Using music to describe measurable changes in climate — and
expressing the anxiety caused by the ongoing changes — is one
approach to the climate problem that has been engaging scientists
and musicians alike.
I’ve been following several methods of converting data to sound,
which approximates music in some ways (Water
Ways, Jan 16, 2017). But the Climate Music Project in San
Francisco starts with a nearly complete musical composition and
allows the data to alter the sound in remarkable ways.
Composer Erik Ian Walker had been writing and recording music
for 30 years when he joined the Climate Music Project in 2015,
collaborating with scientists and technicians to explore musical
approaches to climate change.
“I welcomed the invitation to write and perform ‘Climate’ for
CMP because I feel very strongly about the necessity to communicate
the urgency of stopping the negative effects of human-caused
climate change,” Erik said in an interview on
CMP’s website. “Being a composer, this was the best use of my
talents to do something. I also like the intersection of science
and music very much, so it was a good fit….
“Decisions that had to be made were whether the climate data was
going to be the music (sonification), or whether the data
was going to alter music composed before the data collided
with it,” he continued. “We chose the latter, as that was the more
interesting scenario for a dramatic rendering…
“The hardest part was composing a ‘theme’ and framework that
would not devolve too fast as the data we were using began to
change the music,” he said. “There is a subjective response of the
ear, outside of prescribed numbers, that gauges where ‘double’ of
something is, for example. So, we had to find an ‘end point’ of the
piece, where the greatest degree of climate change would be, hear
what that would sound like, and work backward from there.”
The result is shown in the first video on this page, which shows
the piece accompanied with dynamic charts and graphs. In fact, if
you happen to be in San Francisco on Sept. 19, you can see and hear
a CMP performance of “Climate” at the
Exploratorium in the Embarcadero waterfront district.
The piece is about 30 minutes long and offers two scenarios: one
in which humans continue on the current path of pumping massive
amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and another in
which major changes are made to keep the rise to less than 3.6
degrees F. — the goal of the Paris Climate Accord.
Reporter John Metcalfe describes in
CityLab how the melodic movement begins to shift as the
calendar reaches the start of the industrial revolution.
“Weird distortions like twinges in a stretched-out cassette tape
arrive in the late 1900s as Earth’s energy balance is jolted out of
whack,” he writes. “Looking into the future, the music then turns
darker and frenetic in the decades post-2017 — the beat and pitch
racing, the melody discordant and churning, and the planet’s
temperature soaring into an irreversible heat hell.”
Besides the first video, enjoy the following samples of music
from two different time periods offered by CMP on Vimeo:
Stephan Crawford, who started the Climate Music Project,
explains how he came up with the concept of creating music that can
help people experience climate change in an emotional way in an
article by Alessandra Potenza in
The Verge magazine. The second video on this page provides an
idea of how the collaboration works for those involved with the
The difference between Erik Ian Walker’s “Climate” and
sonifications of data — which certainly have their place — is that
you can become immersed in the music, enjoying even the dark parts
for their emotional impact. To sample and purchase Erik’s “normal”
music go to Bottom
Feeder Records’ webpage.
The third video is a promo of the Climate Music Project from two