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This St. Louis Composer Created A Climate Change Soundtrack

Washington University composer Christopher Stark's "Seasonal Music" explores the ways our environment is changing. (Dec. 5, 2019)
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Washington University composer Christopher Stark's "Seasonal Music" explores the ways our environment is changing.

A growing number of artists are trying to start a conversation about climate change — without words or data. 

Some, like Washington University composer Christopher Stark, are communicating their anxiety about climate change through music. His newly released string quartet, “Seasonal Music,” explores the ways our environment is changing in real time.

Stark spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Shahla Farzan about his inspiration for creating the piece and the ways art can move audiences to think more deeply about nature. 

On creating music ‘rooted in the American West’

I grew up in a small town on a lake in western Montana called Flathead Lake. It’s this incredibly beautiful, mountainous landscape. I basically lived within walking distance of the mountains, so I spent a lot of time outdoors and in nature. They call it Big Sky Country, but it’s totally true. You feel like this tiny, tiny speck on the planet when you’re there. I think about it all the time. It's really the strongest source for emotional inspiration when I'm writing. 

On observing climate change at home

Western Montana and parts of the Mountain West are warming at a rate that seems faster to me than the rest of the U.S. I recall the first real seasons of forest fires when I was in college, and it was like, ‘OK, this is different now, and it’s every year now.’ The mountains are completely filled with dead trees from these bark beetles that no longer die in the winter because it's not cold enough. You're facing it every single day there. So that idea of being away from home and also home being lost was just really devastating. 

The weirdest thing about trying to be a composer is that your day-to-day life really filters into your work in an intense way. There's a generalized anxiety right now about climate that is finding its way into all my music in some form or another. In [“Seasonal Music,”] it's more explicit. 

Montana's Mission Valley, near Stark's hometown. The Wash U composer has a deep personal connection to nature, from which he draws inspiration.
Credit Collin Stark
Montana's Mission Valley, near Stark's hometown. The Wash U composer has a deep personal connection to nature, from which he draws inspiration.

On the frenetic energy of spring 

I was thinking of this springtime energy, where there's all of this raw material that's spewed out by the planet. It’s like, ‘Here's this idea, and here's this idea, and here’s this idea.’ It has this channel-changing effect throughout, where the musicians pull their strings really hard so that it actually snaps against the wood of the fingerboard. It changes very rapidly until the end, in which there's this single plucked cord, which to me is like this little flower blossoming at the end of all this raging life. 

Listen: Seasonal Music I: Spring

On ‘endless summer sunlight’ 

The string players do a technique where they play two notes at once, but I asked them to play those notes slightly out of tune with one another. It creates a secondary kind of beating effect. This to me is just this feeling of the sun on the back of your neck. I wanted to contrast the sense of totally intense, placid endless summer sunlight with this raucous, abrupt quotation from Vivaldi, which is almost like a flash flood or a storm. 

Listen: Seasonal Music II. Summer Into Fall

On winter and inevitable endings

This piece is supposed to have this sense of a record player skipping on the same groove, almost like it’s slightly warped. This part is actually really intense for me. I wrote it at a time when my mentor passed away very suddenly from cancer. This piece was actually something that I was going to dedicate to him, but I never had a chance to give it to him. This ending for me is kind of an acceptance of that. There's this metaphor for confronting the idea that this is how all things work in our reality. So it's very personal. 

Listen: Seasonal Music III. Winter

On the contribution of art to a larger conversation about climate change 

With some of the broader concepts around nature and climate, the concert hall setting is usually a chance for people to escape some of this stuff. This is just a gentle reminder that this is happening, and it’s serious. We all have to try our best in whatever way, shape or form to contribute, even if it's not as obvious as being able to be a biologist or somebody who can be on the front lines of climate change. 

I think that art can engage the public in a way that other disciplines can't. The most obvious example is the polar bear on the melting ice. That image was shared probably way more than any data was shared about what's happening to our planet. The terrifying nature of what has been presented to us, our brains somehow can't comprehend it. But I think art absolutely can effect change in a way that touches people on a personal level. 

Follow Shahla on Twitter: @shahlafarzan

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Shahla Farzan is a PhD ecologist and science podcast editor at American Public Media. She was previously a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.