A Musical Warning

“Climate” composition captures the sound of planetary catastrophe


What sound does a planet make as it spirals toward extreme weather fluctuations and sea level rise that could displace 760 million people? That’s what Stephan Crawford MSEM ’11 set out to learn when he brought a team of climate scientists and musicians together to create a kind of musical warning to the world.

“It is science-inspired art,” says Crawford of “Climate,” a 30-minute composition that follows the ups and downs of hundreds of years of climate data.

Crawford’s 10-member Climate Music Project collective — made up of scientists and musicians from around the Bay Area — performed “Climate” live at the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland in November and February, and it has been highlighted on KQED radio.

Road to disaster

It tells the story of rising temperatures and carbon levels, and spreading ocean acidity from the time of the industrial revolution to 2300, when parts of the planet could be uninhabitable for humans. The piece’s first sounds are of NASA interplanetary probes moving toward Earth. Then a haunting violin theme (humans) rises, evolving into rock ‘n roll (modern society), before giving way to a chaotic and distorted cacophony (Earth’s climate catastrophe, if we continue on our current road). Behind the performing musicians, a video timeline plays of climate events, such a melting glaciers.

Thankfully, “Climate” includes a more hopeful parallel ending, in which humanity takes action to avert disaster.

“Our mission is to create and perform science-guided music to awaken, educate, and inspire a broad and diverse audience to engage actively on the issue of climate change,” says Crawford, who chose USF in part because its Jesuit liberal arts approach graduates well-rounded students.

“I have a lot of respect for USF's commitment to broadly educating its students to be involved in the world,” Crawford said. “Given the challenges that we face in the 21st century, this enlightened approach is really the only way forward.”

The master of science in environmental management alumnus heads the San Francisco office of the U.S. Department of Commerce, the government’s lead international trade promotion agency, and is also a successful San Francisco artist.

What he didn’t anticipate

Early feedback suggests audiences like the experience, says Crawford, pointing to upcoming performances that have been booked at Grace Cathedral and the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, and The Tech Museum in San Jose.

“One woman told me that as she listened, she mentally placed her family history in the projected timeline,” Crawford says. “She could hear how the music sounded when her grandmother was alive, how it sounds now, and how it could sound when her granddaughter is born. That’s exactly the point of the project — to express the urgency of the problem in a way that will resonate.”

It’s amazing how much he’s drawn on the lessons he learned in USF’s environmental management program to guide the project, Crawford says. That’s something he didn’t anticipate when he enrolled to bolster his science background for his day job — which in recent years has focused on clean technology and the intersection of trade and sustainability. 

“The environmental management program gave me a whole new set of tools that I use everyday in my art and with the Climate Music Project, from how to read scientific research articles to understanding the science behind climate change,” Crawford says. “I also use what I learned at the U.S. Department of Commerce, where I’m part of a small team that’s working to create tools to help small American companies better understand how environmental factors and resource drivers will impact global business in the coming years.”

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