Composer Turns Climate Data Into Music. Hear The Stirring Result

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We see images illustrating the impact of climate change all the time, but what does our warming planet sound like? In the hands of an environmental scientist and music enthusiast, the answer is a composition for string quartet that is often urgent and cacophonous, and occasionally melodious and nostalgic.

Sonification, the process of transforming data into audio, has given rise to a series of soundtracks aimed at raising awareness of climate change. But these tend to veer more into strange soundscapes than what most of us would call music.

Hiroto Nagai, a geoenvironmental scientist at Japan's Rissho University who is also a composer, wanted to see what would happen if he tried to use sonified data to create weather-related audio that more closely aligned with traditional musical composition.

The result is “String Quartet No. 1 'Polar Energy Budget,'” a six-minute piece created from more than 30 years of climate data. The term “energy budget” refers to the exchange of physical energy on the Earth's surface from solar radiation. You can listen to the composition below.

“What's strange is the choice of the intimate sound of a string quartet to express this data,” Mason Bates, a composer on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, said in an interview. “It's amazing to hear the warmth of these instruments harnessed by an invisible system.”

Listen to “String Quartet No. 1 'Polar Energy Budget'”

A string quartet premiered the piece live in Tokyo last year, and Nagai details his methodology for creating it in a paper published Thursday in the open-access journal iScience. With “Polar Energy Budget,” the composer said he wants to highlight the possibilities and challenges of combining sonification with traditional musical compositions. And while “Polar Energy Budget” isn't the first musical composition created from climate data, Nagai hopes his piece will add to the growing body of art created to raise environmental awareness and inspire more artists to harness the data when they create their works.

Nagai began by assigning sounds to publicly available environmental data collected from four polar sites between 1982 and 2022: an ice core drilling site in the Greenland ice sheet, a satellite station in Norway's Svalbard archipelago and two Japanese-owned research stations in Antarctica. , Showa Station, and Dome Fuji Station. The data measured shortwave and longwave radiation, precipitation, surface temperature and cloud thickness.

He then tweaked the tones of the data points, assigning sections to the instruments: two violins, a viola, and a cello. Unlike data sonification, which simply turns data into audio, Nagai believes that “musification” of data requires human intervention.

“As a fundamental principle in musical composition, it is necessary to combine temporal sequences from tension creation to resolution at various scales, from harmonic progressions to whole movements,” he writes in the iScience article. “You have to actively intervene and affect the emotions of the audience.”

So Nagai added his own touches, introducing the beat, for example, removing certain sounds and adding sections he had composed himself.

Listening to the voice of the planet

Others who have tried to tell climate stories through music include marine ecosystem modeler Lee de Mora and Daniel Crawford. A decade ago, while a music student at the University of Minnesota, Crawford partnered with a geography professor there to turn global temperature records into musical notes for a cello piece titled “A Song of Our Warming Planet.” . Two years later, the pair returned with “Planetary Bands, Warming World,” a composition for string quartet based on NASA temperature data.

Composers Szymon Weiss and Szymon Sutor, for their part, reinterpreted Vivaldi's “The Four Seasons” to convey the impacts of climate change, a project embodied in a short documentary.

Composer Bates of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music said Nagai's piece would be better classified as a modern classic.

“Nagai uses data in the way that modernist composers once constructed melodies from random notes,” said Bates, who was not involved in the work. “The result is not overtly expressive or emotional.”

That sense of detachment, Nagai said in an interview, fits the theme.

“Although the melody may seem fresh and whimsical, it does not empathize with human emotions,” he said, “I think it represents the true essence of nature.”



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