Listen to music made to the rhythm of global warming

Written by on November 11, 2017

Music to the rhythm of global warming – One night in 2013, artist Stephan Crawford was sitting in his studio in San Francisco, thinking of a way of expressing Earth’s carbon cycle through a moving sculpture. He had a metal rod in his hand, and he started tapping it against his workbench. And that’s when the eureka moment struck. “That tapping made me think of a rhythm,” Crawford says. “And then it went straight to the idea of music.”

Four years later, Crawford runs The ClimateMusic Project, a group of scientists, musicians, and composers who create music based on climate data — and then throw concerts to communicate the urgency of climate change to the public. The current piece they’re performing, by composer Erik Ian Walker, runs about 30 minutes long, and spans 500 years of data — from 1800 to 2300. It includes projections for two possible future scenarios: one where humans continue to carelessly pump heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; the other where we come to our senses and reduce emissions to try to keep global warming below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s the goal of the Paris climate deal, and the threshold beyond which the climate change will be irreversible and apocalyptic.

The piece starts with calming strings that slowly build over the gentle sounds of birds chirping. As carbon dioxide concentrations steadily go up, starting in the mid 1800s during the Industrial Revolution, the tempo increases. The music grows more and more discordant in the early 2000s; by the 2030s, it’s so fast and distorted it’s anxiety inducing. And at the end of the century, when temperatures have increased by almost 9 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s more noise than music, like the static of a TV. The performance is accompanied by animated charts showing changes in CO2 levels, global temperature, and Earth’s energy balance. And at the end, there’s an engagement session where people can share their thoughts and talk with climate action organizations.

Crawford’s first experimental performance took place in September 2014. That’s when he organized a “hack day,” inviting musicians and scientists to his art studio. For eight hours, everyone worked together to create climate-inspired music, and at 5 PM they performed the piece in front of a test audience. “The audience’s response at the end day was strong enough to convince us that we really needed to take the idea much further,” Crawford says.

Since then, The ClimateMusic Project has grown substantially. The group, which includes two composers and four climate scientists, has thrown more than a dozen concerts in the Bay Area, and is looking to expand its reach worldwide. Crawford says the group is working to develop a VR performance. Next year, it will also partner with a music school in San Francisco to create an online tool that will allow composers all over the world to access the data needed to make climate-inspired compositions. That way, The ClimateMusic Project can diversify its music — and its audience.

With climate change making headlines almost every day, The Verge spoke with Crawford about how to make music from climate data, his motivations behind the project, and his plans for the future.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

A performance of The ClimateMusic Project.
 Photo: Courtesy of Stephan Crawford, The ClimateMusic Project

Why did you want to create the ClimateMusic Project?

It’s really that at the time, I’d just finished a degree in environmental sciences and was looking for ways to combine my new knowledge with my artistic endeavors. [Climate change is] a big issue and for a lot of people it feels like something that’s very abstract, and something we’ll live in the future, not necessarily today. And I wanted to find a way to convey that it is a very urgent issue and that we can still solve the problem, in a way that would resonate broadly across many different communities. And music seemed to be a natural vehicle for doing so.

How do you express climate change into musical compositions?

There are different ways you can do it. There are software programs that you can use to essentially transfer data straight into some kind of sound. The problem with data sonification is that it’s noise, generally speaking. Because it just follows the data. We made a very conscious decision not to use that approach, but to work with a real science team to really tease out where the important signals are in the data, and then to work with the composer to find creative ways to express those signals in a musical way that would resonate with people.

The current piece that we’re performing is done by a process called the deconstructive approach, which is where a composer comes up with a musical idea that’s independent of any data whatsoever. After that idea is germinated, the composer works with our science team to essentially explore the consequences of bringing that idea into contact with the data over time, to see what happens. And that’s done by assigning musical analogs to variables in the climate system. For example in the piece we’re currently performing, we’re modeling four variables: CO2, Earth’s energy balance, atmospheric temperature of the Earth, and ocean Ph. And each one of those has an analog in the music.

The website says the performance is most appropriate for adults and children 12 years and older. Why?

My initial sense was that [the current piece] might sound a little bit too loud or something for those small kids. I was proved wrong, and we might actually end up somewhat modifying that FAQ. In one of our concerts, we were at the conservatory in Oakland, I was watching the audience [and] a whole group of fourth graders came in and I was thinking, “Oh no, this is not going to be so great.” But the fourth graders loved it actually. In fact, one of them even stood up in front of 220 people or so in the audience and asked about the data at the end of the concert, because the class is doing a unit on climate change. I think it really depends on the maturity of the individual child and what the parents do, because the music gets sort of loud and a little bit experimental.

How do you engage people to care about climate change?

When we did our premiere in 2015 at the Planetarium in Oakland, during the audience engagement section, a woman in the audience stood up and said, “You know, I was listening to the music and I was watching the years count up and I was watching the data animation and I said to myself, that’s how the music sounded when I was born. And that’s how the music sounded when my daughter was born. And that’s how the music could sound when my granddaughter might be born.” For the first time in her life, what had been a very abstract issue became suddenly very personal to her and shifted within the context of her family’s own historical arc. And for her that was very powerful. We do see that that is one of the effects of the music.

Because [you] can feel it, because you can sense the rhythm, because you sort of incorporate it even in your own body, and you’re looking at historical references and where we are, where we might be going, it’s a much more visceral, much more sensory experience. And that conveys a whole different sense of understanding. So what we want to do is we want to take that new understanding and we want to facilitate the process of helping people in our audiences connect and channel that energy in very positive ways. The way we do that, we’re building out a network of both climate literacy and action organizations that we can then link our audiences directly to.

What’s in the future of the ClimateMusic Project?

For the project to really reach a lot of people and to have an impact, we need to have more content, because any one piece of music is only going to appeal to so many people. Our goal is to create lots of content in different genres of music. Starting in 2018, we’ll be developing a tool that will allow us to essentially work with composers pretty much anywhere, to create shorter work that would have a local resonance, whether it’s in Africa, whether it’s in Asia, whether it’s in South America.

Ultimately, the holy grail that we’re aiming for — we’re not there yet and we probably won’t be there for about year — would be interactive performances, where the audience could also in some way take part in the performance. We’d like to integrate ways for people to interact with the music, dance pieces for example. The more people can interact with the music and feel the music, the more meaningful it will be to them.

Information from this article was originally posted on The Verge