This Is What Climate Change Sounds Like

Stephan Crawford and the ClimateMusic Project link art and science to inspire environmental action

Interdisciplinary artist and amateur musician Stephan Crawford, F89, forged a distinguished career in public service, but for many years his work was separate from his passion for the arts and his commitment to the environment. That changed in 2014 when he merged his interests to found the ClimateMusic Project.

The nonprofit organization is a collaboration of world-class scientists and musicians that creates “science-guided” music to educate audiences and inspire action.

“The music elicits an emotional response, but our mission is to help people understand the climate crisis and why it's urgent to act,” says Crawford, who serves as executive producer. “It's only urgent because we can still do something about it.”

Awakening to the Climate Crisis

The former director of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Commercial Service office in San Francisco, Crawford has experienced the effects of climate change firsthand, as severe weather has wreaked havoc on California. When massive wildfires surrounded San Francisco in September 2020, “the sky was horrific,” he says. “It looked like Mars—a deep, dark red—and you could barely see; there was no sunlight filtering through the smoke.”

Crawford’s love of the natural world was nurtured during childhood summers spent with his family on their small sailboat, tooling around Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles. But it was a singular moment at The Fletcher School that catalyzed his interest in the environment. In 1988, the late Robert West, a professor of international economic relations, produced a climate symposium.

“One economist was taking a very ‘let's wait and see’ approach, and I vividly remember Professor West saying that that's an irresponsible stance given what we already know,” Crawford says. “Tufts was ahead of the curve.”

Watch an excerpt from What if We…?, a 10-minute composition by Wendy Loomis with spoken word by Royal Kent in collaboration with the ClimateMusic Project. 

A Climate ‘Charrette

While working for the Department of Commerce, Crawford spent his off hours, as he still does, creating sculpture, mixed media artworks, and paintings and playing piano and guitar in a studio near his apartment. One day, as he was banging a metal rod against his workbench, he imagined making a kinetic sculpture that would mimic the carbon cycle to help people understand its importance. The science and advocacy appealed to Crawford, who holds a master’s degree in environmental management with a focus on environmental science from the University of San Francisco. The banging also suggested a rhythm.

After experimenting with a crude Garage Band prototype on his laptop—visualizing temperature data and mapping it to music—Crawford decided to hold a cross between what artists call a “charrette”—an intense period of design and planning to meet a project deadline—and programmers call a “hack day”—an event in which computers programmers and software designers set aside their regular work to collaborate on a new idea or project. He invited a composer, musicians, and two climate researchers to join him in his studio for a day of experimentation. Eight hours later, an audience of 30 friends arrived to hear the results.

“It was just a 20-minute piece cobbled together,” Crawford says. “At the end, there were tears in the audience’s eyes.”

Watch an excerpt from a performance of Icarus in Flight, an original chamber work by composer Richard Festinger in collaboration with the ClimateMusic Project. 

Perform Globally, Act Locally

Since its first formal performance at the Chabot Space and Science Center in Oakland, California in 2015, the ClimateMusic Project has grown under the aegis of the Social Good Fund and has presented or participated in events in 10 countries, including a 2018 performance at a World Bank conference in Mexico City. Laurie Goldman, A83, whom Crawford met when she was head of global trade policy for Levi Strauss & Co., serves as a senior advisor.

Each ClimateMusic concert pairs an original composition with a visualization of one aspect of climate change. The performance is introduced by a climate scientist and followed by a Q&A, panel, or other call to action.

“Music is a universal language, but it has many dialects,” Crawford says. ClimateMusic’s current repertoire of four compositions includes “Climate,” which spans multiple genres and focuses on the physical science of climate change across 450 years. "What If We...?" is a jazz-inspired quartet that explores two possible sea level rise scenarios for this century.  

Forthcoming works include a collaboration focused on the links between forests, climate, and biodiversity with violinist Scarlet Rivera, who has toured and created music with Bob Dylan, and a violin concerto that illuminates “vicious cycles,” which caused climate change, and “virtuous cycles,” which may bring us out, Crawford says.

ClimateMusic’s scientists agree that the solution to climate change is no longer a question of technology or tools; we have both. “It is a question of human behavior—how we choose to live our lives collectively and what policies we come up with,” Crawford says.

Notes of Hope

Working with the ClimateMusic team, which now includes more than 30 musicians, scientists, advisors, composers, and operations staff, helps Crawford stay upbeat.

“When I see their deep creativity, intelligence, passion, commitment, and effort, it really buoys my spirits,” he says. “Just being around them gives me hope.”

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