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Ice-Cold Rock-and-Roll
Live Earth, the summer's largest music event, will take on climate change with concerts on seven continents. Get to know the Antarctica band Nunatak.  
Text by Mary Anne Potts   Photograph courtesy British Antarctic Survey

Photo: Nunatak in Antarctica


ANTARCTIC OVERTURE: The five-member band Nunatak will represent Antarctica during Saturday's Live Earth musical extravaganza.


July 6, 2007

"We are all a bit eccentric down here," says Nunatak fiddler Tris Thorne. "I don't think the guys would mind my saying so." This Saturday, the band will represent Antarctica during Live Earth, the 24-hour, seven-continent musical event, featuring artists like The Police, Madonna, Lenny Kravitz, and Kelly Clarkson, to draw attention to climate change. "Nunatak" is a Greenlandic word meaning "an exposed summit of a ridge or peak within an ice field or glacier."

With a critical mass of 22 wintering over at the British Antarctica Survey Rothera Research Station, these five musically inclined souls are pretty unusual. Nunatak, which assembled last November, is something of an indie-folk band, though they shy away from such classifications.

Their icy endeavors will feel the heat of fame as Live Earth blasts across the airwaves and cyberspace to a projected two billion viewers. The performance will not be live—technical challenges posed by plunging temperatures and 35-knot (40-mile-per-hour) winds make it too complicated.

Even during the winter darkness, there's plenty do outside in Antarctica—snowboarding, skiing, ice climbing, and strolling about lovely Rothera Point. When they're not working or rehearsing, a few of the band members disappear to tend to their secret ice bar, an underground establishment serving home-brewed beer and whiskey. "We haven't got a name yet, but were considering Filthy McNasties," says Thorne.

Clearly adventurers of highest order, we caught up with Nunatak's fiddler Tris Thorne and tenor saxophonist Ali Massey to find out what it's like to be Live Earth's coolest band. (Find out about all the members at the end of the interview.)

Read about Live Earth founder Kevin Wall >>

 

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Are there any other contenders for the title of the first indie-folk band at the bottom of the world?
Thorne: There are probably many contenders for this. Music is, and always has been, a big part of Antarctic wintering.


Can you compare your sound to other bands we have heard?
Thorne: It has been said that Bob Dylan's "The Story of the Hurricane" nicely captures the live Nunatak sound.


Of the 22 people at the Rothera Research Station, what's the male-female ratio?
Massey: Three girls, 19 boys.


Where do you perform?
Massey: Mostly in the "sledge store," and occasionally in the bar. The sledge store is the usual venue for big parties, especially in the summer when numbers on base can reach over 100 people.


Not to sound naive, but do you all play outside? 
Thorne: We will be playing the concert outside, and we've been rehearsing outside, but more often we play indoors.

Massey: For me, the sax goes out of tune really quickly in the cold and condensation inside the instrument turns to ice!


What kinds of things are there to do outside in Antarctica during the winter?

Massey: Although the sun hasn't risen above the mountains for over a month now, we still get a few hours of dusky "daylight," which enables us to get outside in our spare time to go snowboarding, skiing, ice climbing, walking around Rothera Point, and generally admiring the beauty of Rothera. Even when it's dark, we can still snowboard, ski by moonlight or, like tonight, bivvy out under the stars.


Have you witnessed any indicators of climate change?
Thorne: Personally, I couldn't say. I don't believe humans live long enough to see long-term changes. In the short term, though, the last wintering team had sea ice by this time last year, and we don't have it yet.


Do you think it will be a bit nerve-wracking to play for some 2 billion people for the Live Earth concert?
Thorne: The two billion don't bother me. It's the three or four people in my family who might watch that is more of a concern.

Read about Live Earth founder Kevin Wall >>


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Who's in Nunatak?
Information provided by Tris Thorne

Bass Guitar - Roger Stilwell is a field general assistant or FGA. This is a term for a polar-mountaineering guide who "looks after" scientists and other staff when outside in the harsh polar environment. They set up camp, rescue people from crevasses, cook in the camp, carry heavy loads, repair clothing, set up remote radio stations, dig out fuel depots, and assist pilots—anything really.

Fiddle - Tris Thorne is the communications manager, a rather grandiose title for what used to be called a "radio officer" in days of yore. Originally, the only contact with the outside world was by shortwave radio, so it was important to have someone who knew how to use it. With satellites, the Internet, and the general rise of computers, the job has grown considerably. It now combines the dark art of short-wave radios (still very much in use here) with the slightly less dark art of IT administration. A fair amount of electronic engineering is required to fix things.

Lead Guitar and Vocals - Matt Balmer is a physical sciences electronic engineer. There are many long-term installations gathering data about the physical environment at Rothera (such as global lightning detection, meteor-detection, atmospheric composition, etc.). His wintering responsibility is the maintenance of this hardware and software. He also shares meteorological observing duties with Rob (see below).

Percussion and Sound Engineer - Rob Webster is a meteorological observer. He assesses weather conditions. Although he is not officially a weather forecaster, there is great demand for this kind of information, which falls to him. In winter, his job is mainly recording conditions. In the southern summer, Meteorology Team members, like Rob, are essential for the aircraft we operate.

Tenor Saxophone - Alison "Ali" Massey is a marine assistant. She makes regular oceanographic trips to sea in one of the station's small boats. In addition, she works with our resident marine biologist in the study of ocean flora and fauna.


  

Read about Live Earth founder Kevin Wall >>



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