Listening to Climate Change

Josh Wallace


Josh Wallace, Carleton University
Advisor: Catherine Bonier

Field research for the project included recording the sounds of a glacier. Photo by Stephanie Murray

Climate change is often seen as an abstract phenomenon that occasionally manifests in fragments of local weather. But could it also become a cultural object? How could the medium of sound allow climate change to be woven into human imagination and memory?

This thesis explores these questions by blurring the lines between human-made music and environmentally produced sound. The research phase included recording the sounds produced by the shifting Athabasca Glacier, and visually cataloguing these recordings alongside human music. Human-produced music is often tonal and rhythmic, with consistent boundaries and divisions. Environmentally produced sound is often atonal and arhythmic, with an enormous range and granularity of frequencies and frequency relationships.

Polar spectrograms show the differences between human-produced music and sounds from the natural world.

The author then turned to designing a series of environmentally activated instruments to allow participants to interface with the climate. A Glacier Accordion, anchored to the shifting ground of the Athabasca Glacier, is “played” by the movement of wind through a series of membranes. The instrument is operated both by humans, who can tune the membranes by adjusting cranks and pulley, and by the glacier, whose movement changes the instrument’s geometry. In this new method of music-making, the non-human climate is as much an active participant as the human.

The instruments aim to create a visceral knowledge of climate realities. Players engaging these new devices and landscapes must listen and adapt, letting go of accepted musical norms to incorporate the climate’s sonic language into their musical sensibilities. It is anticipated that this “letting go” may aid in the necessary philosophical shift towards adapting to a new climate paradigm.

Jury Comments

Rami Bebawi :: This project is amazing in telling us to remember the melting glaciers through sound. It is valuable that a more sensorial approach to space is created to transmit an experience of memory.

Joe Lobko :: This project is about the engagement of senses, being in the moment, the awareness of place and most importantly giving voice to climate change. The imagery is seductive. Can’t wait to hear it.

Cindy Wilson :: The sound recording and accompanying graphic representations are a connection to climate change I have never considered before. It could be an interesting way of connecting numerical data to our senses.