22 September 2017
This article originally appeared on Sound and Music’s The Sampler blog.
It’s hard to talk about climate change. It’s an ongoing worldwide emergency happening in slow motion. It can often feel too abstract to contemplate, particularly here in the UK which has so far escaped the most extreme consequences of changing climate. With a news cycle dominated by the more immediate concerns of Trump and Brexit, it’s easy for enduring issues to simply become noise. When climate change is reported upon, it’s usually in relation to a terrifying disaster or dire prediction about decades down the line, or presented as unrelatable, intangible data (I mean, what does a tonne of carbon even feel like?).
I’m one of those composers that likes to write about stuff – total abstraction has never been particularly interesting to me. After writing pieces about specific places and our (built) environment, the progression to thinking about how issues of sustainability could be represented in my music felt like a natural development of my practice. My most recent piece, performed this week by Red Note Ensemble at the Lammermuir Festival, is a consequence of this change of thinking.
My initial ideas for the piece formed after reading press reports in April about the disappearance of Slims River in the Yukon, Canada, through “river piracy”. River piracy is when the water destined for one watercourse is naturally diverted into another, a process which usually occurs over long geological epochs – thousands of years. However, the once-mighty Slims River disappeared in just four days in Spring 2016, a geological blink-of-an-eye. The glacier that fed the river had receded and suddenly its meltwater could only flow into the neighbouring Alsek River, leaving the Slims to run dry. This act of river piracy is the first to be attributed to man-made climate change – scientists studying the phenomenon calculate that it is 99.5% certain that anthropogenic global warming is to blame for the river’s disappearance. The landscape that formerly hosted the river is being transformed beyond recognition as clouds of dust from the dried riverbed are whipped into the air by the wind.
Events like this are dramatic enough to make the news cycle, but creating artistic depictions of the worst effects of changing climate – rising sea levels, intensified hurricanes and the like – is problematic: whilst these depictions can be potentially spectacular, apocalypse-porn can only make our actions seem insignificant when compared to the environmental forces involved. This approach also doesn’t necessarily help us understand the nature of slow change that affects our world. Therefore, rather than depicting the sudden death of the Slims in my piece, I wanted to write about how we come to understand rivers (and, by extension, the rest of the world around us) and long-term change.
Limnology is the scientific study of inland bodies of water, and the key to writing this piece (titled Limnology (Slims River)) was my discovery that scientists use sound to take key measurements of flowing water. By using Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP) devices, scientists can measure the speed and direction of currents, the distribution of sediment, and other aspects: ADCPs emit bursts of sound, which are too high for humans to hear, and then “listen” to the echoes. Due to Doppler shift (the same effect that makes a police car’s wailing siren seem to drop in pitch as it speeds past us), by comparing the pitch of the emitted sounds with their reflections, data about the water can be collected. I do not use genuine data in this piece, instead small drops in pitch become the musical building blocks of the work. Therefore, rather than being a traditional sonic portrait of a river, I see this piece as a celebration of creating knowledge, empiricism, and scientific endeavour. At a time when the US government is removing climate data from its websites and defunding the study of this climate change “hoax”, I feel this celebration is timely.
As musicians, it is unlikely that we can contribute to emerging climate science or develop new sustainable technologies. However, the move towards a sustainable future requires more than this – there also needs to be a significant cultural shift, and “culture” is what we do. Arguably, all art contributes to the grand narratives we tell about ourselves, a constructed reading of our society. No one single piece of music will ever likely be responsible for a significant change in public perception, but when creating art about sustainability we’re not igniting the spark of change, we’re helping to lay the bonfire.