Carbon Song Cycle

Carbon is the backbone of life on Earth. The fourth most abundant element in the Universe, carbon is the core component of the molecules that make us and a vital source of energy + fuel. But as rising atmospheric carbon levels have become inextricably linked to global climate change—undoubtedly one of the most serious problems facing our planet today—the ecologically conscientious among us have been forced to critically re-evaluate our relationship with carbon. 

In an effort to explore this increasingly complicated relationship, visual + media artist Christina McPhee and composer + media artist Pamela Z have teamed up to create Carbon Song Cycle: a multimedia chamber piece + multi-channel video installation interweaving scientific visualizations of climate data with documentary footage.

Carbon Song Cycle // first performed at at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, April 2013 [Image: Christina McPhee]

Through a series of carbon-exchanging reactions, carbon flows between carbon-storing reservoirs—rocks, the ocean, the atmosphere, plants, soil, and fossil fuels—and carbon-consuming plants + animals in what is known as the carbon cycle. Since the early 2000s, McPhee has become increasingly fascinated with this cycle as the inspiration for much of her work. On the inception of Carbon Song Cycle, Z mentions:

Christina kept talking about how she was interested in the carbon cycle. And I said, “Well, what if we make a song cycle about the carbon cycle and call it Carbon Song Cycle.” And we both laughed at that, and then realized: “Wait a second, that’s really good!”

Our climate relies on this delicately balanced dynamic exchange of carbon to ensure that carbon levels are kept in check. Changes in this carbon cycle impact carbon levels within each reservoir. Atmospheric carbon gases are instrumental in regulating Earth’s life-sustaining temperature, while ocean carbon stores regulate pH levels vital for ocean life. But over the last century, humans have thrown this delicate balance out of whack, releasing mass amounts of ancient, stored carbon into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels and rapidly destroying much of the plant life that absorbs + transforms carbon dioxide through photosynthesis.

The global carbon cycle // yellow numbers indicate natural fluxes + red indicate human contributions in gigatons carbon per year, white numbers indicate stored carbon [Image: US Department of Energy]

Carbon Song Cycle uses the musical form of the song cycle not only to parallel the journey of carbon cycling through a landscape, but also to evoke a sort of tension between manmade + naturally-occurring ecological forces, mirrored through the visual composition. On the footage utilized within the piece, McPhee notes:

When I moved to California, I began shooting seismically active sites and then began looking at geothermal sites and petroleum fields. I had footage from these places that are hard to shoot—oil fields where they chase you off if they see you. These are dynamic landscapes where the biosphere and high-tech energy production are in an explosive mix—like petroleum fields literally right in the middle of the Salinas River bottom.

Intertwined with these documentary images are animated scientific visualizations + live hand-drawn renderings of climate change data courtesy of the interdisciplinary scientific journal Nature Climate Change, the NOAA, and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. On integrating this data into her video composition, McPhee adds: “We as artists can take this material and move it to a bit of a different context so it becomes legible in a slightly different way that’s more open and allusive—alluding to data and alluding to research.”

Architectural multiscreen video from Carbon Song Cycle // first performed at Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, April 2013 [Image: Peter Cavagnaro]

The song cycle itself consists of 10 movements scored for voice with live processing, bassoon, viola, cello, and percussion. Within the accompanying sound design, Pamela Z additionally features audio from interview recordings with McPhee, probing her preoccupation with the carbon cycle, and Stanford scientist Dr. Richard Zare, delving deeper into the chemistry of the cycle. According to Z: 

My way of starting any project is to record interviews and take fragments of those recordings to build text collages for the musical part of the composition. I also am very interested in scientific data and lists—aesthetically I like their sound, their language. You’re using some fragments of language, but the listener gets all kinds of other insights that you’re not necessarily putting in there.

Through this cyclical layering and re-layering of multiple forms of content, Carbon Song Cycle offers audience members an immersive + dynamic performative experience. The listener // viewer becomes free to take some form of authorship in their own experience of the work to perhaps draw their own conclusions on what is being presented + why. McPhee shares:

The most amazing thing we have found is that audience members are finding their own trajectories of query within the work. When we showed it at Berkley Art Museum, people came up to us saying, “We learned so much from your presentation.” And we laughed because we weren’t trying to teach anything explicitly. But the audience is teaching themselves through this experience. It’s a non-didactic teaching, and a really great outcome of our effort.

New Yorkers can catch Carbon Song Cycle for themselves Wednesday, November 20th, 8pm @ Roulette, a center dedicated to presenting experimental music, dance, and intermedia // buy your tickets here!