The Sound of Freezing Breath
Artist Juergen Staack records the so called "whisper of the stars". At minus 57 degrees Celsius (= -70,6 degrees Fahrenheit) with a Sennheiser MKH 8060 short gun RF condenser microphone.
It all began with a documentary on the TV arts channel “arte” about the world’s coldest inhabited place, Oymyakon in the far east of Russia. The programme also mentioned “ice whispering”, a phenomenon that occurs when people breathe and speak in extremely low temperatures. The breath immediately freezes, generating a crackling noise that follows the speaker like a shadow. Fascinated by the idea that words turn into crystals with a sound of their own, the artist Juergen Staack travelled to Yakutia in 2012, accompanied by his artist colleague Thomas Neumann.
Thomas Neumann (l.) and Juergen Staack
The sound recordings that Staack brought back with him will be on display until 1 March in the exhibition entitled SAKHA at the Konrad Fischer Galerie in Berlin. On his acoustic hunt to record the rare phenomenon of ice whispering – which the natives call “the whisper of the stars” – Juergen Staack took along an MKH 8060 RF condenser microphone from Sennheiser as part of his equipment.
The journey to the Pole of Cold
With financial support from the Arts Foundation of North Rhine-Westphalia, Staack and Neumann set off for Yakutsk, the capital city of the Sakha Republic (Yakutia), in January 2012. The minus 35°C that confronted them at the airport was just a foretaste of the temperatures awaiting them at their actual destination, Oymyakon. In 1926, a temperature of minus 71.2°C is said to have been measured there, qualifying the village for the title of “Pole of Cold”.
The fish market in Yakutsk
The first week was taken up with planning the onward journey. “We had to wait until there were enough passengers to fill a minibus to Oymyakon,” Juergen Staack recalls. “When the driver had finally got enough passengers together so that we could set off on the 24-hour trip, I must admit that we felt a bit queasy. What if the bus broke down in these temperatures…?”
The Kolyma Highway, the “Road of Bones”, took them around 700 kilometres in a north-easterly direction. The village of Oymyakon lies in a wind-protected valley that prevents the cold air from escaping, thus causing extremely low temperatures in winter.
Oymyakon, the world’s coldest inhabited place
“During our first days there it was minus 48°C, which was – don’t laugh – apparently too warm for ice whispering. It meant that we had to correct the temperature that had previously been considered necessary for ice whispering, 45°C, downwards. As we couldn’t hear any noise, we started to get a bit nervous. Although there had been reports of ice whispering, no recordings actually existed. Was the whole thing perhaps just a myth?”
Staack filled the time waiting for colder weather, and therefore the opportunity to record the ‘whisper of the stars’, with other audio and video recordings for SAKHA, including conversations with a local meteorologist and inhabitants who talked about their experience of ice whispering. “Some of them were not even aware of the phenomenon, while others reported on how they had experienced it when they were young,” Staack recalls.
“The sound seems to have become increasingly seldom. For me, this example makes global warming tangible. A nearby coal-fired power station might also play a part in preventing the temperatures in Oymyakon from falling quite as low as they did some years ago.”
At their destination
But Staack and Neumann persevered and had their equipment ready night after night. And their patience was finally rewarded.
“We went out every night to make recordings, but on this particular night the temperatures had dropped even further, to minus 57°C. And suddenly: there it was! Our breath and speech produced a noise, a jangling sound, a kind of rustling crackle that reverberated after each word and each breath and followed it like a shadow. Against the light, we could see our breath billowing and vortexing.” The next night, the magical spectacle was already over – against all expectations, it had got warmer.
At the SAKHA exhibition, visitors can take an acoustic walk in the Siberian snow
After spending around three weeks in Siberia, the two returned to Germany, where Juergen Staack set to work preparing the material and designing the SAKHA exhibition over the course of the year.
The installation in Berlin
Visitors to SAKHA at the Konrad Fischer Galerie in Berlin first enter a white room. Visually, a peaceful, observational video sets the mood for the tranquillity of the landscape and life in Oymyakon. On the floor, there are four dark-grey loudspeakers made of concrete and arranged in a square, which reproduce a walk in the snow.
“I had noticed that snow in Oymyakon sounds different at each temperature. For the installation, I walked around a square shape and recorded the crunching of my steps in the snow. When visitors stand in the square, they can hear a person walking around them through the deep snow.”
On the videoscreen in the installation: Recorded against the light Yakut geologist Valery Vinokurov describes the whisper of the stars
On one wall, Cyrillic letters have been painted – a text that describes the whisper of the stars. From there, visitors move into a darkened room in which Valery Vinokurov (geologist and meteorologist) speaks in Yakut: recorded against the light, he describes the whisper of the stars, while his breath creates white turbulences and veils as it dissipates into the blackness. Another dark room is then given over entirely to the whisper of the stars itself – which was recorded for the very first time thanks to the artist.
The MKH 8060
The MKH 8060 is a short gun RF condenser microphone that is ideally suited for high-quality sound recordings in climatically difficult environments. “Juergen Staack’s journey to the world’s coldest inhabited place also sets a new low-temperature record for the MKH 8060,” explains Sennheiser Product Manager Kai Lange. “Thankfully, due to their RF condenser principle, MKH microphones are already equipped with two advantages for use in inclement weather: a high RF voltage at the capsule and very low capsule impedance.”
The Sennheiser MKH 8060
“The high RF voltage at the capsule has the effect of ‘pressing’ the humidity out of the microphone in critical situations, for example when making outdoor recordings in mist and fog,” Lange continues. “We could say that the capsule ‘notices’ the high humidity in the air and dries itself.”
“The second advantage is the low internal capsule impedance, which is less than 1 kohm, while conventional capsules have a much higher impedance of between 200 kohms and 200 megaohms, depending on the frequency. At these high levels of impedance, the slightest fault in the insulation results directly in the failure of the capsule, whereas RF condenser microphones are absolutely robust.”
About Juergen Staack
Juergen Staack lives and works in Düsseldorf. After completing an apprenticeship as a photographer, Staack studied at the Academy of Fine Arts Düsseldorf. He was a member of the masterclass of Prof. Thomas Ruff and graduated in 2008 under Prof. Christopher Williams. Numerous awards and grants, including a grant from the Arts Foundation of North Rhine-Westphalia, enabled Juergen Staack to work and study in Tokyo, São Paulo, Siberia and Seoul. In addition to various solo exhibitions and group shows in Boston, Tokyo, Riga, Düsseldorf, Essen and Berlin, Staack is also the co-founder of the artists’ collective “Fehlstelle”.
Interview with Juergen Staack
Mr Staack, how did you get the idea of recording ice whispering and putting it into an artistic concept?
I was fascinated by the idea that breath freezes at very low temperatures and makes a unique sound as the ice crystals form. It’s a very romantic concept and I simply couldn’t get it out of my head. No-one had previously succeeded in recording this phenomenon and even during my stay in Siberia, I sometimes started to think that the whole thing is perhaps just a myth.
For a long time, I had been working on transforming photographs into speech and sounds in order to make them more abstract and to create a new inherent value. I trained as a photographer, but at the end of my training I was quickly disillusioned by photography as a medium. Everyone consumes it, no-one questions it and, within the flood of images around us, the individual photo no longer has any significance, any value.
For that reason, in my artistic work I let pictures become a kind of inspiration. I give people photos and let them talk about them, for example I ask them to describe what they see. That aroused my interest in languages. The more obscure a language is, the more encrypted the description becomes. I then need a mediator into the world of thoughts for which this language is an expression.
Did you also record voice documents in Siberia?
Yes, for the exhibition itself we recorded a geologist who lives in Oymyakon who describes the phenomenon of ice whispering in his native Yakut – with illustrative descriptions of temperature such as “so cold that the birds freeze to death in flight and fall to the ground”. We also made recordings of Tamara, Yegorov and other inhabitants of the village.
And, of course, while we were waiting for the weather to get colder, I spent my time collecting material for my picture descriptions. In most cases, the people in my interviews initially focus on the description, but they very soon start to tell stories and sing songs – and the folklore of a people unfolds before my very eyes.
From Siberia, I brought back narratives and songs of the Evenks and Evens, who make up only 2.2 and 1.6 percent respectively of the Republic of Sakha. The recordings also include parts of “Olonkhos”, shaman tales and songs of the Yakuts, which can have between 10,000 and 40,000 verses and which are sung and narrated over several evenings.
Thomas Neumann (l.) and Juergen Staack with two Olonkho singers
The technical equipment that accompanied you on this journey is actually designed for much more moderate temperatures. What were the biggest challenges and what measures did you take to keep the equipment working?
We gathered as much information as possible before we left and spoke to a lot of experts, including Sennheiser. Of course, no piece of technical equipment has ever been tested under such extreme conditions, and the internet is full of the wildest stories of displays shattering and cables snapping in the cold. We then relied on both quality and quantity and took a lot of equipment with us to make sure we always had a replacement at hand if something broke down. We used equipment and accessories from as many different manufacturers as possible, took special equipment with us wherever possible and combined both analogue and digital equipment.
In fact, some of the stories were actually true – standard cables did indeed break in the cold. I once went outside in a hurry and at this very moment the cables froze rigid and couldn’t be stored anywhere. So I had to go back inside and carefully thaw them out. On the digital camera, the crystals in the displays first began to move extremely slowly before the display failed completely. The camera still worked however. On the analogue camera, I noticed the shutter slowly starting to freeze up.
So we had to develop certain techniques: we carried the battery packs and recorders close to our body and pulled the cables through our sleeves. Anything that had to be used outside was not taken out until shortly before the recordings were made and was switched on indoors before we went out. It was not only that it was impossible to operate small switches while wearing thick gloves, some of the equipment worked perfectly when it was switched on indoors but refused to start up when we tried to switch it on at -50°C…
Ice age for the equipment – to keep the equipment working, it was switched on while still indoors and was worn close to the body for as long as possible when outside in the cold
How would you sum up your journey?
We succeeded in recording the whisper of the stars, that was the greatest success for me. I would have liked to have made a second recording, but the weather was kind to us only once. We met many wonderful people from a unique culture, people with fascinating traditions and ancient beliefs. One can really get homesick for Yakutia…