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Setting Misery to Music: Collaboration Lets Listeners “Hear” Effects of Climate Change

December 4, 2015
by Holly McDede

As the 2015 U.N. climate change conference continues in the outskirts of Paris—pursuing a global agreement to slow down the devastating effects of global warming—there will be graphs. There will be charts. There will be slideshows.

But if presenters really want to tug at a world leader’s heartstrings, they might want to bring a violin. Break out a synthesizer, a keyboard, and play a snippet of what climate change sounds like: Earth, out of tune and distorted, an orchestra gone a little haywire.

The Climate Change Music Project is on a similar mission. The project is a collaboration of University of California-connected scientists, artists and musicians who hope to drive home the devastating effects of climate change by turning data into music. San Francisco-based artist and UC San Francisco environmental science graduate Stephen Crawford started the project because he was looking for a new way to represent climate change through art.

“Scientists are looking for ways to make clear what they know the data says, which is that climate change is a massive problem we need to pay more attention to,” Crawford says. “For an average person, just looking at the data isn’t going to do it.”

An AP-NORC poll taken in mid-October showed that about two-thirds of Americans accept global warming, and most of those surveyed think that human activities at least contribute to global warming. Yet 38 percent of those surveyed were not too worried, or not at all worried, about climate change.

So Crawford went to work. First, he tried sculpting a rhythmic sculpture to represent climate change. “I was holding it in my hand, tapping it on the desk,” he recalls. “And I thought, ‘Forget the sculpture. Let’s just make music.’ ”

He enlisted the help of Andrew Jones, a research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Crawford played Jones a tease meant to showcase the kind of work Climate Music Project might produce, called America the Beautiful.

The tease is meant to represent 715 years of climate history. It starts with a recognizable version of America the Beautiful that quickly becomes frightening. As the temperature value rises by 10 percent—measured against the reference value over a decade—the trumpet increases by 10 percent for the four beats of the corresponding measure in the score. Essentially, the trumpets, representing the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide, increase in pitch as the C02 rises.

If the rise of C02 really did sound like a trumpet, blasting all day long, maybe we’d buy ear plugs. But maybe we’d also be more likely to act to get the noise under control.

“We’re at a point in the discussion where there’s really a need for new narratives and new ways of thinking about climate change,” Jones says. “It’s no longer this abstract idea about what’s happening in the future. It’s something we’re seeing.”

William Collins, senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and internationally recognized expert in climate modeling and climate change science, signed up too. They became the project’s scientific advisors. Angela Lee, a music and statistics student at UC Berkeley, became the team’s data analyst, as well as the live mixer. Before the project, Lee didn’t think too much about climate change.

“I knew we were all pretty screwed at some point,” she says. “But before working with the data, I didn’t know we were this screwed to this magnitude.”

“As the C02 goes up, the tempo goes faster, until it can’t go anymore and it flies apart.”

Composer Erik Walker was in charge of turning the graphs Lee helped generate into sound.

“Sound is like a laboratory to me,” Walker explains, looking at the graphs on the walls of his studio that he used as a map to the music. His job was to turn 500 years of data into 30 minutes of music. The piece, as conceived, begins in 1800, and by the early 20th century, the bass guitar comes in, symbolizing the beginning of the modern era. “You got the keyboard going on, and you’re kind of in the groove. You’re feeling really good, like how we are now,” Walker says. “But you start to hear that things are slightly off.”

Air temperature changes are conveyed via changes in pitch. Solar radiation is represented by distortions that begin to fill the piece. C02 is the driving force behind the music, and it causes the tempo to accelerate. Rather than rely on his emotional instinct as a composer, he relied on scientific climate data to create the piece.

“It’s a hard thing as a composer when you are forced to change things according to a map,” he acknowledges. “As the C02 goes up, the tempo goes faster, until it can’t go anymore and it flies apart.”

But part of what makes this project different from other musical representations of climate change is that it’s a mix of both charts and emotion. At times when the sounds became hard to take, Walker followed the scientific data less precisely.

“One of the things with music is in a way you’re telling a lot of lies,” he says. “People don’t want to hear facts in music. In this piece of music we’re trying to tell this story, but the facts keep saying, ‘No way. Your story is going to be completely derailed, but good luck.’ ”

By the time the piece reaches the year 2300, it is derailed, distorted, and hard to listen to. Lee does live mixing during performances, and in these moments, she’d use a ring modulator to de-tune the violin. “It’s when things started to go crazy, rising about 7 degrees Celsius” she says.

But some of the earlier drafts, Walker adds, were even more unbearable: “It’s a piece for an audience, and you have to be able to pull them in that wormhole and come out the other end.”

So just when it becomes hard to take, the piece flashes to a “Blue Planet Moment”—the sound is gentler, meant to represent the scenario where changes are made to curb the effects of climate change. “It’s not completely hopeless,” Walker says. “Not yet.”

But the project’s collaborators intend to convey an acute sense of urgency. By early 2013, the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had already gone above the critical level of 400 parts per million. That was a level unprecedented, since the Pliocene era 3 million years ago. “We need to have aggressive efforts to curb emissions,” Jones says. “It’s completely technologically possible.”

When the piece premiered Nov. 21 at the Chabot Space and Science Center, an animation of graphs played in the background, helping the audience understand what the music meant. At the end of the piece, they were invited to ask questions. Some wanted details about the science and possible solutions; other simply wanted to share how much the performance resonated with them.

“One woman said she could feel her grandchildren’s children dying, because that’s what’s in store for her great-great-grandchildren, I guess,” Lee says.

The Climate Music Project will put on four more shows in the Bay Area next year. Nor is it alone in its attempts to translate the fate of the planet into art. Jones also has served as scientific advisor for CHANGE, a dance performance piece performed at the Shawl-Anderson Dance Center from Fog Beast, a live art organization based in Berkeley.

CHANGE photo by Jessica Swanson

With CHANGE, Jones had the opportunity to work with his husband and the show’s co-director, Melecio Estrella. “I spend all day in a dance studio, and he’s in the lab, working on these amazing climate models,” Estrella says of his husband. “I don’t get a real view of what he does. We come from different worlds and we wanted to bridge those worlds.”

In CHANGE, data from Dr. Jones’ slide shows play on screen, presenting the audience with facts about precipitation. There’s a renewable energy optimist who drives an electronic car and owns wind turbines. There’s a duck farmer. At one point, Ben Juodvalkis, who works at UC Berkeley’s Music and Dance Department and who also performed in the piece, turns into a duck. “We all turned into ducks and we were migrating,” he said.

But things for the ducks aren’t so great: The drought has had a devastating impact on their pond. The dance conveys a daunting ecological warning with surrealism and even humor.

“Some people said they feel bombarded a little bit with the information,” says Andrew Ward, a Cal alum and co-director at Fog Beast. “They don’t want to deal with it. People said with this show that it wasn’t so overwhelming. People were able to sit with the information, and reflect on it, without being overwhelmed.”

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