Music is Not Made for the Adventure

August 22

Would have been sublime to hear London Grammar the night I stepped off the plane and rode the train from Heathrow to Houndslow, but the tickets to the pre-tour show at Round Chapel were impossible to snag, even with preregistration, even with staying up very, very late. Some fans said after that the tickets had sold out in seconds. Others said it took a few minutes, at most. For me, it would have been a squeeze to get across London that night, and I hadn’t exactly slept on that gorgeous 787 from Seattle. So, all things considered, I was okay making myself at home at my cousin’s house in Twickenham, and sitting out on the back porch and garden while they were vacationing in the south of France. I had my notebook and a cup of tea. And, starting there, in that place with my feet up and the night sounds complicating my thoughts, it was even more okay, even surreal perhaps, to discover this perfect modern band, and Hanna Reid with her expansive voice, playing their final set of the night live on the Internet.

The night was warm, and those were not bad seats, and when the band was finished and the stage lights winked out on my laptop screen, I began that journey—three weeks in Europe so that I could begin to ask some new questions and listen to the sounds, the voices of people I only ever hear every few years or even every decade or so—and let that adventure prompt other memories, the way sounds when coupled with sights and half-remembered smells always do. All my best memories are married to sound—and sometimes music.

My college acting teacher told me, “Sometimes, things don’t go as planned.” His name was Jeremy Caplan. For the longest time, I’ve remembered him as ‘Robert,’ but IMDB has set me straight, even from way out here in the Arctic Ocean.

Jeremy played a deputy sheriff in Toy Soldiers. He’s the one who runs down the hill near the beginning of the film and says, “Sheriff, there’s been shots fired at the school.” So, Louis Gossett Junior and Wil Wheaton were in town that fall, and me pretty close to working fame at the city bars, and at the Culbreth theatre—Tina Fey was there too, a year ahead, but I don’t remember running into ‘Elizabeth’ in the corridors or the prop shop or the stage or the green room. There’s no reason I should remember. I can’t even remember the name of the plays I directed, or any of those from which I acted scenes. Streets at night and theatre corridors are too quiet to be remembered well, unless there’s shouting, or a raccoon in a garbage can, or my heart’s going fast because all theatres are in the wrong part of town. But remembering is too often not a part of the plan.

We deal with the unexpected when it comes, and if it’s memorable, I think there’s usually a quality of sound attached. I planned to find a working cash machine in the Underground that afternoon (thin, echoing spaces and too many voices to concentrate), and I planned to have a wallet in Kyoto years ago when I needed to pay for the hotel (a rolling suitcase cutting through loose gravel on the road). I planned to have an unexpired driver’s license in order to rent a car out of Manchester (yes, there, just the pounding of my heart). That’s to say, things work out even if the details go astray. And the psychological pressures that come from driving a month, illegally (because the agent hadn’t noticed), on the wrong side of the road, probably add something to the overall adventure.

Nothing in the last ten years indicated sea ice would be factor in our survey of the Beaufort shelf-break. Once upon a time, say 2005, sure. But things have changed, and this year it’s not that things have changed back, but perhaps the old memories haven’t gone altogether. Maybe we’ve come upon a lingering, fringe chance to collect data now about conditions that have become so rare they might not happen again, not in our lifetimes. We don’t know. A sombre note, because the seascape beyond our portholes is stark and beautiful and more than ever a sign of times gone by.

We can’t direct the details. We can’t know what’s beneath the surface until we go there, dip a toe and think it’s warm and then sink to our knees and discover that warmth was just a skin exposed to the sun, and that there’s much more going on beneath. We have no idea what our actors had for breakfast. We have no idea what our shipmates will be going back to next week. But because that future affects these details, time is nested eddies.

For our college acting class, I directed two other students in a somewhat quiet scene on a couch in the green room. It was exactly the type of scene I like to write, minimal characters hesitant to fall in love, and everything that should be scripted isn’t. I think this is a good example of why I should not direct and not make films—because I overproduce—sometimes. I had a couch in the green room and two talented students, and I wanted music as well, because sound is important to me, because while I was never a huge fan of Tangerine Dream, in 1990 I’d fallen in love with the first dozen bars of a little B-side track called “Underwater Twilight,” and I wanted that to play from a cassette tape and portable stereo to close out the scene. I probably wanted to make a statement that this was a sublime moment. Would have been, could have been heavy-handed, but the tape stuck, or something like that, or maybe another of the students hadn’t understood the cue, or maybe Jeremy had a hand in it—I don’t know. The point is that the music, shoehorned in, wasn’t needed—except that the process of planning it and failing at it is likely the reason I even remember the couch and the green room at all. I had married the occasion to music, even ineffectually, even if the music hadn’t actually played.

You can’t direct the details, but you can learn from them. You can sleep on them and adapt. We are here on a ship in the Beaufort Sea to survey and to see how the distribution of animals along the shelf-break (zooplankton, fish, birds, belugas) changes under conditions of upwelling, when winds from the east push the surface water north, and deeper, more nutrient rich ocean upwells in the water column. But the actual story plays out as it must. Today, we deployed the mid-water trawl under conditions we could not have done two weeks ago. We did it in record time. The fishing is late in coming this cruise, but the crew’s movements are now practiced and informed by our repeated attempts. The ice is still an issue, but we’ve been looking for routes through the labyrinth that allow us to use even our largest net most days.

So, a plan is a good starting point. From there we can see just how good we are at figuring things out. Just the other day, Randy remarked how the Sikuliaq is still young for ship and hasn’t found herself yet. Over the last three years, the crew has worked the ship into better and better shape.

I most remember the sounds of the very young ship and the too many things that didn’t fit together when she had only just met saltwater, the way the north Atlantic swells rattled the coat hangers from one end of the closet to the other, the way some of the drawers wouldn’t latch and then opened and closed two feet deep on every crest and every trough—and there seemed too many other things to do to find the duct tape—and these are just the silly surface details. Then the anchors bounced in their pockets and the chains rang like bells in their tubes.

Emerson Eads wrote music for the Sikuliaq’s launch, recorded by the Fairbanks Symphony orchestra. They played it the day we dropped the ship into the Menominee River. They played Emerson’s piece at the reception—but people were more in a mood to talk about the future of the boat and the future of the Arctic and arctic research than listen to music that had never seen the boat run, or grow, or settle into itself. Music is not made for the adventure. It arises from it. Sometimes it is just the song playing on the radio, or the quartet at the top of your last playlist. You can’t force the show, and no one had yet heard the voice of the Sikuliaq. The ship had barely gotten wet, despite the rain in Wisconsin.

The delicacy of the symphony orchestra’s recording was lost to the poor playback from someone’s laptop and a neglected speaker system. All this hoity-toity theatre, dress-up, and presumption, and they didn’t get the sound right. It’s fine. This is art. This is science. We work at it and we work at it with big plans and little control of the details. They fall out as they must, and we work at it some more and some more until people begin to take notice.

The Sikuliaq’s song is strongest when she’s running and the swells grow large. You can hear it best in the forward hold below the chains. There the rhythm of the sea and the moan of the engines come together in the steel to create a sound all her own. I have it recorded. I listen to it sometimes to remember.

I drove by Marinette this last spring. I was on my way round the lake and wanted to re-find a particular café I’d discovered when I was there for Sikuliaq’s launch, a little place in Menominee with great pie. I didn’t have much of a plan to find the place five years on, but I’ve found these things are not so hard, finding the old places once you’ve got the music of it.

For better or for worse, a bit of the music I’ve most played over and over again this cruise:

Moon in Your Mouth — Goldfrapp, Silver Eye

Different Skin — Vogel, Imperium

Let it Go By — Fiora, Let it Go By

So Just Hang On, Beautiful One — Au4, And Down Goes the Sky

                   Move It — Prinze George, Illiterate Synth Pop

You can also follow the R/V Sikuliaq @rmtopp @Sikuliaq on Twitter and @toppworld on Instagram and @R/V Sikuliaq on Instagram and Facebook. To further chart the course of this August 2018 expedition, look up Arctic Winds, Fish, Fins, and Feathers on Facebook.

—Thanks to the R/V Sikuliaq, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and the University of Alaska Fairbanks College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.