How Erik Ian Walker Is Creating the Music of a Changing Climate

Composer Erik Ian Walker and his climate data visualization

+ Ryan Lott (of Son Lux) teaches how to build custom virtual instruments for sound design and scoring in Soundfly’s new course, Designing Sample-Based Instruments.

“Climate” is a piece of instrumental music that’s not only designed to show how humans have affected the Earth’s climate, it’s generated entirely by hard evidence.

Okay, but what does that mean exactly?

Erik Ian Walker and a group of musicians and climate scientists came together to make this music. They released the piece under the name Erik Ian Walker and the Climate Ensemble — and the work uses climate and weather data from as early as the year 1870 through until modeled projections in the year 2125.

And it get’s even more fascinating than that…

But first, have a listen.

So, What’s Unique About Erik Ian Walker’s “CLIMATE?”

Some artists have found ways to sing about climate change, like Billie Eilish, Childish Gambino, Nick Mulvey, and even Paul McCartney.

And of course, lyrics are one of the most powerful ways humans can connect with other humans through song, especially in a storytelling capacity.

But Walker used instrumental music to “show an audience, through sound” the arc of climate change through history thus far.

“Climate,” the title track of the album of the same name, CLIMATE, was commissioned by The ClimateMusic Project as a live performance synced with video. The video shows the changes in the Earth’s Co2 levels, temperature, and Earth Energy Balance, and the movement of the music follows these changes.

How the Climate Data Directs the Music

Using climate data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), each minute of music in “Climate” represents 25 years on Planet Earth. What’s interesting is, the climate data determines the specific parts of music. So the data became the compositional source material.

For example, here are the parts of music and the data points that determined them:

  • Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere → tempo
  • Surface air temperature → pitch and harmony
  • Earth Energy Balance → volume, modulation, distortion
  • Ocean pH → musical form, integrity of form

The first nine minutes of “Climate” are meant to set the stage. It starts in deep space and flies us past planets until we arrive at Earth. At this point in the music, the environment isn’t yet affected by quick Co2 rise.

Then we reach the year 1800, the Industrial Revolution (right when the violin enters). Humans have had an increasingly devastating impact on the environment, so as you move through the music, you hear more changes.

As the Co2 levels rise, the music goes faster. As the temperature increases, the harmony gets more dissonant, pitches go out of tune, and the melody becomes more urgent, frantic, chaotic. Then the Earth’s Energy Balance gets thrown out of whack, things become more distorted and instruments modulate. As the ocean pH levels drop, the music starts to lose its structure entirely. Just chaos.

Again, all of this is being directly informed by publicly available climate data.

However, there is one point at 23 minutes where we take a breath. The music steps back, becomes more ethereal; almost as if to suggest to the listener what a 2º warmer world might feel like. This is the level at which scientists say humans need to stop warming the planet. The music sounds eerie, but especially so because of what it represents, and the unknown factor.

Walker continues this idea on the track “2º,” using the same data from the IPCC.

How Walker Composed “Climate”

As Walker says on CLIMATE’s Bandcamp page, the title track was difficult to make “from an emotional standpoint.”

“Finding a way to keep the music compelling, while it falls apart, took a few rewrites,” it reads. I wondered how in the heck you even start composing a piece like this. So I asked Walker some questions that were on my mind over email.

First, he said he chose Western European instruments because Western Europeans are the ones who are largely to blame for the climate crisis. Then he mapped out the composition based on the data.

“The first thing I did,” he said, “once I’d come up with some musical ideas and concepts about harmony related to when each degree of rising temperature has arrived, was to make a tempo map for the rising Co2.”

They went through a few theoretical ideas before finally finding one “that didn’t fall apart and sound horrible too fast.” And that was the hardest part, he said. At one point, he had to throw out two other plans for the piece before creating what eventually became its final structure.

He told me how the constant, rapid change throughout the piece forced him to give up his ego, which influenced his compositional choices. “You just could not keep some melody or nifty chord progression around for very long,” he said. “… After a certain point, I had to allow organization to begin to break down.”

This piece does get intense and chaotic. But Walker had to keep in mind that this music is for people to listen to. And human ears don’t like to hear chaos for too long.

“We found, I think, just the right level of unpleasantness,” he said, “and [held] it there just long enough, so that audiences in the theater would be just about to…get up and leave, and then the piece would end.”

During the performance of this piece, Walker had to get the musicians to collectively make the music sound chaotic. So he gave them the opportunity to improvise within each degree of change, and to stay in those parameters.

One of the musicians even had a Kurzweil sampler that could sample and playback audio on the fly. So they routed a bunch of different channels to it so the musician could re-sample and process the band in real-time.

All in all, “Climate” took 18 months to compose. Walker, the musicians, and the scientists ended up with a compelling experience — it’s stressful and beautiful and sobering to hear the music as you watch the corresponding video.

Toward the end of the piece, when everything is getting chaotic, Walker chose to bring back the lone violin that started the song. It’s at the 23-minute mark when we’re reminded what a 2º celsius warmer earth feels like.

“In reality, things are so torn up at this point, (7º hotter) that [the violin] really couldn’t exist anymore,” he said. “But, instead, we have it appear like a last gasp of humanity trying to ride the insane wave. It’s very ripped up, and jagged, and teetering and is, in fact, the part where it feels like [the] whole planet is reeling.

“… You realize how there is no going back to what was before. We are beyond repair at that point (or, at least, thousands of years of repair are needed).”

What You Can Do

If you want to take action to, well… save yourself and your kids and your kids’ kids, ClimateMusic put together a list of things you can do today to make a difference. Through ClimateMusic, I got connected with the Sunrise Movement, which has more than 400 “Sunrise Hubs” across the United States. So there’s probably one near you.

You can also share this post. Awareness of the climate crisis is the first step toward action and change.

Lastly, you could make your own climate-aware music, whether it’s instrumental like CLIMATE, or lyrical like so many other musicians today are doing.

Have you checked out Soundfly’s courses yet?

Continue your learning with hundreds of lessons by boundary-pushing, independent artists like Kimbra, Ryan Lott & Ian Chang (of Son Lux), Jlin, Elijah FoxKiefer, Com Truise, The Pocket Queen, and RJD2. And don’t forget to try out our intro course on Scoring for Film & TV.

RJD2: From Samples to Songs

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