We all know the Butterfly Effect: the hypothetical notion, in science, that if a butterfly flaps its wings in Portugal, there will be a hurricane two weeks later in Florida.
Now, a growing coterie of musicians are hoping for the opposite -- namely, that if a violinist plays an arpeggio in the Mission District, there won't be a hurricane. Or a drought. Or any number of byproducts of acute climate change that severely threaten humanity's future.
I recently spoke with seven different people in the Bay Area musical community who work, in various ways, to heal the planet's environmental woes through music. Of course, one does not simply play an arpeggio or sing a bass note and watch as the ozone layer suddenly repairs itself and rain falls upon California's dry Central Valley. But in talking with these musicians and directors, I was reminded of the ways music affects people's feelings, in turn changing their thought patterns and, ultimately, their actions.
A common goal among musicians aiming to reverse climate change is to deliver an emotional experience with a less-overt message, sneaking it into listeners' consciousness during a moment of vulnerability. Audiences usually don't react to didactic lectures; they react to beauty.
While the path their creativity takes to impact the planet may be an indirect one, make no mistake -- each of these people are flapping their wings.
Expanding the definition of 'environment'
For Zakiya Harris, the term “environmentalist” has an image altogether different than the one you'll find on Google Images. “It doesn't mean that we have to put on Birkenstocks,” she says, “or eat granola, or look a certain way, or not have trap music playing, right?”
Harris, who's worked for years in communities like Hunters Point, Bayview and Richmond, works with not only an expanded definition of “environmentalist” but an expanded definition of “environment” — one that draws in those who wouldn't necessarily be attracted to Joan Baez singing about saving the whales.
“A more white-led environmental community sees things as very separate, but that approach doesn't work with communities of color. Indigenous cultures don't separate music from culture, from politics, from revolution. So when we're working with communities of color, we're going to talk about police brutality as an environmental issue. We're going to talk about immigration as an environmental issue, because that is part of the environment in which they live. If we're not connecting those dots and getting people to see that the prison industrial complex is an environmental issue, and that's all connected, then the work and change that we want to see isn't going to happen.
“Polar bears,” Harris adds, “are just insufficient.”
This holistic approach informed Harris' first nonprofit, Grind for the Green, which engaged people of color in environmentalism using hip-hop culture. It also fuels her current endeavor Earthseed Consulting, which at the moment is helping train formerly incarcerated individuals in permaculture design. And it certainly fuels her music, either on stage with the band Elephantine or in her recent album, Adventures of a Shapeshifter (v. 1).
“There's an element that is about disrupting the construction of what an environmentalist looks like, or has to say, or has to be,” Harris says. “When people resonate with that they're like, 'Oh, I can totally get on board with this, because it's still fun. It's still cool.' Rather than being preachy, it's just allowing people to have fun with it, and it seeps in because their heart is open.”
And as for the idea that most environmentalist music is simply preaching to the choir? To Harris, the music is the choir – empowering those who feel devalued, calling people to action — and performing isn't performing so much as inciting.
“It's church,” Harris says. “It's ritual. It's what the choir has to do.”
Performing the data
The Climate Music Project
Any scientist tasked with proving the severity of climate change can point to reams of data. But where's the appeal to the general public in a bunch of graphs and numbers?
"When you just look at data, or look at a chart," says Stephan Crawford, "and approach the issue from a purely rational point of view, I think for a lot of people it's hard to engage with it.”
Thus, Crawford co-founded the Climate Music Project, which cross-breeds the scientific research of Andrew Jones and the compositional talent of Eric Ian Walker to present live concerts that tell the story of how we got here -- and how things could get much worse.
While musicians perform Walker's composition "Climate" on stage -- with a Buchla synthesizer, a looped violin, keyboards and bass guitar -- a planetarium show runs alongside a time chart. At 1800 A.D., graphs appear, charting carbon concentration, surface temperature and Earth energy balance. As the date counts up to the present, the music moves in sync with changing levels in the graphs, sometimes making for a discordant, abrasive musical experience.
"The worry was that people would start leaving when it got really bad," says Crawford of the extremes in musical pitch, tempo and distortion. "But we found that people were glued to their seats.”
Walker notes that while other composers like Iannis Xenakis or Arnold Schoenberg experimented with mathematical equations dictating the very notes of a piece of music, "people don't want to go down the path with you at a certain point if you deny them certain resolutions." Instead, he's allowed climate data to alter his music the same way climate change has altered the Earth since the Industrial Revolution: carbon levels change the tempo, temperature changes the pitch, and energy balance introduces distortion.
Walker's composition runs into the year 2300, using projected figures. And if there was any initial temptation to "zoom in" on the data to make the musical changes more drastic, Walker says, it disappeared when he realized how drastically the data changed his music.
"The opposite was the challenge – to hold the line and find the balance so it didn't completely explode too soon," he says, noting the temperature change from no degrees to nine and a half degrees is very extreme. "Once you get to five degrees up, our climate system is going to be very chaotic... It would be inefficient and incorrect to not represent that chaos.”
Of the three, Jones is particularly relieved to be a part of the project. “The climate science community in general has not done a fantastic job of communicating the gravity and scale of what we potentially are doing to our climate system," he says. Post-concert discussions so far have been lively, and even the "converted" being preached to leave with a visceral understanding of and engagement with the problem.
“Ultimately, it's not data and information that drives us to make changes in our behavior," says Jones. "It's not what drives politicians to make changes in policy. But it's an understanding of the story that's behind the data. I think this project helps communicate that story, and we're at a point in the conversation around climate change where we need new stories."
Going abstract, not direct
Laurie Cohen, Mill Valley Philmharmonic
“Expanding awareness is an extremely valuable pursuit, but it can also happen on so many levels,” says Laurie Cohen, founder and conductor of Mill Valley Philharmonic, “and what we have to offer is music. I believe that music can do that. It's the most abstract art form, but it's the most profound.”
In November, the Mill Valley Philharmonic's Rain Dance: The Orchestra and the Drought aspired to mitigate the effects of California's drought through much the same means.
Cohen's 16-year-old orchestra has previously presented concerts themed around water and nature, but November's program was the first with an explicit purpose of contributing to “efforts to end the California drought.” The program included Coast Miwok prayer songs; Virgil Thomson's Soil Erosion, Drought and Devastation; Debussy's Nuages (“Clouds”); and Brahms' Symphony No. 3, written on the Rhine river.
But how can music help end the drought, exactly? Cohen admits it's an indirect process.
“I feel really strongly about this, that exposure doesn't need to be in words. To me the most profound communication is music,” Cohen says. “If you look at art that has a specific political or social intent, it can be successful as a message, but I don't think it can be very successful as art... For example, the Russian propaganda artists of the early 20th century -- can you name who they are? No. They're really interesting to look at, but they don't have longevity. Art is abstract. It's an abstract form. I think it has its most power in its most abstract way.”
In other words, it starts with the pieces performed, which must have a musical connection, instead of “pandering to the program by trying to fit a lot of things together,” Cohen says. Then, through her own introductions of the pieces and their relation to water, and through the presence of the Marin Municipal Water District – telling stories from the stage, as well as tabling in the lobby – the dire nature of the drought is part of the experience.
The Mill Valley Philharmonic has a leg up in reaching people; all its performances are free, and as Cohen and I talk, a neighbor knocks on her door to hand her a donation, evidence of the orchestra's grassroots resonance. But there might be cosmic forces at work in the concert, too.
“The two times it's rained [this season], it's been on Wednesday nights, which are our rehearsal nights,” Cohen jokes. “It's like, 'Hey! It's working!'”
Turn up the volume
Keith Brower Brown, Trails & Ways
Six years ago, Keith Brower Brown traveled to Brazil to research the social and environmental impacts of big wind-power plants, but he returned to the U.S. with a love for Brazil's bossa nova and samba music
You could say that the two interests – clean energy and music – have since coalesced with the formation of Brown's band, Trails & Ways, from Oakland. In fact, disillusionment with the real-world efficacy of his economic and policy analysis work and new technology analysis at a consulting firm contributed to his steer towards the arts.
“I came to feel that all that we were doing was a result of policy that had only gotten passed because there had been a political impetus to get these policies passed,” Brown says. “And that we weren't going to solve the climate crisis or environmental injustice through these technical fixes or fancy new technology, but that cultural change had to happen and that would underpin serious political change.”
In essence, Brown wanted a way to open a conversation that people weren't exactly willing to have. Or, as he puts it, “How do you open hearts and minds, and inspire a different way of feeling and thinking about these problems that can actually enable a broader, more passionate response than we've seen so far?”
Two years after his Brazil trip, Trails & Ways began recording as a band; the next year, Brown quit his day job. But through songs like “Skeletons,” which imagines digging up the remains of humans after we've destroyed the environment, Brown has broadcast the perils of climate change far more broadly, and directly, than he ever could have sitting in an office.
How effective it is? In the indie-rock sphere at least, environmental themes are rare; Brown says that he often has fans wanting to talk with him about issues raised in songs like “Mountain Tune,” about moutaintop removal. And in both indie-rock and other forms of music, Brown explains why there may be a resurgence of explicitly progressive politics.
“Part of it is a lot of young people right now feel like the world isn't right to us,” he says. “It's felt very evident to us for our entire lives -- the world has been in crisis, we've known climate change is happening, we've known that there's massive social inequity, and yet nothing has been done. Music that's just a fun or kind of intellectual hip soundtrack to that, but that offers no engagement with that? Offers no hope? Offers no answers, or isn't even willing to look at that? That just can't feel very honest.”
Signed to Barsuk Records, Trails & Ways tour near-constantly, and in young crowds in cities coast-to-coast, Brown, age 28, sees the larger trend of the word “activist” losing its taboo status among his generation.
“We want our art to have something to say,” he says, “and we're not afraid of more explicitly left politics being a part of our cultural conversation. Not only are we not afraid of it, we feel like the absence of it is conspicuous and ugly.”
Touch the heart
Ragnar Bohlin, Cappella SF
Ragnar Bohlin had always wanted to do something more than donate to green organizations and read the 350.org newsletter. As an avid environmentalist off-stage, the director of the San Francisco Symphony chorus was starting to feel helpless.
“Sometimes you have the feeling: what's it all for, is it really worth it?” Bohlin says, sitting outside a cafe in Hayes Valley. “We go in with such energy and dedication, and we spend so much time brushing up the tuning here, the phrasing there, and meanwhile, we're destroying our Earth. But then if I quit my job as a choral director to immerse myself in an environmental organization, I'm not sure I would do all that much good.”
Bohlin decided to combine his two passions shortly after the formation of Cappella SF, a professional chamber choir performing a cappella works from all periods in the choral repertoire. Within months, Bohlin organized Songs for the Earth: Music and Reflections on Protecting Nature, a drought-themed concert to inspire change.
“Usually what's been done,” Bohlin says, “is that you connect to a composer and you commission a piece with a text that is some new written poem that is about how we destroy the environment and how we mistreat it.” But Bohlin was limited by the repertoire, which goes back centuries; awareness of the destruction of the environment has only been around for two decades.
“But then it dawned upon me,” Bohlin says, “why not sing about the beauty of nature? The appreciation of nature? And then you have the entire repertoire from medieval through renaissance and all of the romantic period and 20th century... There's so much music that's written about sunrises, sunsets, about the beauty of forests and lakes and sea and birds singing.”
And so Bohlin's program began with Jan Sandström's Biegga louthe (Song to the Mountain Wind), and ended with Eric Whitacre's Cloudburst, with the sound of rain represented by percussion, a thunder sheet, and the chorus snapping their fingers. “The poem first speaks about before the rainstorm, how the earth is barren and dry and yearning for water, for rain” – rather apt for a concert in one of the driest Novembers on record – “and then the rain comes and the thunder breaks out and it gets really big.”
The concert featured speakers from the organization Food & Water Watch reading comments on the environment between each piece, and two pieces from a new work, Madrigals for the Season, by David Conte. Other works by Scandinavian and Estonian composers focused on the beauty of nature, and Monteverdi's arrangement of Torquato Tasso's ode to dawn, Ecco mormorar l'onde (Now the waves murmur).
Whether the concert made difference or not is one of those immeasurable questions, as impossible as tracing a hurricane back to a single butterfly's wings. But Bohlin's sense of urgency is not limited to the arts, and if he had his way, all wings would be fluttering.
“I think in all fields," he says, “we need to think what we can do to address this issue.”