DJ Spooky Fires Up Cool Sounds of Climate Change

Paul Miller aka DJ Spooky poses in Anarctica
Paul Miller aka DJ Spooky poses during a trip Antarctica, where he found inspiration for a collection of projects that included a book, a music and performance art compositions and a gallery show.

NEW YORK — Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, has traveled to remote, icy places more the realm of polar scientists than musicians. Back at home in downtown New York, he made a similar foray into territory where scientists are common and artists scarce: attempts to communicate climate change.

It's clear climate scientists could use the help. Before presenting his music to an audience at the New York Academy of Sciences here on Monday evening, he noted that prominent Republicans, including two presidential candidates, have questioned the reality of human-caused climate change.

"It's not about information, this is actually about emotion. … Everyone is coming from a radically different perspective, and so art is about perspective," Miller said. "What I want to do tonight is say this is the beginning of a dialogue."

Miller played to a friendly audience at the event — no climate-change skeptics made themselves obvious — and after his performance he participated in a discussion with others dedicated to educating the public about the causes and effects of human-caused climate change. But while the concept seemed to receive a warm reception, the performance left at least a few members of the audience questioning the clarity of the message behind them.


Miller, a musician and performance artist, has traveled to both the Arctic and Antarctic looking for inspiration. Almost four years ago, he went to Antarctica, and as a result, Miller told LiveScience, he created the Terra Nova project, which included Sinfonia Antarctica, a multimedia performance in which he said he seeks to recreate a landscape, interpret data as sound — a process known as data sonification — and create an emotional portrait. His accompanying book, "The Book of Ice" (Mark Batty Publisher, 2011), a project he undertook with help from physicist Brian Greene, has a similar focus.

Accompanied by a violin, a viola and a cello played by members of the Telos Ensemble, Miller used his tablet computer to overlay beats and samples, snippets of recorded music, onto the live strings. Video of snow-covered mountain peaks, kaleidoscope-like patterns and other images accompanied the music on two projector screens.

He discussed and played five pieces with diverse inspirations and connections to climate change that were sometimes difficult to parse based on his presentation.

The opener, called Arctic Rhythms, had been written near the North Pole during a trip Miller took to the Arctic in 2010, while he was trying to figure out the "radical difference" between the planet's northern and southern extremes, he said. [North vs. South Poles: 10 Wild Differences]

A second piece, Ice Sonification, was a hypnotic ode to the mathematics of ice. For the book and the composition, he collaborated with sonification expert Robert Alexander and "came up with ways of basically rendering the molecular structure of ice into algorithms, changing the algorithms into tones," Miller said.

"What you were hearing is essentially an interpretation of this phenomenon that every snowflake is a unique form," he said once the performance, which included evolving, six-sided, snowflake-like patterns, had finished.

With another piece, called Cinematic, and in his book, Miller said he intended to get people thinking outside the box about landscape and politics.

"Antarctica is the only place on Earth with no government," he said. The situation inspired him to create posters in many languages for an imaginary revolution, declaring "Manifesto for a People's Republic of Antarctica."

Plenty of opportunity

A discussion on communicating the science of climate change, moderated by journalist and blogger Andrew Revkin, followed the performance.

Gavin Schmidt, a climate scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, advocated the use of tactile, intuitive techniques to introduce the public to the science. Schmidt said he has revised his own presentations for general audiences, replacing graphs he had once used to convey changes the world is undergoing with other multimedia.

"I would never have heard the whole audience gasp, but if you show a series of 19th-century pictures from all around the world," he said, "and you look at those exact same spots today, where there once was ice fields galore there is now a lake and trees and there is no ice to be seen, and you do that one after another, after another, people have a very emotional reaction to how much the planet has changed." [Album: Glaciers Before and After]

The Arctic and Antarctic, where some of the dramatic effects of global warming are showing up, are places where few humans venture, Revkin pointed out.

"The only connection to these places is through the imagination, so why not have the most imaginative people on Earth be a part of pulling that information back to the rest of us, too," he said.

Much of climate is determined by cycles in the ocean, such as El Niño and La Niña and the decades-long Pacific Decadal Oscillation, so there is huge potential there to envision these changes through sound or other media and demonstrate how they are changing as the world warms, he said.

Irene Nielson, from the New York City office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, said that massive amounts of data collected by government agencies are accessible for these types of projects.  

"There is tremendous potential to identify new ways to communicate with people and certainly make memories," she said, recalling a memorable project she encountered, which turned seismic data recorded during earthquakes into sound.

A difficult job

Miller's music can engage people who have never been to the North Pole or know little about ice crystal formation, according to Christiana Liberis, the viola player for the performance. [Ice World: Gallery of Awe-Inspiring Glaciers]

"It brings a very abstract concept and makes it a little more accessible to people," Liberis said. "He is kind of like a translator."

But not everyone felt grounded afterward.

Jonathan Thompson, a researcher in the mechanical engineering department of Columbia University, who attended the performance, liked the idea of presenting climate change as sound, but felt the execution needed work.

"I'm not sure they have the narrative for it, but it's a good place to start," Thompson said. "It doesn't seem to have one cohesive argument."

Another audience member, Marie-Marguerite Sabongui, who has been involved with a number of climate-change advocacy projects, agreed, comparing the performance to a separate effort she knew of to present climate change as a musical.

"I feel like it's still a little bit too complicated," Sabongui said. While these interpretations might be effective for her, as someone who already cares about climate change, she said she wasn't sure they would work for others who hadn't already accepted its reality.

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Wynne Parry
Wynne was a reporter at The Stamford Advocate. She has interned at Discover magazine and has freelanced for The New York Times and Scientific American's web site. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University and a bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Utah.