A month or so ago I returned from an amazing month long trip to Svalbard. I was there on a residency working on a project called ‘Solway to Svalbard’ with two friends Stuart Macpherson and Emma Dove. The project is a creative response to the spring migration of the Barnacle Goose from the wetlands of the Solway Firth in South West Scotland to the Islands of Svalbard in the Arctic Circle.
We have been creating audio/visual work by spending time in communities/environments (residencies, workshops, interviews) along the spring migration route: Caerlaverock (Solway), Selvær (Helgeland) and Longyearbyen (Svalbard).
All three of us spent some time together at Caerlaverock Wetlands Centre in South West Scotland filming and recording the geese back in spring 2017. Stuart then spent a month on Træna in northern Norway and then all three of us traveled to Svalbard for a month to film the geese at the farthest end of their journey where they breed and raise their chicks.
At this time of year the first thing you have to get used to when you arrive in Svalbard is 24 hour daylight. It is a very strange experience looking out your window at midnight and seeing bright sunlight so it took some getting used to. We were staying in Longyearbyen which is a small coal-mining town on Spitsbergen Island, in the Svalbard archipelago. The mining industry is slowing down and only one mine (mine 7) is still operational. Below is a picture of the coal cableway centre (Taubanesentrale) overlooking Longyearbyen.
The town has become more focused on tourism than mining which means that it can go from very quiet to incredibly busy in the space of half an hour when one of the massive cruise ships arrive bringing often up to 4,000 people to the town. The town’s resident population is only around 2,000 people so the change is pretty dramatic.
This could make filming and recording sound quite difficult so we found that working from around 10.30pm to 3am seemed to get the best results as often the light was nice around this time and man made noise was at a minimum. The other main issues that needed to be worked around were cars and vans, the airport (although there aren’t that many flights they seem to happen at the worst possible times!), trucks going to and from mine 7, dogs howling and of course the problem of polar bears.
Although incidents are very rare, there is a real danger of being attacked by a polar bear near Longyearbyen if you aren’t careful, as the population in the Svalbard archipelago is now around 3,000 bears so most people carry a gun when leaving the town. A high powered hunting rifle is recommended for this but as none of us have gun licenses we decided to rent a car and use this as a form of polar bear protection. So we always had someone on bear watch and never strayed far from the car and this seemed to work well.
Just to the north west of Longyearbyen is Bjørndalen which is home to a large colony of little auks who nest up in the cliffs (shown below)
They make an amazing (and fairy comical) sound which echoes around the cliffs. Above is my setup for recording them. I am using my Senneheiser double mid-side rig (2 x mkh8040 1 x mkh 30) in a cinela blimp. The final piece of work we create will be played back on a surround speaker array so I wanted to get as many surround ambiences as possible while in Svalbard.
We also got a visit from a curious arctic fox while in Bjørndalen and Emma managed to get a photo (shown below).
We regularly travelled to Adventdalen (shown below) a few miles east of Lonbyearbyen as this tended to be where the geese were situated. It was also home to lots of other wildlife like arctic terns, eider ducks, red throated divers, dunlin, purple sandpiper, grey phalarope, arctic skua and snow bunting (Svalbard’s only song bird).
I also brought two smaller recorders - the Sony M10 and the Sony D100. These I used as ‘drop rigs’ which I would leave overnight in locations I thought might be likely to have some interesting sounds. These were pretty successful at times and I got some lovely close up recordings of the geese and chicks. When in Scotland the geese don’t have any chicks, as Svalbard is where they do all their breeding, so this was a sound I was particularly eager to get a recording of. Above is a recording of a pair of red throated divers and a recording of barnacle geese and chicks made with the sony M10 and two Clippy EM172 mics.
Towards the end of our trip we went to Pyramiden, an abandoned Russian coal mining settlement about 4 hours boat trip from Longyearbyen. The place was abandoned back in the 90s over just three days so it has an amazingly haunted quality. All the buildings are still full of peoples belongings, papers, musical instruments and anything that they didn’t have time to grab.
The place was founded in 1910 by Sweden then sold to the Soviet Union in 1927 and at one point held over 1,000 people. It now has only around 20 or so residents and is mainly populated by Kittiewakes which have moved into all the old abandoned buildings. There are also a large number of arctic foxes, a couple of which took a real liking to my mic. I think they thought there was a new lady in town!
The trip was amazing and we managed to get a lot of very good interviews from a wide range of people living in Svalbard, some amazing footage and a load of really nice recordings - so we all left feeling very happy. We now have to go through and edit all the material and plan the post production process. I am also planning to release a sound library of my recordings from Svalbard once they are fully edited and have had meta data added. We are planning to finish Solway to Svalbard sometime in 2020.