Alum Records Glacier Sounds in Peru

by |January 3, 2019

By Runyu Liang for GlacierHub

It’s hard enough to capture an image of a glacier, but what about the sounds that glaciers make? GlacierHub caught up with Gustavo Valdivia, an alumnus of Columbia University’s Master of Arts in Climate and Society program, to talk about his work capturing glacier sounds, including his recordings of the famous Quelccaya glacier in Peru.

Quelccaya Glacier located in Peru (Source: Edubucher/Creative Commons).

Valdivia’s glacier sound recordings are included as part of the recently released project, Metaphonics: The Complete Field Works Recordings, which consists of seven vinyl records from musicians around the world and a hardbound book.

In 2013, Valdivia was conducting anthropological research with indigenous herders in Peru who make a living raising alpacas when he came up with the idea of recording the sounds of the glacier. He started collecting sounds of the Quelccaya glacier with a hand-held recorder. Later he connected with a friend, Tomás Tello, who is an experimental musician (listen to his experimental Andean mixtape here). They visited the glacier several more times to collect recordings with professional sound equipment. The recordings received a good deal of attention after they were published online, and other artists reached out to Valdivia. One sound artist, Stuart Hyatt, invited Valdivia to join the Metaphonics project with other musicians who make music out of collected soundscapes.

Valdivia is featured on the Metaphonics’ record, Initial Sound. Two of the songs on the record include Valdivia’s glacier recordings: Kinematic Waves, by musician Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, and Into the Flux by musician Gazalle Twin. The recordings weave Valdivia’s glacier soundscapes into a musical composition. The records are regarded as a sonic narrative under the banner of field sound, which refers to audio produced outside of a recording studio. The soundscapes of volcanoes, caves and even outer space are also introduced on the Metaphonics records.

Following the project, Gustavo has turned to producing and filmmaking in order to meet his personal goal of “helping people to connect with the natural world in a different way.”

Gustavo Valdivia with Tomás Tello and local herders during the sound recording in the Quelccaya, 2014. Gustavo is on the left (Source: Gustavo Valdivia).

GlacierHub: How did you come up with the idea of recording glacial soundscapes?

Gustavo Valdivia: When I was as a Climate and Society student, I took a class called “Listening: An Ethnography of Sound” in the anthropology department with professor J. Pemberton. Basically, he is the one who introduced me to this world. It was very inspiring in many ways.

Then I started to do the field work. In an interview, someone told me that there were a few families that were affected by a flood that occurred when a piece of ice fell from a glacier. It was a big thing that happened. The guy I was interviewing mentioned the sound he heard on the day the flood happened. Then we started talking about the sound. He mentioned there was a crazy sound happening up there. It gave me this idea.

In the beginning, when I was recording the sound, I was expected to make the recording sound scary, to create this kind of sensation that would cause people to be frightened of what is going on up there [on the glacier]. It would resemble sounds in a factory, a more mechanical and industrial quality. We [with musician Tomás Tello] were excited about that and waited to see what happened. After we got the recordings, we felt that the sounds were completely different from what we expected at the beginning. The sounds were  beautiful, very pleasant. For me, that’s really important because it makes me realize that what was going on was that no matter how horrible climate change is, nature is still beautiful. Instead of having this idea that we humans need to take care of nature, it made me think of how indifferent nature is about human suffering. It is not that we are killing nature, but nature is going to destroy the world we have. It made me rethink the relationship that humanity has with nature.

Sound recording in the Quelccaya, 2014 (Source: Gustavo Valdivia).

GH: Where did you make those audios?

GV: I only made the recordings in Quelccaya, Cusco. It is one of the biggest tropical glaciers in the world. I have been 40 times to this glacier. But we covered different sites in this area. Sometimes there are ice caves that disappear because the glacier melts so fast. I have been recording different things mostly connected to this area—the high elevation area in Peru close to nature where herders live.

GH: What are you recording? How many different sounds are in this series of records?

GV: I have been recording a different part of the glacier. I have been trying to capture the sound of the ice itself, solid ice. It’s normally the water running off the ice that is recorded. And also the sounds of the ice when it cracks. I have been recording along the base of the glacier in different parts in different years. It is the fifth year since I started. And also the daily life things there: the animals, the sounds inside the houses where people live.

GH: There are five senses. Why did you choose sound as a medium to deliver your information to the public?

GV: First of all, when I was as a student, learning as much I could about climate science, I felt the way we present scientific information about climate change is mostly visual. I had some problems understanding those visual representations. I used to work with people who are affected by climate change in the Andes in Peru. Those kinds of things, scientific research results presented in a visual way, don’t make sense to them, like people looking at a graph from a scientific paper or looking at one of the charts in an IPCC report. There is something missing. In general, even when people are looking at those visual things, they are not really engaging with the information being presented. It creates a kind of distance.

Sound is the first sense that humans develop. We started listening before we started being able to see. We are listening all of the time. We cannot cover our ears and just cancel sounds unconsciously. People, in general, are more accessible when you present them with sound than when you present them with graphs and visual information. Everyone can listen to things. You don’t need to have a PhD degree to listen to recordings. For me, sound is a more accessible sense to say something about climate change.

Quelccaya Glacier, 2016 (Source: Gustavo Valdivia).

GH: Why did you make the change from an anthropological researcher to a filmmaker?

GV: I believe in interdisciplinarity. That is the best way to talk about climate change. I felt that interdisciplinarity often lacks the contributions of artists. I am trying to work on environmental films with the background I have in science so I can connect different ideas that normally no one is connecting: that artists are interested in the environment, scientists are interested in anthropology, and anthropologists are interested in science. Film and audio sounds have great potential. I feel more comfortable making these kinds of connections to touch people in a deeper way.

GH: What are you trying to express to the audience by your recordings?

GV: To help the people to connect with the natural world in a different way, to use art and sound to help the listener have a different understanding of the natural world, not just seeing the landscape in a picture but also listening. Let us say, environmental awareness.

Check out more recordings of Valdivia’s glacier soundscapes here.

 is a student in Columbia’s Master of Arts in Climate and Society program. 

This post was originally published on GlacierHub. GlacierHub is managed by Ben Orlove, an anthropologist at the Earth Institute and the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions at Columbia University

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