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August 05, 2014
Student Cellist Bases Composition on Climate Data
    by Robert Kropp

It's as inevitable as the effects of climate change that artists will engage more deeply with the subject, and a recent chamber music festival in Ottawa, Canada featured five compositions addressing it.

I come back to find the stars misplaced
and the smell of a world that is burning.
Well maybe it's just a change of climate.

Jimi Hendrix sang those self-penned lyrics on his 1967 album Axis: Bold as Love. Even at that early date, scientists were aware of the warming effects of excessive carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere, although such knowledge would not seep into public consciousness for decades to come. But artists have been described as the antennae of our species, and whatever the inspiration for Hendrix's lyrics they certainly read as prescient today.

I cannot claim to have made anything like a systematic study, but it seems to me that on the subject of climate change the antennae of the species are not very far advanced beyond the rest of the corpus. Certainly, Hollywood blockbusters have exploited especially gruesome aftermaths to prop up weak stories about hordes of zombies eventually vanquished by male movie stars. And on a more serious note, earnest documentarians have produced many admirable films on the subject, one of which—The Wisdom to Survive: Climate Change, Capitalism & Community, produced by John Ankele and Anne Macksoud—I reviewed at in May.

I've also had the honor of reading and writing about thoughtful prose that arises from impulses aligned with the artistic, such as Planetary Hospice: Rebirthing Planet Earth, by the environmental activist Zhiwa Woodbury, whose practice of Buddhism has helped him shape a compassionate response to the fate of humanity in the wake of climate change's worst effects.

But fiction and poetry, and serious music and film? I am sure examples of excellence can be found in each genre already; but given the enormity of the threat, it is difficult to avoid the idea that climate change has not yet resonated with artists to the extent the warfare, for instance, always has. Perhaps this is so because art in our culture is traditionally an individualistic endeavor, and war can be experienced on a visceral level by the individual. In today's New Yorker, for example, John Cassidy writes about the poetic legacy of World War I, the centennial of which is currently being observed.

Perhaps the threat of climate change is experienced collectively thus far, and that is why documentaries and nonfiction seem better equipped to deal with the subject at a deep level.

These speculations were brought on for me by reading in I Care If You Listen about a recent performance of new music at the Music & Beyond festival in Ottawa, Canada. The performance featured five premieres, all of which dealt with the subject of climate change.

One piece, by the undergraduate cellist Daniel Crawford, actually employed climate data to express in music the global temperature changes measured over the past century. According to journalist Todd Reubold, NASA surface temperature data “were mapped over a range of three octaves, with the coldest year on record (1909) set to the lowest note on the cello (open C). Each ascending halftone is equal to roughly 0.03°C of planetary warming.”

“We’re trying to add another tool to that toolbox, another way to communicate these ideas to people who might get more out of music than maps, graphs and numbers,” the composer said.

If, as scientists have warned, we face an increase in global temperatures of 2°C by the end of this century, “This additional warming would produce a series of notes beyond the range of human hearing,” Reubold wrote.


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