‘Many sensible people shook their heads doubtfully, and took us sadly by the hand the day we left…for they thought we should never come back alive – p.69
Nansen travels to Iceland from where he plans to charter a Norwegian sealer called ‘The Jason’ to take the expedition to Greenland. Despite the dangers and the words of warning, the general mood is optimistic. The track echoes this mood, featuring a simple repeated theme in Eb Major that builds by means of layering before drifting away again.
‘In these regions the heavens count for more than elsewhere; they give colour and character, while the landscape, simple and unvarying, has no power to draw the eye’ –p.80
The expedition sets forth from Iceland, and, cruising in the icy seas, makes for the east coast of Greenland. The track opens with an extract from ‘The First Crossing of Greenland’ where Nansen is poetically musing on the richness and beauty of the northern skies and the floe ice. Like Nansen’s description of the glacial landscapes through which they travel, the piano line round which this track is built is simple and unvarying. Yet, like the skies that Nansen describes, on top of this simple piano line a rich texture starts to build, before it crescendos in a flurry of strings, guitars and beats.
‘Along the whole of this magnificent coast of Greenland one group of wild Alpine peaks succeeds the other, each more beautiful than the last. Really it is not so bad after all to lie drifting here in the ice. We see more of the coast and more of the beauties of nature than we would have seen otherwise.’ – p.142
The expedition reaches the east coast of Greenland, only to find its way blocked by twenty kilometers of treacherous floe ice. Constantly drifting, it takes them nearly a month to cross this ice by means of rowing, walking and pure good fortune. The piece is a timbral collage performed by electronics only. All the sounds are created from recordings of the band in rehearsal. Like the constantly shifting floe ice, the piece is always evolving and changing, whilst in the background the great form of Greenland looms, here represented by a dense texture of electronics and guitar.
‘Consequently our joy knew no bounds when we had climbed some hundred feet higher and then found the surface stretching flat in front of us as far as we could see in the moonlight…anything better was beyond our imagination’ –p.256
Nansen’s party leaves the boats and strikes forth on to the icecap, some 2700m above them. This is a point of no return for the expedition, from here on it is either success or death. The track is built round two repetitions of a theme in B Major. This is first heard on solo cello and piano, and then repeated by the full band. Punctuated by a striking synthesizer line this second repetition is a celebration of the expedition’s shared success at attaining the summit of the ice cap, and the breathtaking sight of the ice before them. The ascent alone took three days.
Our ship flew over the waves and drifts of snow with a speed that almost took ones breath away…never in my life have I had a more glorious run’ -p.307
The expedition encounters unfavorable weather conditions which sets it back. Afraid of not finishing their journey before the summer ends, they change course away from Christianshaab to the more southerly settlement of Godthaab. Nansen decides to rig up tarpaulins and ‘sail’ over the snow to make better time. The track is dominated by a low sub-bass rumble conjuring up images of storms and huge expanses of ice. However, things become less bleak when a theme, played by just the violin and cello, is heard half way through. Like Nansen’s idea of ‘sailing over the ice’, this proves to be a turning point and the mood and the pace of the track lift accordingly.
‘Words cannot describe what it was for us only to have the earth and stones beneath our feet, or the thrill that went through us as we felt the elastic heather on which we trod, and smelt the fragrant scent of grass and moss’ –p.330
The expedition has successfully reached the far side of the icecap, and the west coast of Greenland. The track opens with another passage from the book describing the group’s final descent off the ice and the joy they feel at having earth beneath their feet again. In contrast to the rather bleak feel of the previous two tracks, this track is light hearted and triumphant, mirroring the expedition’s feelings. The strings pass about a cascading melody that is mirrored by a similar melody from the piano. In the same way that the expedition first ascended the ice forty-nine days previously, the track finishes with a passage for solo cello and piano.
‘On Christmas morning, about six or seven o’clock, just as I was sleeping my sweetest and fancying myself back at home, the songs of children were suddenly wafted through the air and took their place in my wandering dreams. The sound grew louder, and I woke to hear the carolling of a large choir’ – p.414
Despite their best efforts, the expedition arrives at Godthaab too late in the summer to catch a boat to Copenhagen and are forced to spend the winter there. The Eskimo accept these strangers in to their communities and the expedition learn how to kayak and hunt seals. This short piece for solo piano is a moment of rest after the many months of travel and adventure.
‘The ship! The ship! We rushed out and gazed seawards, but could see nothing but the flying snow. All at once we caught sight of some dark object looming high up in the air. It was the Hvidbjørnen’s rigging, and the vessel was already nearly in the bay’ – p.442
The Expedition waits seven months before eventually being picked up On the 15th April, 1889, by the Danish ship ‘Hvidbjørnen’. This track sees a triumphant return of the thematic material heard in the first voyage track. For the first time, brass instruments are introduced into the sound-world, representing the fanfare of the expedition’s arrival back in Norway and the fame that followed.
‘In Glorious Weather, on May 30th, we entered Christiania Fjord, and were received by hundreds of sailing boats and a whole fleet of steamers. It was a day that I do not think any of us will ever forget’ – p.446