Cyberian Dispatch 10: Baikal Speaks in Music

Gabriela Bulisova & Mark Isaac


The oldest, deepest and largest lake by volume cannot be fathomed easily, but one way to plumb its remote depths is to listen. And if you listen to Baikal, it quickly becomes obvious that the Lake is speaking. It is not speaking in words. Instead, the Lake expresses itself in music.

We have written before about its sloshing waters, its merciless winds, its frolicsome crows, and other inimitable Baikal sounds. But the most formidable -- and also terrifying -- sound of Baikal is the sound of its ice cracking.

It starts as a sort of science fiction-y pinging, a bit like the sounds you associate with old movies about submarines. These pings and bwowops vibrate and stretch across vast expanses, often followed by a sharp crack or two or more. Then, if you are lucky (or unlucky, if you are as fearful as us), you may hear tremendous thunder as the ice actually sunders apart somewhere nearby.

The first time we heard a large crack while walking on Baikal’s ice, it registered in our brains as an earthquake (small ones are not uncommon here), and we leapt to our feet and ran immediately toward the distant shore (as fast as one can on a spectacularly slick surface). Then we noticed the locals, who went on skating and cavorting on the ice without pause. And we stayed for more of Baikal’s pinging, gurgling and cracking -- its unsurpassable music.

Music is unquestionably among the most treasured arts in Russia. Since the moment we arrived, we have been meeting musicians, sound artists, and people who simply love to sing or dance or play. To them, Baikal is always calling, as an inspiration and a unique location to summon their artistic best. As one of them recently put it, “Baikal is a mystery, and music is a way to understand it.”

At every holiday or gathering, Russians with beaming smiles will inevitably sing favorite songs that they pass on from generation to generation. Thus we found ourselves on Olkhon Island, listening to the songs of a ceremony called “maslenitsa” that welcomes Spring. The celebrants danced energetically in a circle around a bonfire built directly on the ice, singing for a thaw and new life in the coming season.

Two days later, all ages were represented at a maslenitsa celebration at the open air architectural museum at Taltsi, between Irkutsk and Lake Baikal.

A small number of musicians, like Evgeny Masloboev, literally play Baikal’s ice and water. In several recent concerts in Listvyanaka, he and his fellow Irkutsk-based musicians played instruments crafted from Baikal’s ice, and dipped other instruments into Baikal’s water to create fresh sounds. An exceptionally talented and innovative artist who views every single sound in the world as potential music, Evgeny knows from experience that Baikal’s ice and water have a unique sound that can’t be found anyplace else.

Others run with Baikal’s inspirations in many different directions. At the Blue Ice Festival on Olkhon Island, a French acapella group called Soli Tutti interpreted a traditional Buryat song and the local band Etno Beat created cosmopolitan rhythms. Moscow-based composer Marina Shmotova debuted an entire contemporary work based on the story of the Baikal icebreaker Angara that played an outsized role in local history and is still on display in Irkutsk. The Moscow-based artist Olessia Rostovskaya made church bells resonate across the Island in the morning, and that same evening debuted a nine-part contemporary classical composition based in part on recorded sounds of Baikal’s ice. Among many other talents, she is an expert on the theremin, an instrument invented in Russia that is played without touch, instead relying on manipulation of the electromagnetic field surrounding its antennas.

The Festival’s organizer, Natalya Bencharova, also hosted a discussion about the creation of a Baikal sound bank that will allow visitors near and far to access the sounds of the Lake. It is quite telling that she proposes a sound bank instead of a trove of videos or photographs. The sounds of the Lake are powerful and meaningful to locals...and to visitors. One of the first contributors to the sound bank is French sound artist Andre Fevre, who recently spent time camping on the ice around Olkhon Island in order to best capture the sounds of the ice talking. His efforts suggest the Lake is most vocal in mid-morning and late at night, when undergoing significant temperature changes.

As photographers and video artists, we are not immune to the call of Baikal’s sounds. We came to Siberia with a strong focus on the visual, but we immediately found our lensed devices limiting. There is no way to properly convey the enormity of Baikal, its constantly changing textures and moods, and its eternal inscrutability, with cameras alone. As a result, our project has moved emphatically in the direction of including sound and music.

From early on, we gathered local sounds to share with Baltimore-based composer and musician Maria Shesiuk, an extremely sensitive and versatile artist. Although she has never been to Siberia and we have never met her in person, she nonetheless uses her magical powers to conjure an authentic feel of Baikal in her original compositions that have debuted in this space. If you have not already, please listen to her songs titled Fog and A Walk Through Sleeping Land.

We also found that the data points in key scientific studies about the Lake’s ecological health can be plotted as musical notes, and we started to create compositions that directly reflect data on temperature changes and the impact of those changes on Lake organisms, such as the amphipods (small crustaceans) that are critical to the Lake’s cleanliness and its complex food chain. Although these electronic compositions are somewhat mechanical, we think of them as a starting point and as an innovative way to convey important scientific findings about the Lake. We are now in the process of sharing them with Maria and local musicians to see if they can help us interpret them.

For example, the following work in progress draws directly on findings from compelling new studies by scientists at the Biological Institute at Irkutsk State University (ISU), led by Director Maxim Timofeyev. In the composition, a “shimmering flute” represents data about temperature at four different depths in Baikal in Summer 2016 (Physiological and Biochemical Markers of Stress Response of Endemic Amphipods from Lake Baikal: Current State and Perspectives).

Separately, Russian scientists gathered evidence showing that the average summer surface water temperature at Lake Baikal has increased by 2 degrees Celsius since 1977, among the sharpest rises in the world. As temperatures continue to rise, scientists in Timofeyev’s department are researching what those changes will mean for amphipods. “Reflective strings,” “deep round synth bass,” and “grand piano” represent crustaceans that live at different depths in the Lake. The scientists’ work shows that amphipods unique to Baikal are comfortable at specific depths and temperatures, and may face danger or death if forced into different zones (Preference Ranges Correlate with Stable Signals of Universal Stress Markers in Lake Baikal Endemic and Holarctic Amphipods). In this composition, higher notes represent increased stress response among these exceptionally beautiful creatures, which are critical to the Lake’s future.  

You can see what some of Lake Baikal’s spectacular amphipods (also known as “gammarids”) look like here, in a video created by Russian diver Kiril Ivanov.

We also continue to gather local sounds. The unique voices of the people, whether Russian or Buryat or Evenk. Their own compositions, from folk songs to classical music to church bells to throat singing to popular music. But most of all, the sounds of the Lake itself...the ice that speaks so emphatically...the many voices of the Lake and the more than 300 rivers that feed it...the multitude of bird calls...the harsh and implacable winds...the murmuring sighs of moody spirits from high and low.

Baikal is a mystery that is endlessly intriguing and incomprehensible. We continue to capture its pixels, but when we wave our cameras at the Sacred Sea, sound waves back.