Why an unexpected team is giving a famous work of art a necessary makeover
“It reflects the kind of collaboration and cooperation we'll all ultimately need.”
The first movement of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” opens with bright sounds and chirpy violins. It’s one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music worldwide — save for when it was performed by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra in January 2021.
The performance didn’t open with Vivaldi’s bright and happy notes but with a solo violinist under a melodramatic blue spotlight. When the rest of the orchestra joined in, echoes of Vivaldi’s piece were there but transposed into a dark, ominous sound. It sounds like there’s something wrong with this springtime. (You can listen to it here.)
And that’s exactly how Hugh Crosthwaite, a composer who helped write the music for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, wants it to feel — because there is something wrong with our seasons and our planet.
Crosthwaite’s piece is an adaptation of Vivaldi’s called “The [Uncertain] Four Seasons.” This version, created with input from climate scientists, composers, and the advertising agency AKQA, was written by an algorithm that tweaks the original score to reflect the intensity of the climate crisis.
In this version, Vivaldi’s chirping violins (meant to represent birds) are silent or erratic depending on the number of birds projected to die off. The “summer storm” played by violins at the end of the summer section is dark and repetitive — a sign that Sydney may play host to intense storms if humanity remains on track to surpass 1.5 degrees Celsius in global temperature change, the infamous “tipping point.”
“There are moments of beauty when I feel some sadness about the way the world is going.”
If that tipping point is reached, every place in the world will experience different kinds of climate catastrophe, from flooding to drought. There’s an “[Uncertain] Four Seasons” score for every city in the world that reflects those conditions thanks to a uniquely designed algorithm. The piece played by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra is intended to reflect local devastation — intense storms but only moderate sea level rise compared to places like Shanghai, which will be almost completely submerged.
The piece is intended to evoke some “frustration, some anger, some fear,” Crosthwaite tells Inverse. “There are moments of beauty when I feel some sadness about the way the world is going on this particular issue.”
If Vivaldi was living on the brink of a climate apocalypse, “The [Uncertain] Four Seasons” is what he might have written. It took a composer, an algorithm, and decades of climate data to get the sounds just right.
The dream — It’s increasingly evident that art is a powerful way to convey the gravity of climate change. For example, a 2019 paper published in the journal Environmental Communication found that when people read climate fiction (science fiction about climate change), they immediately feel more worried about how climate change will impact their own lives — though that effect diminishes after a month.
The challenge, then, is making a more lasting impression. Tim Devine, the executive creative director at AKQA who has headed the “[Uncertain] Four Seasons” project, has personally been moved by climate fiction (especially Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future.) In late 2020, he became interested in translating climate change into music with the ultimate goal of getting more leaders to sign the Leaders Pledge for Nature: an agreement to reverse a loss of biodiversity by 2030.
The project wasn’t for a client, says Devine, and was funded by AKQA, Monash University’s Climate Change Communication Research Hub, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.
Through music, Devine hoped to achieve a more “visceral” experience of climate data by taking the familiar sounds of the four seasons and perverting them — similar to how climate change is already perverting weather patterns around the world.
“The original ‘Four Seasons,’ on the surface, is about weather, but it’s actually about how we experience the world and our response to the environment,” Devine tells Inverse. “We wanted to revisit that idea using climate prediction data.”
Devine’s ultimate goal was to create a version of “The [Uncertain] Four Seasons” unique to every city or orchestra that requests a score. For instance, there are variations for Anchorage, Alaska, The National Symphony Orchestra of Colombia, or the Angkor National Youth Orchestra.
That’s too big of a job for just one composer, so he turned to an algorithm capable of contorting the original symphony based on climate data.
The team — Devine has a background in music and computer programming, but he worked alongside programmers at AKQA, David Holmes at the Monash University Climate Change Communication Research Hub, and Crosthwaite to create the piece for the Sydney Symphony.
Holmes and a team at Monash University helped select the future the symphony would project. The climate data plugged into the algorithm and reflected in the piece is based on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s worst-case scenario for climate change, which means that emissions continue to rise throughout the 21st century — a trajectory known as the Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 8.5.
The RCP 8.5 scenario describes a world where global coal consumption increases by 500 percent, no climate mitigation policies are enacted, and about five degrees of warming occur by 2100. It’s not a pretty picture. It’s also, perhaps, not a perfectly realistic one.
Some scientists argue the RCP 8.5 is increasingly unlikely. For instance, it assumes global coal consumption will drastically increase over the century, yet between 2018 and 2020, it declined by seven percent. Coal use could still bounce back in the remaining 80 years (and might uptick in 2021 as the world emerges from the pandemic), but the International Energy Agency’s 2020 report predicts coal use is still projected to flatten out by 2025 before being surpassed by renewable energy sources.
However, RCP 8.5 isn’t too far off either. Other scientists point to the fact that cumulative global CO2 emissions, a key metric that determines warming, still fit best with the RCP 8.5 compared with other less catastrophic projections.
The Monash team’s job was to help the musicians understand what this doomsday scenario would actually look like in Sydney. That would mean hotter summers and more violent storms.
From there, Crosthwaite and Devine had to make musical choices that would accurately portray that doomsday scenario through sound. For instance, discussions between Crosthwaite and Devine resulted in the addition of percussion to the piece (Vivaldi’s has none) — a way to better highlight the piece’s drama or, as Crosthwaite puts it, take the audience on an emotional journey.
Crosthwaite's skill as a musical copy editor also served the project. Between November and Christmas, he poured over the algorithm’s scores for the Sydney Orchestra, checking for small mistakes. The algorithm did a good job, he says, but he ensured the parts were actually playable — algorithms don’t know how fast human hands can move — and that a composer had all the information needed to interpret the feel of the piece.
“I was really trying to accentuate and build on [the algorithm’s] ideas so that it reflected what I felt would be the clearest expression,” Crosthwaite says.
“Is that breaking the mold?”
How they stayed connected — The team members were all based in Australia, which led to a tight collaboration and, at times, productive debate over certain aspects of the piece. In particular, there was discussion over how the piece would start and end, Devine says.
In Vivaldi’s original piece, the whole orchestra plays from the very beginning. In the Sydney Symphony's “[Uncertain] Four Seasons,” a soloist opens and closes the piece. The idea of a soloist opening the piece was Crosthwaite’s idea.
The solo is still somewhat influenced by the algorithm. The soloist’s tone is somber, foreshadowing the transformation of the happy spring movement into a minor key signaling tension and grief. But the solo is still one of the only pieces of music in the “[Uncertain] Four Seasons” composed by a person. It’s not a perfect reflection of climate data.
“We had to, as a team, decide if we wanted to have a solo. Is that breaking the mold?” Devine says.
“Tim and I had some back and forth about that,” Crosthwaite adds. Ultimately, the team decided the solo actually served as an entry point for the listener. The lonely soloist provides someone for the audience to identify with before they become caught up in the symphony’s chaotic portrayal of climate change.
“It's not a positive story, so we wanted to express a concept of isolation — a type of loneliness,” Crosthwaite says.
What shorthand did they use? — The original “Four Seasons” is what’s known as a “tone poem.” The sounds of the symphony are supposed to be shorthand for the feelings of spring (though Vivaldi also wrote sonnets for each movement to help reinforce his points).
The adapted version of the “Four Seasons” takes Vivaldi’s original musical ideas and uses data to give them new meaning.
For example, the algorithm drops notes from sections of music intended to represent birdsong, a representation of a loss of biodiversity. If climate data indicates future drought, the sections of music supposed to represent flowing rivers are slowed down. The greater the lack of rainfall predicted, the slower that section of the piece becomes.
Any city that inputs its climate data into the algorithm will get a different score that reflects local conditions. For instance, Shanghai’s version of “The [Uncertain] Four Seasons” has significant changes to the autumn section of the piece, Devine explains. The Shanghai Orchestra has been invited to perform the piece at the UN Climate Change Conference, known as COP26, in Glasgow, but the orchestra hasn’t confirmed whether it will accept the invitation.
Vivaldi’s piece depicts autumn as the most social season of the year, filled with harvest festivals, hunts, and gatherings. Sea level rise predictions for Shanghai threaten to leave the vast majority of populated areas underwater by 2100. As a result, all the notes representing human interaction are removed in the Shanghai adaptation of the piece.
“Maybe there won’t be that amount of joy and celebration,” Devine says of the Shanghai adaptation. “It will be severely disrupted, so we removed notes from that section.”
“It reflects the kind of collaboration and cooperation we’ll all ultimately need.”
Why collaborating was so important to the mission — “The [Uncertain] Four Seasons” is more a massive translation project than it is a piece of art.
The “nitty-gritty” of climate predictions helped give the composers a picture of what the world would look like in 2050. The piece incorporates data on soil moisture, ocean surface temperature, and biodiversity, but all of that data is intended to actually say something about what life will be like. A decline in soil moisture, for instance, actually could lead to lower crop yields and food insecurity. Hotter ocean surface temperatures might lead to more storms. The data tells a story. And that story, through the work of AKQA, the algorithm, and Crosthwaite has transformed music.
The combination of expertise, Crosthwaite says, was just as much a metaphor for humanity’s fight against climate change as the piece itself is. “I feel like it reflects the kind of collaboration and cooperation that we'll all ultimately need in order to resist the damaging impacts of climate change,” he says.
Did they achieve it? — For now, “The [Uncertain] Four Seasons” has only been performed once by the Sydney Symphony. The piece, like many classical music performances, had only been rehearsed once or twice before the show.
Still, the performance struck a chord with critics in Australia or, at least, made its point. It earned four out of five stars in Limelight Magazine — though the reviewer quipped that more elements of the music should have been warped by the algorithm to better portray climate apocalypse as opposed to “ongoing decay.” The Sydney Morning Herald gave it 3.5 stars and noted, in a headline, “Point hammered home as SSO turns Vivaldi into a climate change call.”
There’s one section of the piece that particularly stands out to Devine. During the summer movement, Vivaldi’s original piece creates a musical depiction of a summer storm.
Devine calls it a “textured” piece of music that’s “fast-paced, loud, and swirly.” The Sydney Symphony’s version transposes that summer storm into a different musical mode (a mode is a musical scale comprised of only the white notes on a piano, which can evoke certain musical feelings, like unease). The result is a darker, more sinister sound that repeats over and over again in reference to increasing summer storms on the horizon.
The effect is that the sound almost becomes boring, Devine admits, but that’s the point.
“We wanted to give people a sense that if they don't do what we need to do, this will become normalized,” he says.
“[It] has the capacity to capture people’s imaginations.”
What’s next — “The [Uncertain] Four Seasons” project is far from done. There are, in theory, as many versions of the music as there are coordinates on the planet. Devine and Crosthwaite are fielding inquiries from orchestras all over the world who are looking to perform their own local version of the piece.
Devine says he’s spoken to orchestras in Kenya, Iceland, and Scotland, among others. Crosthwaite has fielded inquiries from musicians in Europe who are looking to get their hands on a score. The goal is, eventually, to get 30 to 50 orchestras playing the piece during the opening day of the United Nations Climate Change Conference in November 2021. Each orchestra would play their version of the piece at sundown, creating a continuous stream of music.
The music tells a dark story, but the fact that people are playing it is galvanizing in itself, Crosthwaite says.
“People who live thousands and thousands of kilometers apart have to try and make constructive changes to the way that we live as a species,” says Crosthwaite. “This project has the capacity to inspire or to capture people's imaginations.”
DREAM TEAMS is a series from Inverse that takes a look back at the greatest team efforts of the 21st century and what they mean for our ability to collaborate in the future.