Music of the Aurora

In Barry Lopez’s book Arctic Dreams, he spends a short amount of time reminiscing on the first time he saw the aurora borealis and how it can be difficult to put into words its colors, movement, and beauty. I was relieved to read that I was not the only person having that issue! I often struggle putting into words a description of the aurora that will cause those who have seen it to glaze over as they dream about it, and those who have not seen it to yearn for a huge night of northern lights. While writing this entry I reviewed the first time that I ever tried to explain the aurora. Reading “Poeticism, superlatives, and lists of glamorous, stunning, beautiful adjectives will abound in this post, for this was no mere night and cannot be described with just plain words. If this grammatical superfulism is not your style,  I would not blame you for skipping straight to the images on this one.” from that post almost three years ago makes me smile! I am not convinced chaining longs lists of adjectives together aptly describes aurora. It is as emotional as it is visual and is something best experienced for yourself.

Muted Aurora
Muted tones during a period of aurora pianissimo.

Thinking about the writing I have done in past describing the aurora, I was struck by my usage of musical terms to describe the aurora. In fact, the feelings music terms invoke bring both emotional and descriptive meaning to the adjectives I use to describe the aurora.  Reading back on an entry from September 2015 I found this, “As evening progressed the auroral symphony started to tune its strings. Beginning to the north it solidified and moved into a broad crescendo of dancing lights, and then falling to pianissimo, the lights went out. But then from the orchestral pit,Double Forte!“.   I love the vision it invokes in my head. A crowd of expectant viewers hush their voices and the lights are dimmed, a few plucks are heard in the pit of the orchestra, the conductor raises his hands, and the show begins!

Aurora Star Trails Purple
A long star trails shows of the changes of the aurora borealis over a couple of hours.

The idea of translating the aurora into music prompted me to work through formally composing and recording my first ever song on the guitar.  I began the song the way the aurora often begins. A steady, solid pulse of light that builds one beat at a time. The song is timid, unsure if the aurora will come to fruition, but then a light harmonic symbolizes change. The tempo of the song forces the aurora higher into the sky as it builds in speed and intensity. Shifting across the sky, short bursts of light are like a staccato.  They punctuate the underscore that has now turned into a fast steady rhythm. Rapidly the aurora rolls across the sky changing the visual dynamics. A region of forte that held your gaze diminishes to pianissimo allowing you to refocus to a new part of the sky. In the orchestra, the conductor is no waving stage left at the delicate sounds of violins but instead at the soft lyrical voices of the flutes. The change gives you goose bumps as it seamlessly transitions to a new rhythm and sound. The swell of color and light has finally ceased and the the steady pulse of light returns before finally fading out. The lights of the auditorium fade out, and the applause of the crowd erupts as they lavish in what they heard and saw.

Aurora Star Trails Collosus
“Collosus” A composition of change in the aurora over a 1.5 hour period. This composition shows off a variety of color changes and intensities.

As this posts winds down and concludes, I would be interested to know if the use of music and musical terms helps describe the aurora for you. In the video below, I tied together time lapes from this season in the Fairbanks region. The guitar track was composed and performed by me. I hope you enjoy!

Northern Accents

It was negative 5 degrees Fahrenheit in Fairbanks, Alaska as I stepped outside to engage in my photographic addiction : capturing the northern lights. I set off into the night, stomped a trail through knee-deep snow, and tripped on a hidden tree. The trip loosened up a signature item of the black spruce bog that I was walking in; a four foot Black Spruce tree encased in snow. Around me arranged in clumps and with varying snow loads were hundreds of Black Spruces. Each layer of snow deposited through the winter hung heavily on each tree.  Some of them sustained the burden of winter and maintained their dignity by standing upright, however, many bowed over in graceful arcs waiting for the warmth of spring to set them free. The beautiful landscape I stood in was classic to the interior of Alaska in the boreal forest. On this night I was in luck, the aurora started up and with my camera and mind racing I began to take pictures that fused together two iconic elements of interior Alaska.

I began photographing the aurora borealis three years ago and since then have continued to morph my skills and technique. It is actually pretty amazing to consider the transition that my photography has gone through as I began to realize that although the northern lights are stunning they are only an accent to unique landscape. I began to focus less on tack-sharp stars and large vistas and more on the foreground elements. I no longer only seek tall “domes” (i.e., mountains, hills) to stake out my my tripod. Instead I often look for integral pieces of the landscape that epitomize it and place them close and directly in front of my camera. In order to capture landscapes like these I change my techniques. My camera and tripod are almost always at ‘snow level’ to take advantage of unique angles, and I set up only a few feet from the object in front of me. A bulbous, snow-covered black spruce only two feet away becomes the tack-sharp focus that the eye is pulled to. The dreamy and soft aurora and stars  provide the lighting that help pull out the essence of the landscape. They are punctuation to the beauty which lies all around.

In the age of digital photography that makes capturing the northern lights “easy”, I offer this article as a challenge to photographers to think outside of the box when shooting the aurora. You may find that it provides inspiration to your work and a beautiful twist to an astounding phenomenon.

Northern Archway
I chose this archway of spruces to photograph the aurora in. I was intent on capturing the aurora in a way that complimented their shape.
Window to the Northern Lights
I got closer to the archway and was thrilled by the aurora that dance in this natural window.
Northern Lights
Bulbous, snow-covered spruces and a framework and a dead spruce are set by the aurora borealis.
Aurora Borealis
A window to the aurora beyond.
Northern Lights
A broad vista of red and green aurora in Fairbanks.
Northern Lights Archway
Northern lights in an archway of black spruces.

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A Superior Coast of Stone and Ice

I do not know why the stark beauty of the Lake Superior coast surprised me so much; before, I had lived on its shores four years. In front of me, the grey sky mirrored the pale ice of the shoreline, and as I walked to the edge of Gitchigumi’s  ice encased coast at Gooseberry State Park I was captivated. Short waves in the small cove which curled out in front of me lapped at the shoreline and imperceptibly built up icicles that hung from ice ledges. The icicles were shaped like alligator teeth and seemed to dangle from the frozen mouth of a gigantic beast. Every rock was encased in a sheet of ice built  up one splash of water at a time. A careful cross-section of ice from on top of the rock would reveal that stone was at the core of an arctic onion.

The ice was inspiring to look at from a macro and micro scale. By getting close and touching my nose to the ice, I observed some the miniscule details contributing to the grand-scale beauty.  On the rocks, a result of the layers of water was gray-and-white banded textures mimicking the agates Lake Superior is so famous for. They were polished to perfection.  Colorful yellow lichens, tufted grasses, and rich green mosses were preserved on the rocks behind clear windows of curved ice. The magnifying effect of the curve threw pieces of the lichen out of proportion, and the the splashes of bright color they provided were in stark contrast to the granite. As I pressed my face close and looked,  it was impossible to guess how some of the textures had formed. In some instances, it seemed that some of the small pebbles trapped in the ice had received just enough sun to melt and separate themselves. The small void they left above their surface was filled with alternating grains and patterns. Reflecting on it now, everything looks a bit different when you observe the essence of a landscape.

One of the greatest joys of the afternoon was when the sun dissolved through the flat gray skies as a radiant sunset. The grey ice ledges and icicles no longer blended into the background colors of the horizon but instead reflected and bounced the many colors of the  sky. The Lake Superior coast was transformed. Translucent icicles absorbed and emitted the sunset’s light. Rays of sun illuminated the rock islands encased in ice.  Blue skies and orange clouds floated overhead and were pushed by the wind. Throughout it all I counted my blessings and documented its beauty. As the sun finally set I returned to my car feeling like I had been at just the right place, at just the right time.

Sunset on the Iice
The sunset bounces off the curved icy bubbles on the shoreline.
Sunset Emitted
These small icicles absorb and seem to emit the colors of the sunset behind them.
Flat Waters?
You may have noticed throughout the post that the water of Lake Superior was flat. That is due to a the long exposures that I used to emphasize the beauty of the ice. This image does not use a long exposure and shows a small wave breaking over the rocks.