Music of Changes

I write and perform music that features the recorded voices of people speaking about their responses to climate change. When I tell people this I normally get a response like, “That’s really interesting!” I usually relate a little of my background, as they are probably thinking “What the heck are you talking about?”

For most of my adult life, I have been alternating between working as a jazz bassist and an environmental educator (with a fair amount of English as a Second Language teaching thrown in, but that’s another story). I realized I wanted to engage with environmental issues through music, but I’m not a singer, so writing lyrics about climate change wasn’t an option. For a long time, I kept my music and “environmental” work separate, but continued wondering if there was a way to combine them.

I started to figure out how when I paid attention to my own responses to the changing climate. I noticed that the seasons I knew as a child growing up near Boston have changed a great deal. Winter, which used to be in full swing by Christmas, now often doesn’t get going until mid-January. Springs are shorter, and shift suddenly into 90-degree weather. The summers I remember, with gradually increasing heat and humidity swept away by dramatic thunderstorms, seem to have been replaced by long, oppressive heat waves which dissipate with barely a drop of rain.

I’m sure that others are bothered by these changes as much as I am, but people (including myself) don’t discuss them very much. If you’ve ever tried to have a conversation about how the weird weather is probably caused by the changing climate, I bet it trailed off awkwardly. There are a host of reasons for this phenomenon, discussed at length by author George Marshall in his book Don’t Even Think About It.

People don’t usually talk about the Holocaust either. However, musicians have found ways to help audiences access their charged emotions around this difficult topic and sometimes even talk about them. In Steve Reich’s harrowing piece, Different Trains, he integrates archive recordings of Holocaust survivors speaking about their traumatic experiences, including being transported on “different trains” to Nazi death camps. After listening to Reich’s piece, I realized that I could do something similar for the issue of climate change by integrating people’s stories of their experiences with the changing climate into original music. Maybe listeners of this music would relate to climate change in a more direct way than reading reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or wading into the distracting political “debate”?

John Sinnok, Iñupiat elder, Shishmaref, Alaska. Photo by Jason Davis.

The first step was to talk to people on the front lines. In 2015, I traveled to Shishmaref, Alaska, a village located on a small barrier island on the Chukchi Sea. Shishmaref is rapidly eroding from a combination of rising sea levels and melting sea ice, exposing the small town to the full force of winter storms. Members of this largely Iñupiat (western Inuit) community have vivid stories to tell about the ways in which climate change is destroying their home. I worked with a group of local high school students who interviewed adults, including their grandparents and parents, about the impacts of the changing climate in Shishmaref. One of the most vivid stories was told by Iñupiat elder John Sinnok, who related his intimate knowledge of the natural environment around Shishmaref, and how it is being impacted by the dramatic shifts underway. Sinnok described details that most of us would miss, including how the sound of people walking on winter snow has changed as the climate has warmed. I was touched by his very personal observations, and immediately recognized that his words could form the basis of a piece of original music. The following year I wrote and recorded John Sinnok, a piece for jazz quartet and string quartet which is built around excerpts of Sinnok’s interview.

Guy Côté, Park Ranger, Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve, Québec, Canada. Photo by Jason Davis.

Since visiting Alaska, I began a doctorate in music at McGill University in Montreal and have started recording climate stories from around Canada. In 2017, I traveled to the Mingan Archipelago National Park Reserve in eastern Québec with a group of Montreal-based artists. There I recorded an interview with park ranger Guy Côté, who described how his childhood activities were structured around natural cycles. He related that “There was a right time to pick blueberries, there was a right time to hunt, a right time to do [all these things] …” With changes in the climate, it has become harder to predict the timing of these activities. He described how he used to tell visitors to the park that a good time to see arctic plants in bloom was late June, but now by that time most of these plants no longer have flowers. I also recorded Côté singing some traditional Acadian songs, one of which I included in a sound montage along with excerpts of his spoken narrative and environmental sounds I recorded in the park.

My work making music from climate narratives has grown into a larger initiative called Climate Stories Project. In addition to recording climate narratives from people around the world, I lead educational workshops in high schools and colleges for which students interview local community members or remote interviewees via Skype about their responses to the changing climate. Lately I have come to see the various facets of my work as an inclusive artistic practice, and I am excited to help people connect with our changing environment through education, storytelling, and music. The more I do this work, the more I’m convinced that, whether or not we can “solve” climate change, we urgently need to engage with it.

(Top image: Jason Davis, musician and environmental educator. Photo by Randy Cole.)

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Jason Davis is the director of Climate Stories Project, an educational and artistic forum for sharing stories about personal and community responses to climate change. Jason is an accomplished environmental educator and musician, and is currently a doctoral student in Music at McGill University in Montreal. With his jazz group Earthsound, Jason combines the power of spoken personal narratives with improvised music and natural soundscapes. Jason has a Master’s degree in Music from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and a Master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Ecology from the University of Florida.

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