Behind the Scenes: Seventy Degrees Below Zero

Posted on: January 13, 2012 in: Conquering the Antarctic

This week composer Cecilia McDowall and poet Sean Street visited us to make a webcast about their involvement in our Conquering the Antarctic tour, and the new commission Seventy Degrees Below Zero. A cantata for solo tenor and orchestra, the piece sets music to Scott’s final letter and two new poems written by Sean.

Here’s a taster of their fascinating insights into the creative process and the inspiration behind the new piece.

Cecilia on her inspiration for the piece:

“I visited the Scott Polar Research Institute to see the original artefacts. I witnessed such heaviness, such substance, which these men had to drag across the icy terrain.

I was moved by one letter of course, Scott’s final letter to his wife Kathleen, which he addresses ‘To my widow…’ deeply personal, but at the same time so stoical.

Looking at these notebooks: the frail-looking paper, the pencil……I have to say, every time I read it, it moves me to tears.”

Sean on the relationship between art and science:

“The blend of science and art, in whatever form, is something I think we tend to have forgotten. Actually Scott quotes a lot of poetry in his journals alongside the scientific observation.

While we have the comfort of our technologies around us, we somehow feel civilised, we somehow feel in control. But there comes a point when the whiteness, the ‘inner silence of white’ we talk about, takes over, and you’re moving beyond measurement. You’re moving into some kind of an abstract world”.

Sean on putting the record straight:

“We wanted to reflect that it’s seen too often as an heroic failure to reach the Pole, when it was a scientific expedition—we are still gleaning material from what Scott and his people gained at that trip. So it’s much bigger than just the epic trudge to the Pole and the failure.”


Cecilia on finding her connection with the adventurers:

“While I was writing this piece, I thought ‘What on earth IS seventy degrees below zero? I know what three degrees below zero is like, but seventy?’ It helped me to find my imaginary world into their world where I could immerse myself into this cold, bleak terrain.”

Sean on the concept behind The Ice Tree [the poem which is used in the second movement]:

“I examined the documents, and the last phrase that he wrote in the journal –‘it seems a pity but I cannot write any more’…The paper had become transparent with time, with cold and with pressure… That was a direct inspiration for me to go into the second movement piece, which is the Ice Tree, which talks about the trek that paper makes from tree, and combines the idea of the trees that supply the paper with the drilling down of ice cores that we now have in science.

We are losing some of these great wildernesses. They are fragmenting. The leaves from the ice tree are falling…”

Cecilia on connecting past and present:

“I was very aware of the extraordinary extent of the research that had gone on then…I thought of this whole commission in terms of looking down the century and looking at all the scientific research that was being done. The ice core for me felt like a telescope looking back into the past. The ice tree joins the past to the present.”

Listen to the full interview here.

Conquering the Antarctic
3-8 Feb & 3 March 2012

Birmingham, Cambridge, Cardiff, Cheltenham, and London

In partnership with Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

*New commission supported by SPRI, The RVW Trust and The Richard Hickox Fund for New Music.