What does climate change sound like? San Francisco group puts crisis to music

‘Music has a unique way of really getting to the core because we can feel it’

Wendy Loomis, a longtime San Francisco composer, was scouring the web searching for gigs when she happened upon a callout for local musicians.

“Would you like to play for the planet?” the site asked, ahead of a 2018 citywide conference called the Global Action Summit.

“Well, yes, I would,” she said.

So began Loomis’ introduction to the Climate Music Project, a San Francisco-based group of musicians and scientists working to sonically showcase the impact of carbon emissions and inspire audiences to take action on climate change.

By and large, the way we understand and respond to the warming world is visual. We read reports, analyze maps, watch the news and witness events like wildfires or drying creek beds with our eyes. The Climate Music Project asks, “What does climate change sound like?”

By combining scientific data with the visceral power of music, the nonprofit aims to communicate the urgency of the climate crisis through sound.

“Action on climate change is urgent, but it’s only urgent because we still have agency,” said Stephan Crawford, the organization’s founder. “I think music has a unique way of really getting to the core because we can feel it, but it also touches our emotions.”

The question of what a warming world sounds like intrigued Loomis. The issue had long pricked her awareness, but she felt paralyzed by its scale.

“I think I was like so many other people. ‘What can I do?’ I gave up eating meat years ago. I don’t drive very much,” she said. “But on the other hand, I think the enormity of it — you pick up the paper, and you just think, ‘wow.’ And living in California, with the fires, it’s just overwhelming.”

Shortly after Loomis played at the conference, Crawford asked her to compose a piece focused on sea-level rise. It was unlike any composition she’d worked on.

The Telegraph Quartet performed Richard Festinger’s “Icarus in Flight” in a Climate Music Project presentation in 2018. 
Courtesy Tim Guydish

The Telegraph Quartet performed Richard Festinger’s “Icarus in Flight” in a Climate Music Project presentation in 2018. Courtesy Tim Guydish

Collaborating with scientists like Alison Marklein, an environmental researcher at UC Riverside and Molly Monahan at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Loomis composed “What If We,” a haunting 10-minute piece that used climate data to create sonifications, or the process of translating data into sound, to reflect the increasing populations and geographies affected by rising seas.

“You take something that’s that visceral and then you incorporate actual science with it,” said Loomis. “So you’re getting a response from people that you might not get with a graph.”

Classical composer Richard Festinger also was drawn to the narrative challenge of telling a data-heavy story with a new medium.

“Music is kind of inarticulate — a lot of music is abstract or it tells stories about teenage love,” he said. “And this was a really interesting way to tell a very important story through music.”

His piece, titled “Icarus in Flight,” deals with the human impacts of climate change including rising carbon emissions, population growth and land use from 1880 to 2080, aurally tracing the rising human toll on the planet through rising pitch, the crowding of notes and the plucking of strings.

“It’s not something that’s easily put into words,” he said. “If it were easily put into words, we might not need the music.”

The Climate Music Project, with three such pieces, has performed across geographies and at numerous venues, including the National Academy of Sciences, the World Bank and the Exploratorium.

On Nov. 12, the Climate Music Project will mark the closing of COP26 in Glasgow with a bi-continental event that will merge performances from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Vienna, Austria in partnership with the award-winning violinist Yury Revich.

But don’t mistake this work as purely an exercise in data or science, said Crawford. This is art, he said — “art that reflects scientific facts.”

And art, he hopes, that activates action in his audiences.

“We share with them the science, we share with them the music, and then we don’t want them to curl up in a ball and go watch cat videos,” said Laurie Goldman, director of public engagement at the Project. “We want them to do something.”

Performances often wrap up with Q&As and connect audiences with advocacy organizations including the Global Footprint Network, Cool Effect and the San Francisco Department of the Environment to help audiences channel the emotive power of the performances into actionable change — whether that be minimizing their own carbon footprint or getting involved in climate-focused legislation.

“We have all the tools we need to fix this. It’s really just about human choices now and human behavior,” said Crawford.


IF YOU GO: Live! From San Francisco and Vienna: A Musical Call for Climate Action

Where: San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak St., S.F.

When: 11 a.m. Friday, Nov. 12

Tickets: $15 to $50

Contact: sfcm.edu/performance-calendar

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