clothes are the weather
you are the weather, there’s nothing that’s not the weather

you are the weather
you are the weather
what’s got into you the weather
what you do is the weather

in your body the weather
it’s a parasite you’re in there fucking-up the weather
the politics of disposability is the weather
if you’re not worth a shit then we let the weather do its worst

Today’s Weather Forecast
Weather Watch
What’s the weather like where you are?
It’s losing its nationality.
It’s life threatening.

Tonight Jamil Kashoggi will rain on Bahrain.
Tonight Teresa May will precipitate across South East England.
Tomorrow Donald Trump will begin running counterclockwise in an area of low pressure.

Today’s weather. Red warnings take action. Amber warnings be prepared. Be prepared. It’s coming. The point of low pressure around which humankind will swill.

Wind, fetch and waves
I will delete you
How will I wipe you out?
By the Molecular
and Micro means
I will kill you with changing weather
circulations gone berserk
you frictionless fluid parcels.

(Soil Bark Thistle by Bysshe Inigo Coffey)

Waste. All there is. The wastage of it. Chalk and bones on an empty beach. Soon there won’t be a twitch of life. The world, a marble. Really. And to mean that too. There’s such a shock to it, in it. Horror even. So many ITs to contend with anyway. Dropping the names of things and faces, pale dry words, only for markers peal off. But this is old and known and people sing about it under bridges. The young one was stupid in his mouth. Dull. So fucking dull. Dull, but so sad.

A fact found in the arch of summer grass. An oily feather. Wretched spume and poisoned surf.  In the root of a tongue. You choose — that’s the only thing you can’t choose. Non-negotiable. But it dies slowly as I die, and turns like my dry eyes.

Or so now I think in soil bark thistle.

Let the rain do its work on my eyelids. Let it find me. And there’s the flashes, of course. To tumble backwards. A clown through autumn – into the short march of it. Northern Line and rush. Sat between coats. Inappropriate food. The lurching belching groping … and the stops. Bringing the light home from work and it stands in the eyes. And all they do — all the bad they do. Stop at the thought of all the plastic and chrome in hands or pockets. To think it might fashion a valve: help re-beat and kiss life into an old heart. An old heart stretching back to life. No. No. It holds waters, floats out to see, makes its own isle. Plastic and a long goodbye.

Terminus follows terminus.

And ours is close now. Then other lives not near me. Not this. But there’s you. Mine own. And to think of them and theirs. Those proximities we span. Sands, skies, fruits. How we close the wound with … how we come together. And all the cake. Fields and woods remain far behind me. But so does gas. So does a species’ regret.

On my back. All of it to end up on my back. Why don’t they bury you face down? Don’t kiss the sky, kiss the comforting clay. Let me say my goodbyes and apologies. Let me tell them I did wrong. You did very wrong. Rain and let it wet my back. Let yourself turn away. How to bury a – right. They close their eyes by covering me in soil. It’s about the gathering not the dead. So let me, let me turn my back.

Soil bark thistle shake.

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Spiros Bousbouras

“trufflewank” : I learned a new word today !

[…] depiction – in terms of specifics – or an eco-message work (unlike, for example, Laura Bowler’s Antarctica, which is emphatically eco-centric). Max’s extensive thoughts, captured in a diary during his […]

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