What Does Climate Sound Like?

Paul Miller is a musician, artist, and author better known by his performing name, DJ Spooky. His most recent project, called Terra Nova, is an artistic interpretation of climate and climate change based on both science and his own imagination. The project grew out of Spooky’s visits to both the Arctic and Antarctica, which inspired him to share his vision of climate change through music, words, and pictures. His recently released Book of Ice combines photographs, his own artwork, and commentary on the relationship between art, science, and humanity, with a focus on Antarctica.
But Spooky is best known as a musician, and he has recently toured with a small ensemble of instrumentalists to perform music that he says is intended to make people think and talk about the environment and, specifically, climate change. The pieces for Terra Nova are unique blends of science and art; in some, he uses the music to interpret scientific data (such as the long-held idea that every snowflake has unique qualities). Combining orchestral arrangements with his own electronic contributions, the music creates what Spooky calls “acoustic portraits of the landscape.” His live shows are accompanied by background images related to climate, ice, Antarctica, and similar themes; there have also been postperformance discussions of climate and environmental issues.
A snippet of the sonic portion of Terra Nova can be seen in the video below. A full presentation of his piece titled “Sinfonia Antarctica,” performed earlier this year in Savannah, Georgia, can be found here.

DJ Spooky’s Sinfonia Antarctica is not the first musical extravaganza with that title. The English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams reworked his score for the 1948 movie, “Scott of the Antarctic” into a sprawling, five-movement work for orchestra (including wind machine in the percussion) and called it his Symphony No. 7, “Sinfonia Antarctica.” You can listen to it here and decide what advantages Spooky had by virtue of visiting the Antarctica in person. (In 2000, after a trip to Antarctica, British composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies wrote his 8th symphony, nicknamed “Antarctic”; like DJ Spooky’s music, the Maxwell Davies symphony is more an abstract depiction of the loneliness and desolation of an icy expanse than the lush, dramatic Vaughan Williams symphony.)
There’s a long history of music depicting climate and specific atmospheric phenomena. Karen Aplin and Paul Williams made a methodical study of some famous classical orchestral works depicting weather and climate (including Vaughan Williams’ “Sinfonia Antartica”) in the November issue of Weather magazine (published by the Royal Meteorological Society in the U.K.). A press release about the article says that British composers are “twice as likely to have written music about climate themes” than composers from elsewhere. However, a closer examination of the article shows a limited sample size precludes such conclusions. What is interesting, though, is that Aplin and Williams take a highly analytic approach to the topic, which might eventually lead to interesting conclusions about musical methods (instrumentation, keys, etc.) or relations between composers’ nationalities and the type of weather that interests them.
Meanwhile, music has moved in radically different directions than, say, Vivaldi’s violin concerti about “The Four Seasons.” The technology and world-awareness exploited by DJ Spooky and his musical/video performance concoctions are just one avenue. For example, composer Nathalie Miebach, has lately been turning actual meteorological data into sound–and sculpture made of woven reeds. She recently took numerical observations–temperature, humidity, pressure, and so forth from 2007’s Hurricane Noel and charted them graphically, then translated the chart into musical notation.  The sculpture then depicts the charts three dimensionally. Miebach says:

I think there are a lot of us out there who need the kinesthetic, who need the touch to understand something. By bringing the complexity of meteorology back into the physical space, either through touch or through sound, I’m trying to find alternative venues or access points into that complexity….I am getting more interested in using data as a literary tool, to tell a story

Just as technology has allowed us to experience and visualize the atmosphere, so too it has allowed us to see–and hear–it differently.