Earth Song: How Music Can Serve as a Response to the Climate Crisis

More and more, composers and performers are using their art to respond to the urgency of mitigating climate change and reversing environmental destruction

By Thomas MayFrom the May-June 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

Nature sings in the work of countless composers in the Western classical tradition. The calls and flutterings of birds, spine-tingling thunder, falling raindrops: Vivaldi transformed a repertoire of found sounds from the natural world into some of the most memorable moments in The Four Seasons. But growing awareness that humanity’s relationship with nature has gone astray in the wake of the Industrial Revolution and modern capitalism could already be discerned long before we started becoming accustomed to unrelenting news of environmental catastrophe. Even at the heart of the 19th century, as the ideology of “progress” spread far and wide, Wagner’s Ring cycle anticipated both the anxiety and the hope for necessary change that are often bundled together in contemporary responses to the global climate crisis.


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Instead of celebrating the “song of the Earth” as a reassuring presence that is taken for granted, an attitude of uncertainty and even lamentation has been emerging as the signature of our Anthropocene era. More and more, composers and performers are using their art to respond to the urgency of mitigating climate change and reversing environmental destruction.

“Our survival as a species depends on a fundamental change of our way of being in the world,” wrote the composer John Luther Adams in his 2015 essay “Making Music in the Anthropocene.” “If my music can inspire people to listen more deeply to this miraculous world we inhabit, then I will have done what I can as a composer to help us navigate this perilous era of our own creation.”

This deep ecology emphasis points to the area of focus that an increasing number of artists are choosing when they engage with these pressing issues. The zealotry of protestors splashing cans of soup onto iconic (and well protected) paintings may briefly grab the headlines, but a more sustainable way to promote the imperative for change is the direct, human communication that has always given artistic expression its authenticity.

Trey-Lee-holding-cello-and-bow-PC-Musicus-Society
Trey Lee. Courtesy of the Musicus Society.

The Oldest Tool We Have

The Berlin-based cellist Trey Lee is convinced of music’s power to influence social change and productive dialogue between cultures. In 2010, he and his sister Chui-Inn Lee joined with likeminded colleagues to found the Musicus Society in their native Hong Kong, which promotes collaboration between homegrown and overseas artists by presenting an annual fall festival. The festival and other programs additionally encourage the younger generation—with an emphasis on string players—to find a place in the local and international performance ecosystems alike. 

With his album Seasons Interrupted, a collaboration with the English Chamber Orchestra (ECO) released this spring on the Signum Classics label, Lee ventures into new territory, using his cello as a platform to address our collective sense of malaise caused by the climate crisis. He will also perform at the ECO’s opening concert of the season in late September for the European launch of the album.


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“This is the first time I’ve done something about the climate issue with the cello,” the 51-year-old cellist explains from his home in Berlin. “But it’s something that I can’t get out of my mind. A big catalyst for this project was my discovery of this new phenomenon, especially with young people, that a lot of therapists have been calling climate anxiety. It’s very common now and has led to serious consequences, such as people deciding they don’t want to have children because they don’t want to contribute more to the crisis.”

Lee was surprised to find that the climate anxiety he had been feeling was shared by so many others: “The big difference between how a therapist would work through this is that the anxiety is an external matter that is beyond one’s control. Other problems usually involve an internal matter.” The biggest challenge for therapists is that they can’t use traditional tools to help those suffering from the anxiety overcome it, according to Lee. But what therapists and artists alike can do is “find ways to make them feel better. Music is probably the oldest tool we have in the history of human beings to achieve this.”

Seasons Interrupted traces a cello-centered narrative from past through present to future, using the familiar image of the four seasons “to account for how this crisis unfolds.” The album begins by looking to the past from which we have swerved: to the four seasons traditionally experienced, which Lee represents through his cello-piano arrangements of a quartet of Schubert lieder. Nature imagery recurs throughout Schubert’s art songs as a “metaphor for the human condition,” writes Lee in his liner notes. Within the framework of his album, these songs now serve as “our guide to relive the natural phenomena of the seasons” as our species used to experience them before the acceleration of climate change.

To depict our present situation, Lee interprets Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires in his new arrangement of the solo violin part for cello. This tango-infused score is “something I could really indulge in,” he says. “As I played it more and more, I realized that it’s all about consumption, the immediate enjoyment and fulfillment of our desires. Piazzolla puts the sounds of the modern world into the music, so it becomes a metaphor for how we live our lives today.” 

The future is heralded by Lee’s account of the Cello Concerto (2009–10) by Finnish composer Kirmo Lintinen, which is dedicated to the cellist. While beginning with a “dark and dystopian” soundscape, the concerto wrestles its way to an affirmative finale that conveys “our longing for an end to this crisis.” Although it would have been “very easy to end with a downer,” Lee asserts that the optimistic conclusion is important because it conveys symbolically that “humans will find a way. We have to find a way. I’m just one person playing the cello. But I think what is necessary is that everyone needs to make noise about the situation. Because when you add it all together, and the noise is big enough, it adds up to a greater force than any individual can ever achieve.”

Eldbjorg-Hemsing-standing-in-front-of-a-glacier-©Gregor-Hohenberg
Eldbjørg Hemsing’s debut album, Arctic, put a spotlight on the far northern ecosystem. Photo: Gregor Hohenberg.

Bridging a Way to the Emotions 

Eldbjørg Hemsing similarly makes the point that it’s all too tempting to default to despair when addressing the climate crisis through music. “I could have easily focused on the devastation and catastrophe, but I wanted to create something that was more about sustaining the beauty of things,” the Norwegian violinist tells me in a recent conversation from her home in London, referring to her concept album about the beauty and fragility of the far northern ecosystem, Arctic, which was released in 2023 as her debut on Sony. 


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The 34-year-old Hemsing has been building a reputation for her breathtakingly personal, atmospheric style of playing, which encompasses not only the work of Scandinavian composers but music of Tan Dun as well. She recalls that the idea for Arctic came to mind the first time she visited Svalbard, the Norwegian archipelago north of the mainland and home to the Global Seed Vault. “It’s an incredibly magnetic, magical place,” she says. “I remember feeling so small and almost insignificant, and in the best way, in such an environment, which has been sustained for millions of years, if not billions. But it’s also scary to see the change happening in the Arctic, where the ice is melting faster than anywhere else on Earth.”

The numbers related to climate change can seem so abstract that it’s difficult to perceive the enormous consequences scientists extrapolate from them. This is where music can be an especially effective platform to raise awareness, according to Hemsing. “Music is a different language and a different way of communicating that connects with your emotions in a much stronger way than reading climate reports.”

As a scientist himself who served as a kind of ranger to help protect an isolated nature reserve, Hemsing’s own father ensured that she developed a strong sense of connection to nature and respect for its power. “I learned to see clear differences in such markers as tree height, for example: they grow much higher now than ever before, which means it’s become warmer—there are so many repercussions that you can immediately see.”

On Arctic, Hemsing sought to convey the remote, mysterious beauty of this part of the planet, which is, at the same time, “so vital to our lives.” She worked with her colleagues to create an immersive soundscape that is “fully symphonic and very optimistic and dreamy, so listeners can go on their own audiovisual journey without being told what to necessarily listen for.”

Engaging with the topic of climate change entails unique challenges, she adds, because it generates such strong emotional reactions: “People tend to either give you opinions that you don’t have or they tend to put you in one box.” While Hemsing doesn’t consider herself an “activist” on the issue—“other people are much stronger in that field than I am”—she says it would be “a pity not to use the voice we have as musicians to touch upon big topics like this, because it affects all of us. Music is my language, so that’s what I use.”


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John Luther Adams sitting in front of adobe house with large window
John Luther Adams. Photo: Madeline Cass

Voicing Grief

In his 20s, before he decided to devote himself full time to music, John Luther Adams, now 71, was a political activist passionately committed to protecting the environment. But a deep connection to a sense of place, to particular natural settings (for a long time Alaska and far northern landscapes), has persisted for the Mississippi-born percussionist-turned-composer. For decades, his work remained outside the classical mainstream, but Adams broke through to widespread attention with his large-scale orchestral canvas, Become Ocean, which won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 2014 and, in 2015, the Grammy Award in the Best Classical Contemporary Composition category.

In a recent email exchange, Adams described how his current thinking has shifted regarding the role music can play in grappling with the existential threat of climate change: “In a sense, I think much of my music of the past 50 years, from songbirdsongs [among his earliest works, from 1974–80] on, now has differentshades of meaning than when I composed it. Music that the composer, listeners, and critical thinkers may once have understood simply as a celebration of what we call ‘nature’ now somehow seems more urgent.”

Adams, the eloquent author as well of several books, has further articulated how he abided by an “18th- and 19th-century brand of romantic idealism” in his youth, “walking that razor’s edge between beauty and terror that Edmund Burke called ‘the sublime.’” His recent essay “Biology, Politics, and Prayers,” written in response to the 2023 premiere of his choral-orchestral Vespers of the Blessed Earth, describes how that view became “untenable” by the turn of the 21st century, eventually replaced by the classic stages of grief. “The only thing I knew to do was to try and voice my grief through music,” Adams writes—music as lament and elegy. (Vespers receives its UK premiere this June with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.)

A particular interest in the soundscape of strings has emerged in recent years. Adams began experimenting with the string quartet relatively late, starting in 2011. Inspired by his collaboration with the Jack Quartet, he has now completed six works in the genre. Quartet No. 5 (Lines Made by Walking) reflects Adams’ response to the contours of the Montana landscape around the Tippet Rise Art Center, which commissioned the work. The Jack’s recording of his Quartet No. 6 (Waves and Particles) is being released in May by Cold Blue Music. The late Robert Black recorded a CD of his solo works for double bass, Darkness and Scattered Light, that appeared last year (also on Cold Blue Music). Adams has additionally commenced work on a piece for 17 solo strings for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, which will be “deployed as widely as possible in three groups—a septet, a sextet, and a quartet.”

The music, Adams knows, won’t heal the world. But it continues to pour forth, just as the questions he formulates continue to press for answers: “The urgent challenge facing artists, and all thinking people today, is this: How do we respond to this unprecedented moment in human history? How can we give voice to our grief? How can we move beyond grief, to solace? And beyond solace, how can we find our way forward, toward the possibility of redemption?”