This month, I have for you an interview with Laurie Goldman, the Director of Public Engagement at The ClimateMusic Project, an organization that brings together scientists, composers, musicians, and other creatives to compose and perform music inspired by the science of climate change. They were recently featured in the New York Times and have lots of big plans for the future.
I’ve interviewed dozens of artists since this newsletter began, but never someone who creates climate music. What can music communicate about climate change that perhaps other means of communication can’t? Or put another way, what do you hope audiences take away from The ClimateMusic Project’s compositions and performances?
Music has a way of reaching people on a more emotional level. The ClimateMusic Project aims to leverage the power of music to capture hearts and minds in a way that a scientific article or lecture about climate change cannot. We hope, and have found, that audiences gain new insights from our work and ultimately are motivated to action. Our ultimate goal is actually not to create music, but to inspire action. Along the way, we are proud that we create engaging and compelling performances.
How did The ClimateMusic Project come about?
Our founder, Stephan Crawford, was seeking to figure out a way to communicate science in a more engaging manner. He was concerned that while people knew about the issue of climate change, they did not necessarily appreciate the necessity for urgent action or the fact that they could be part of the solution. Stephan has a musical background and understood the ability of music to affect people so he worked on a concept to use the medium of music to convey science. From there he invited a composer and band as well as a few scientists to a daylong “hack” that ultimately resulted in a composition that incorporated compelling music guided by science.
What genres of music does your group create and perform?
We have three current compositions in very different genres. The first composition, Climate, by composer Erik Ian Walker, is an electronic/symphonic piece that portrays the atmospheric impacts of climate change. Icarus In Flight, composed by Richard Festinger, is a chamber music composition that highlights the human drivers of climate change – fossil fuel use, population growth, and land use change. The most recent piece is a jazz and spoken-word piece by COPUS called What If We…? that portrays sea-level rise and its effect on populations and land. What If We…? features a compelling chorus sung by children: “what if we change?” It’s powerful. As you can see, our compositions are quite diverse – people like to listen to genres they appreciate, and we aim to reach as many people as possible using whatever style resonates.
Our goal is to use music to speak to people in the communities where they live. If that involves hip hop, electronic, country, samba, reggae, or whatever, we want to work with composers in those genres. We are looking to build our portfolio by working with environmentally engaged composers around the world to reach local audiences. In fact, we are developing a methodology so that it will be easier for composers to work with us and our extended team of scientists. However, it is important for the compositions to be guided by the science of climate change.
Can you elaborate on what you mean by “guided by science?”
We have a team of scientists who collaborate to ensure fidelity to the data and the scientific narrative we seek to communicate. Composers have creative freedom within a framework set by our science team. It can be as simple as aligning tempo and pitch to the data and narrative we provide (though that isn’t exactly “simple”) or the collaboration can be more creatively complex. Our piece on sea-level rise featured embedded data sonifications, realistic headlines from 2045, as well as a duel between drums and bass with drums representing the ocean. We work closely with our science advisers to ensure fidelity to the science: the process is very much a collaboration where musicians bring creativity and work with the team to make sure the science is accurately portrayed.
Who are some of your collaborators?
We work with a team of scientists from the University of California, Berkeley and the California Institute of Technology, and the list is expanding. Our chief science adviser is a lead author for the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessments of climate change (for which the IPCC has been awarded a Nobel prize). In addition, we have an extended team of more than thirty people focused on visual elements, public outreach, partnership, etc. And we have a stellar Leadership Council from sectors such as business, arts, and public policy that advises us on strategy to build upon our work.
One of our top priorities is motivating action, so we have developed a network of organizations dedicated to making a difference on the issue. Our partners include Cool Effect, the San Francisco Department of the Environment, Interfaith Power & Light, the Global Footprint Network, and Re-volv. They help people learn about the issue, form community around the issue, or engage on projects to mitigate or adapt. We are working to add other partners to our network so we can give people options for action. The last thing we would want to do is get people concerned about climate change but not show them a path for action! We ask audiences to get engaged if they are not already, to do more if they are already taking some action, and to bring their friends if they are already leading in terms of their own activity.
The ClimateMusic Project’s performances often include visual elements. What does this add to the performances?
We include visuals to enhance understanding of the narrative. Climate change is complex and some people are visual learners while others are more auditory learners. Visuals can highlight the data elements, or provide historical and future references. Plus they can add beauty or highlight concern.
We also generally have an opportunity for audience engagement after each performance. That takes different forms but usually includes a chance to interact with our science team, our composers, our action partners and our core team. It helps to build further understanding and also to hash out any anxiety that arises about the future. So far, our compositions have featured two scenarios for the future, one that shows the trajectory if we fail to take sufficient action and a more hopeful scenario the demonstrates what we can achieve if we implement the solutions that are already available. We know that we can work together to make our world a better place for all and we strive to communicate that fact.
What’s next for The ClimateMusic Project?
We have had quite a few requests for engagement, especially since a profile of our work was highlighted by the New York Times last November. The 50th anniversary of Earth Day is coming up and we are scheduled to perform in a few places (details to come on our website). We are also working to build our action partner network to get folks more engaged. And, we will have an online methodology so we may work with musicians around the world who want to compose new pieces that will reach broad audiences. We will be reaching out to select composers in the coming year.
We are also about to launch an exciting new project with Los Angeles-based composer and Grammy winner Heitor Pereira that will be geared toward kids and focused on biodiversity and climate change. That project will likely include some new animated elements and a longer campaign that will really engage kids! In fact, we plan to work on a strategy to bring our work to schools and take advantage of their curiosity and interest in action. Stay tuned.
And, of course, we are always looking for support for our work. We are a nonprofit organization trying to make a difference!
(Top image: The ClimateMusic Project at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. Photo by Sven Eberlein.)
This article is part of the Climate Art Interviews series. It was originally published in Amy Brady’s “Burning Worlds” newsletter. Subscribe to get Amy’s newsletter delivered straight to your inbox.
Amy Brady is the Deputy Publisher of Guernica magazine and Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books. Her writing about art, culture, and climate has appeared in the Village Voice, the Los Angeles Times, Pacific Standard, the New Republic, and other places. She is also the editor of the monthly newsletter “Burning Worlds,” which explores how artists and writers are thinking about climate change. She holds a PHD in English and is the recipient of a CLIR/Mellon Library of Congress Fellowship. Read more of her work at AmyBradyWrites.com at and follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.
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