John Metcalfe was CityLab’s Bay Area bureau chief, covering climate change and the science of cities.
San Francisco scientists and musicians are creating experimental compositions based on real climate data.
What does global warming sound like?
For The ClimateMusic Project, a San Francisco coalition of musicians and scientists who pen compositions based on climate data, things kick off during the Industrial Revolution with a molassesy, bass-and-piano-heavy groove that might induce a nodding trance. 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. 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.
There's a reason the project warns that due “the serious nature of the underlying topic, we feel that ClimateMusic is most appropriate for adults and youths 12 years and older.” But its founder, Stephan Crawford, is adamant about not pulling punches. “We wanted to make it as immersive as possible,” he says, “because you really want people to viscerally gain a personal understanding of the issue.”
ClimateMusic began in 2014 with Crawford wondering how to get ordinary folks to care about the phenomenon. “Many people are aware there’s this thing called climate change, but relatively few are aware of the urgency of the issue,” he says. So Crawford, who has a background in the arts and environmental sciences, turned to the universal language of music. He invited performers and scientists to a “hack day,” with the lure of food, and asked them to compose a climate-inspired piece in eight hours. “They worked like mad and just congealed as a team, and at the end of that day...there were actually tears in the audience,” he recalls.
ClimateMusic has since become a nonprofit and has swelled its ranks to more than two dozen people, most working for sweat equity, including composers, musicians, a data analyst who does live mixing on stage, and advisers including the well-known climate scientist Bill Collins, director of the Climate and Ecosystem Sciences Division at the Berkeley Lab. The group’s performances, which now involve a 30-minute composition by Erik Ian Walker, begin with a scientist illuminating the facts and current state of global warming. Then the musicians take over, playing synthesizers, drums, the violin, and other instruments in front of an animated screen showing climate variables—CO2 levels, global temperature, and earth-energy balance, all pulled from a widely used climate model—from 1800 projected all the way to 2300.
Each variable has an analog in the music: You can hear it when, say, rising CO2 concentrations make the tempo go quicker. Individual climate-warping events also stand out, like the extremely powerful Krakatoa eruption in 1883 that caused a slight cooling of the global atmosphere. “It’s a little distortion in what that analog is—it becomes quite audible at that point just for a moment, then it goes back,” says Crawford.
The shows end with engagement sessions where audience members pour out personal reactions. After one performance, for example, a woman talked about how she felt listening to the music and watching the troubles increase from her birth date, to her daughter’s birth date, to her potential granddaughter’s birth. “She said that for the first time in her life, what seemed like an abstract issue was placed within the context of the arc of her family’s own history,” Crawford says. “At that moment it no longer became an abstract issue. That is exactly what we’re trying to achieve.”
So far, “very few” have walked out of ClimateMusic shows, says Crawford. “I was probably the one most worried about having the music scare people too much, and having them just leave the theater in droves,” he says. “It does become quite experimental toward the end, and obviously the things that are happening are not comforting.”
But those who stick around for the finale are rewarded with a brief musical return to the present time, when things are a bit calmer. “It’s sort of a reminder to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a world now that’s familiar to us and that we love, and that we can actually do something today to keep it that way,’” says Crawford.
The ClimateMusic Project’s next performance takes place at the swissnex San Francisco festival on October 26 at 7 p.m.