What does climate change sound like?

Thea Rossen and Madeleine Jevons on music and the environment



Percussionist Thea Rossen and composer Jared Yapp took the bare skeleton of a project to a residency program at the Banff Centre for the Creative Arts in Alberta, Canada.

They started last February, and after three weeks the skeleton had been fleshed out to become a body of work – Music for our Changing Climate – premiering on 17 May at Lab 14 in the Carlton Connect Initiative.

In collaboration with Melbourne’s Penny Quartet, the recital will “invite reflection and discussion on humanity’s response to climate change,” says Thea Rossen.

“It is an artistic response to how we as consumers are dealing with climate change. Music is what I am and climate change is something I feel very strongly about.” 

Thea says there is an avenue for music to become part of the conversation on climate change. She is excited that new music’s unique artistic expression can expand the discourse on the environment in which, until now, the mediums of visual art, theatre and dance have been the norm.

The performance will create an immersive experience for the audience. Upon entry into Lab 14, guests will be surrounded by the sound well of a melting ice installation; an aural and visual allegory of how it feels when “you are surrounded by the dripping world”, according to Thea.

Thea using new resources to create sound. Captured by Cameron Jamieson.

Generally, climate change data is referred to or represented in statistics, graphs and mathematical formulae. Scientific facts are not usually what an audience would expect in an artistic event. However, Music for our Changing Climate puts a new spin on statistics with one of Thea’s compositions – Sounds of the Reef – setting a graph of scientific data to music.

Thea, inspired by American geography student and composer David Crawford, took Bureau of Meteorology data on the rising ocean temperatures in Australian waters from the last couple of hundred years, and transformed it into pitches. Each note represents a year and gradually the notes get higher and higher, “so you listen to the sound of the graph”.

For this piece, Thea uses the basic pitch set of the graph but also brings in some musical elements. There is a theme, variations and sections of improvisation, transporting the Bureau’s ocean temperature statistics into the musical world.

While workshopping the project together in Banff, Jared (of Melbourne’s Ad Lib Collective) suggested the inclusion of strings. He wanted to add an expressive quality to support and enhance the percussive nature of the project. When they pitched the idea of collaboration to Melbourne’s Penny Quartet, they were thrilled to be involved in the premiere performance.

Penny Quartet did not need much persuasion to perform with Thea and Jared. Violinist Madeleine Jevons says “working with the composer is such a luxury”.

“Instead of throwing statistics at people’s heads, overwhelming them…this type of performance is designed to appeal in an emotional sense – not a logical sense,” she says.

Madeleine sees this recital as a way to approach an issue and get people thinking. While it is common for musicians to play for particular causes, she is not aware of any other recital of this kind curated specifically to climate change. ‘Activism culture’ is becoming much more acceptable, she says, adding that this type of performance “is unlike anything I have heard of”.

Madeleine Jevons

Thea and Jared want to engage the audience musically, without undue influence or information before or during the performance. Therefore, the program notes will be available only at the end of the performance. The program will also include links to various organisations for those of the audience who want to more information.

Madeleine considers this concept perfect for the recital, saying that “without program notes, you are presenting something and [the audience] can take what they want from it”.

In order to engage an audience in such a unique method with new music, it is important to have an intimate setting where audiences don’t sit “hours away from you,” Madeleine says. You need to treat the audience as part of the performance.

Thea agrees, believing that the world of abstract new music should not be intimidating to the audience. While it is often seen as being exclusive, she says audience engagement should be part of the performance.

In this case, the suite of miniatures composed by Jared are seamlessly threaded together during the 50 minutes of the recital. “Hopefully that makes you respond to listening to climate change,” Thea says.

“I just want to inspire thought, conversation, communication and discussion.”

Thea describes the coming recital as a multi-sensory experience of sonic and visual elements. “We haven’t quite developed the touch yet or the taste,” she adds, very tongue in cheek.

Thea holding a thread of coral. Credit: Banff Centre.

Music for our Changing Climate will be performed at 8pm, 17 May at LAB-14, 700 Swanston Street Carlton. To see and hear for yourself, tickets can be purchased online.

Images supplied. Ice by Thea Rossen.

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