Tag Archives: Stephan Crawford

Amusing Monday: Movement of music captures climate discord

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 project.

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 years ago.