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  • Writer's pictureKatie Babson

The Haunting Music of Climate Change


Climate change music evokes a spatial region between geography, activism, and the human imagination. It possesses the unique ability to reach people on an emotional level that words cannot express. ​​John Luther Adams and Kieran Brunt both exemplify this through their orchestral pieces, warning us about the consequences of climate change.

Become Ocean - winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Music - is played in Carnegie Hall.

Much of climate change activism is centered around challenging current legislation, changing pro-fossil fuel policies, and relying on science to support claims that global warming is a tangible threat. But all of this cannot entirely encapsulate and truly convey the daunting emotions surrounding climate change. Instead, it is music that reaches out to individuals, asking us questions and provoking emotions that are unable to be articulated by our limited 26-letter alphabet. Such questions and emotions help shape conversations about the environment and the devastation of human-made climate change. As a result, it is provocative and evokes a liminal space between geography, activism, and the human imagination. Music possesses a distinctive quality of sound and expression that helps us understand, through rhythm, vibration, and an array instruments, that climate change is not just a policy problem or scientific issue — it is also an underlying sense of loss and grief for the environment surrounding us. It is ultimately just as essential to protesting climate change as politics and science are.

The music of climate change uses global warming, the changing environment, and rising sea levels as thematic inspiration for musical composition. This thematic form of music has seeped into all genres, ranging from classical orchestras, experimental compositions, electroacoustic instruments, heavy metal, and even elemental pop. Such a wide range of music genres emphasizes the pervasive sense of melancholic grief surrounding climate change. Much of this music relies on brooding somber tones, gothic sounds, and orchestral components that reflect attitudes of nihilistic despair and desperation. However, this is not true for all climate change music, and some songs are optimistic. Grimes exemplifies this through her recent album Miss Anthropocene, released in 2020. Her album consists of repeating snare drums and humming voices that resonate as the musical composition surges upward. Yet it is the orchestral music that truly encapsulates the residual rise and fall of waves, gradual global warming, and inescapable worry of climate change.

John Luther Adams’ Grammy Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning song, Become Ocean, is a glassy and tremendously forlorn example of climate change music. He describes his piece as a 42-minute long symphonic orchestra made up of three separate ensembles reminiscent of sunken ocean sounds. The song opens with the heavy keys of a piano that you sink into before you are suddenly plunged into the frigid, impersonal water. Through his music, Adams displays a future submerged in a vast and expansive ocean caused by climate change and the melting of polar ice caps. As the orchestra ebbs and flows like shorelines, it fades to a lingering whisper before the ensemble suddenly swells upwards and crashes down, as though the instrumental echoes are tsunamis. Adams hauntingly reminds us that, “as the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean.” As we are immersed into the music, we become part of the ocean’s glossy dark shades of black-blue hues and stunningly white, melting polar caps.

Kieran Brunt continues this theme of climate change within his piece The Rising Sea Symphony. His lingering music is meant to show the catastrophic perils of global warming, conjured through an assortment of words and sounds weaved together. He emphasizes the dangers of climate change, surging global temperatures, and rising sea levels. Echoing electronic reverberations and looming orchestral overlays are deeply intertwined with haunting vocals, spoken word, and actual field recordings. Real news anchors and scientists can be heard in the background reporting on the impending consequences of climate change, bringing an imminent sense of tension to the music. Altogether, this creates a cohesive sound of drowning, starvation, loss, and horror. Towards the end, however, there is also a pervading sense of hope and yearning for a better future.

Throughout the song, this symphony treks around the world, from Ghana to Norway and eventually Mont Blanc. For the finale, Brunt illustrations an imagined world, displaying a worrisome future if we do not address the pressing issues of global warming immediately. He elucidates stories of terror and uncertainty from coastal Ghana, where entire villages are being swallowed and swept away by rising sea levels caused by global warming. The symphony moves onto Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, where the music turns ice-white and frigid as the Arctic ice begins to crack, making its own howling lullabies. Continuing to Mont Blanc, the music turns tense as the vocals soften with chilly words. Glaciers can be heard in the background, fracturing and collapsing as avalanches rush down the slopes. In the thrilling finale, Brunt shows us a polar opposite outcome from the earlier looming doom from the consequences of climate change. A future in which there is hope. As the music turns from glacial to a subtle warming, we are presented with hopefulness that we can truly decrease carbon emissions, lower rising tides, and implement actual systemic change.

Adams and Brunt haunt us with their music of climate change, reminding us that music is a visceral form of art that cannot simply be captured by our primitive words. It speaks to us on an emotional level, conveying the clamorous noises of global warming and the science behind it through reverberating strings of instruments and echoing voices. Climate change music possesses the ability to grasp us in its sounds and elicit emotional responses that words cannot express. The music of climate change is an experience, one of symphonic movement that allows us to explore sounds, space, and social activism.

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