Music for a Changing Climate

Tula Telfair, Replacing the Idea of Nature. 2014, oil on canvas, 63 x 100 inches. Winter 2018 cover image.

OVER THE PAST FIVE YEARS, for my storytelling initiative Climate Stories Project, I’ve had the privilege of listening to people from around the world share their personal stories about the climate crisis. J. Drew Lanham told me how climate change is pushing ecosystems of the South Carolina Piedmont “closer to the edge.” Clifford Paul spoke about how Mi’kmaq cultural knowledge is facilitating adaptation to shifting climate regimes in Cape Breton. Marybeth Holleman shared her love for the disappearing “glaciers she’s known” from Prince William Sound.

I’ve learned far more about climate change—what it feels, looks, and sounds like—through listening to people’s voices than I have from any Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report or climate documentary.

Recently, I asked writer and playwright Jessica Lind Peterson, whose haunting, dreamlike, and humorous piece “Strange Season” appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Orion, to record herself speaking about climate change in her home region. Peterson describes a deep sense of connection to her home place and expresses a palpable sense of solastalgia, homesickness for her local environment as it becomes increasingly unfamiliar.

 

The Counsel of Trees by Jason Davis. Jessica Lind Peterson, spoken voice.

 

My own connection to the climate crisis is rooted in my personal story and, circuitously, music. In high school, I obsessed about “making it” as a professional jazz bassist. I practiced eight hours a day and ignored everything else, to the detriment of my schoolwork and social life.

Finally, during my first year studying music in college, my ears decided they’d had enough—a high-pitched whine began to dominate my field of hearing and never went away. All of a sudden, my career goals and personal identity fell apart, as playing music and listening to everyday sounds became temporarily excruciating. In this fragile state, I realized that if my sense of self could so suddenly dissipate, maybe the seemingly sturdy world around me could crumble, too.

And it was crumbling.

During the sweltering summer of 1988, NASA climate scientist James Hansen first testified before the U.S. Senate about the pressing reality of the changing climate. That oppressive summer reflected in waves off the pavement in front of my childhood home—the first time in my life I felt that it was too hot outside. I realized that worse was to come.

That feeling is now a reliable but unwelcome companion during the summer months here in western Massachusetts, where I make my home. My discomfort is not just with the endless sweltering days, but with the unusual seasonal patterns in this most seasonal of climates. What happened to the barreling thunderstorms that would sweep away the stagnant air of late July? Now weak rains patter to the ground, or tropical deluges leave the air as sodden with moisture as before. It’s as if the drama has been sucked out of summer.

Of course, musicians and composers have long been inspired by the drama of changing seasons. Igor Stravinsky memorably described the inspiration for his groundbreaking 1913 ballet The Rite of Spring as his childhood memories of “the violent Russian spring that seemed to begin in an hour and was like the whole earth cracking.” Would Stravinsky have been similarly inspired by the unprecedented heat of the Russian spring and summer of 2010, which led to devastating fires across much of the country? Similarly, what would baroque composer Antonio Vivaldi make of the fitful seasons and searing heat that now afflict Italy, not to mention the acqua alta regularly inundating his home city of Venice? Would he have composed his 1725 masterpiece The Four Seasons had he been confronted with an off-kilter primavera, estate, autonno, and inverno?

Recognizing that nature is no longer the bucolic or dramatic setting it may have been for Vivaldi or Beethoven, contemporary musicians and composers are drawing upon the climate crisis as ground for musical creation. Musicians of the NDR Elbphilharmonie Orchestra in Hamburg, Germany, used an algorithm containing climate data to transform the original score of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. The resulting work, For Seasons, is similar to Vivaldi’s original, but disturbingly distorted.

I was inspired to find a way to portray climate change through music after listening to composer Steve Reich’s harrowing piece Different Trains. He composed the piece around the recorded speech of a family caretaker and a Black porter who worked on the cross-country trains on which he traveled in his youth. He also integrated archival recordings of Holocaust survivors speaking about their traumatic experiences of being transported on “different trains” to concentration camps. Inspired by the emotional power of Reich’s piece, I decided to use a similar approach by recording people’s personal reflections of climate change in their home regions, and setting sections of their narratives to music.

In 2015, I visited Shishmaref, Alaska—an Inupiat community suffering from sea level rise, rapid loss of sea ice, and severe coastal erosion. While there, I guest-facilitated a small high school science class focusing on the climate crisis. I asked the students to record interviews with grandparents and other relatives who described their personal responses to the impacts of a changing climate on their home village. Shishmaref elder John Sinnok memorably described the impacts of the rapidly changing climate in sonic terms:

Back when I was young
We have always had north wind
All the time
And we would have blizzards
And cold north winds for a good month
And it would be like that for a long time
But after that
The snow gets so cold
That you could hear people walking outside
You could hear their footsteps outside
Nowadays, it doesn’t get that hard anymore where you can hear people walking past
The snow doesn’t get that hard, dry anymore
Like it used to

A recording of Sinnok’s words, including his haunting passage about how warming temperatures in Shishmaref have altered the sound of people walking on snow, became the core of my piece for solo acoustic bass, “Footsteps in Snow.” I composed the piece around the imagery of Sinnok’s evocative words, with a persistent bass ostinato evoking the sound of footsteps:

 

 

My latest piece, shared above, is “The Counsel of Trees,” which features Jessica Lind Peterson’s words about her love for northern forests, as well as her deep unease with the speed at which they are changing. She describes how she left her house in the Twin Cities at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to settle with her family into a trailer on a lake in the woods of northern Minnesota, an area where she spent her childhood summers.

Based on my own disorientation with the warping of New England seasons, I related to Peterson’s reflection on the increasingly discordant seasons of northern Minnesota:

There’s a weird edge to each season that feels unfamiliar. Lakes freeze later, and thaw earlier, birds fly back sooner. Instead of steady rainfall in the spring and summer, we are seeing fewer, more devastating storms.

I also connected with her discordant mix of emotions about personal responsibility and the shameful lack of action by political leaders: 

After all the harm we have done, I have a hard time being optimistic. I feel responsible and sad, and anxious for the future. It doesn’t seem that our leaders care that we are killing the very planet that sustains us. I don’t know what could be more important than saving it.

I tried to capture some of this discordancy using an off-center harmonic language and musical texture—my goal was to translate Peterson’s words into music, which brings out the murky substrate of her narrative.

This is what I know: Personal stories expressed through the human voice are music, and something essential is lost when those stories are transcribed solely into writing. I also know that first-person testimonies about the climate crisis are much more than vignettes to be pressed into service for political campaigning. My hope is that by creating this climate narrative music, I can inspire listeners to tap into and share their powerful, touching, and musical stories. O

 

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Jason Davis is a musician, environmental educator, and leader of the environmental sound/improvisation ensemble Earthsound. He was a 2014 fellow with EE Capacity’s Community Climate Change Education Fellowship, for which he began developing Climate Stories Project. Jason holds a doctorate in music from McGill University in Montreal. He has master’s degrees in Music and Ecology, and has published research about the changing relationship between local communities and protected areas around Monteverde, Costa Rica. Jason was inspired to create Climate Stories Project from listening to Different Trains by composer Steve Reich, a piece which uses recorded interviews to explore the very different experiences of people traveling by train in the US and in Europe during World War II. Jason’s goal is to create a “living artistic documentary” that engages audiences to share and listen to personal responses to climate change.