University City: Confronting Climate Change with Multimedia Chamber Music

In February, a multidisciplinary performance titled “Rising Tide: The Crossroads Project” was hosted at Drexel University’s Mandell Theater. From paintings, to speech, to photographs and chamber music, this project presented a collaboration of pieces that confronted the audience with the urgent state of the planet. 

Throughout this year, Drexel University’s Mandell Theater has planned to curate performances specifically on climate change. The Crossroads Project was one of the first in the series.

“I love it,” said Galen Blanzaco, an audience member who works in marketing and curation at Drexel University’s Mandell Theater. “We react to our environment viscerally, we react to art viscerally so it makes so much sense to blend the two.”

Founded by Robert Davies, a professor of critical science communications and global change at Utah State University, The Crossroads Project was not always the hourlong choreographed and rehearsed performance that it is today. In fact, it’s taken years of trial and error to get the piece to where it is now — 16 years to be exact. 

It all started in Oxford, England, at a bar, with a couple of scientists. 

In 2006, Davies was working with other scientists at the University of Oxford. After work one night, Davies headed down to the local pub where he came across a group of researchers working at the Global Change Institute, right next door to his lab. Davies had a history in meteorology, so their work caught his attention. 

“I just got interested in this gulf between what science understood and what the public understood about climate change,” Davies said. 

Davies began attending more and more lectures and seminars at the Global Change Institute.

What particularly drew him in was the aspect of communication as a counterpart to climate change.

Coming to the end of his position at Oxford, Davies decided to take a year sabbatical to do climate change communication work in his home of Northern Utah. One year turned into two, and eventually he just never stopped. He decided to start giving public lectures on his work. 

“I just hung up a poster one day for my first one, and the local bakery agreed to host it, and I thought like four people would show up … but it was more like 40,” he said. “And after that I just kept getting requests to give talks. This was in 2007.” 

From policymakers to faith-based groups, by 2010, Davies was giving dozens of lectures all around the state. But deep down, he still had a feeling something was missing. 

“What I came to feel is that people were understanding it intellectually, but they weren’t really feeling connected to the information,” he said.“ So, they would just walk back out of my talk into their normal lives, which were generally pretty good. Kind of a small, secure, safe, clean community in Northern Utah.”

Davies realized he needed to find a way to make climate change feel urgent.

”It doesn’t feel like it’s an emergency,” he said. “Even though it is most definitely an emergency.”

A longtime fan of chamber music, Davies began to notice the ways in which music allowed him to unlock ideas and physics puzzles in his head. After attending a number of concerts by the Fry Street Quartet, a professional in-residence string quartet at Utah State University, an idea hit Davies. 

“I wonder[ed] what it would be like if we could put this information in front of people, not in a setting of a public science lecture, but in the setting of a concert,” he said.  

So, he set up a meeting with the Fry Street Quartet. To his surprise, they were in. 

“It was just such a nascent notion,” said Rebecca McFaul, a violinist and original member of The Fry Street Quartet, who recalled her initial reaction when Davies approached the group. “You know, [I felt] excitement … And then worry. How? How are we going to do this?” 

Davies’ work in climate change struck a nerve in McFaul, who claimed she had been haunted by the subject since the early 90s.

However, it wasn’t until Davies walked up to the quartet one night after a show and asked them to collaborate when they really began shifting their focus to issues beyond the concert hall.

To McFaul and her fellow musicians, The Crossroads Project allowed them to shed light on climate change “at a time when it wasn’t comfortable to bring it up,” she said. 

“Because it had been so partisan-ized, politicized … the concert hall felt like a safe space,” McFaul said. 

In 2011, Davies and the Fry Street Quartet gave their first test performance, which was quite different from the one they perform today.

“It was just me speaking for about 20 minutes,” Davies said. “It was then 10 minutes of silent imagery. And then it was the quartet playing some Shostakovich.”

About a year later, while on a flight home from a performance they had given in Curitiba, Brazil, the quartet turned to Davies and said that the performance had the potential to be something special. 

“But what it really needs now is some purposely composed music,” Davies recalled the musicians telling him. 

That’s when they found Laura Kaminsky, who has composed all the music that is now performed as part of The Crossroads Project.

“Oh, it kind of changed everything,” McFaul said, referring to when they first connected with Kaminsky, who lives in New York City. “Laura was involved in the discussions and she knew exactly what we were trying to do with it.” 

Kaminsky had been recommended to The Crossroads Project because of her experience in writing music for performances that shed light on neglected issues.

“Because I care about the world in which I live, my music becomes the vehicle by which I’m able to bring awareness to issues that I care about,” Kaminsky said. “My music can become a place to speak, even abstractly, about those concerns.”

In addition to composed music, Davies was also in search of a visual component. It just so happened that Kaminsky’s wife, Rebecca Allan, was a painter herself.

A painter with a history in horticulture and botany, much of Allan’s work is inspired by watershed environments. Her collection of art includes dozens of acrylic paintings that depict different colors, tones, and shapes of natural environments.

“The desire was to really wrap the visual art together with the music and scientific dialogue in a way that wasn’t separate,” Allan said.

If there was going to be abstract imagery, there had to be real images too, Davies said. So, he reached out to Garth Lenz, a professional photographer, whose work focuses on photographs from the Pacific Northwest and similar environments. 

Lenz’s photographs provide an interesting angle to the show, both figuratively and literally. Many of his images are bird’s eye views of regions that have been touched by climate change, as well as those which have not.  

For audiences, the final product can be profound. 

“It gets us on a deep level,” Blanzaco said. “I would love to see more of this kind of stuff.” 

For Davies, he hopes that the performance will continue to elicit in audiences a sudden realization about how pressing the climate crisis is.

“Everything seems small until it’s not,” he said.

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