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
I come back to find the stars misplaced
and the smell of a world that is burning.
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
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
SocialFunds.com 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
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
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