Can Music Ever Be Green? An Overview Of The Changing Musical Climate
Updated: May 12, 2020
An edited version of this article can be found in Anthroposhere, the Oxford climate review:
‘Art embodies creative thought. Creative thought is a fundamental part of our participation in creation. It’s also essential to solving the problems of the world, from war and hunger, to extinction and global warming. Amid the daunting realities of our time, the work of artists may prove to be more important than ever.’
- John Luther Adams 
Recent terminological developments including ‘ecomusicology’, defined by Aaron S. Allen as a discipline considering ‘musical and sonic issues, both textual and performative, related to ecology and the natural environment’ and ‘ecoacoustics’, defined by Jonathan Gilmurray as an ‘area of music and sound art which focuses on human engagement with an ecosystem through sound, functioning as a creative response to contemporary environmental issues’ testify to the novelty of this growing field of research. Similarly, a comparative scarcity of serious musical works overtly engaging with climate change affords composers a liberatingly blank compositional page: the great majority of recent pieces by other composers to be found below were not known to me before or during the composition of One Home: An Environmental Symphony in 2015-16.
It might be reasonably assumed that the exoteric musical language demanded of a widely-dispersed musical work of a political nature would lead to a greater number of examples to be found in popular music than any other genre. In his 2015 article Where are all the climate change songs?, BBC journalist Alex Marshall asked why climate change, ‘despite having been a high-profile issue for more than 20 years, hasn't managed to inspire’ huge musical hits. ‘Is the topic just too complex? Too scientific and political?’ Amidst numerous climate-themed songs in the run-up to COP21 arrived the 2015 megastar collaboration featuring Sir Paul McCartney, Sean Paul, Bon Jovi, Sheryl Crow and Fergie entitled ‘Love Song to the Earth’. Marshall posits that among the reasons for the songs’ lack of success is that ‘they are almost unanimously awful’. Following in the footsteps of the similarly collaborative song ‘Beds Are Burning’ released before COP 15 in 2009, it appears that such works in the genre are still on a learning-curve with respect to capturing an environmental Zeitgeist. In co-writing ‘Love Song to the Earth’, Toby Gad recognised a need prioritise positivity in the music and avoid lyrics which were deemed too ‘preachy’ or scientific: the use of ‘climate change’ or ‘global warming’ would have the result that ‘half of America would turn it straight off.’ This is not to say that critically successful examples of environmentalism in popular music cannot be found. Where Marshall points to songs which directly or indirectly reference environmental concerns, including Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ (1970), Orbital’s ‘Impact’ (1996), and Brandon Flowers’ ‘Still Want You’ (2015), Mark Pedelty points to Woody Guthrie's music in The Columbia (1949) a film about the federal hydroelectric dams on the Columbia river, and musicologist Aaron S. Allen discusses Pete Seeger's 1966 album ‘God Bless the Grass’ which follows in the wake of Rachel Carson’s seminal Silent Spring of 1962, and Michael Jackson’s ‘Earth Song’ (1995) amongst numerous other examples. Sir Paul McCartney’s most recent album Egyptian Station (2018) contains the song ‘Despite Repeated Warnings,’ a ‘diatribe about climate change deniers’ overtly critiquing Donald Trump in all but name as a ‘mad captain’ who’s ‘sailing this boat we’re all on and he is just going to take us to the iceberg [despite] being warned it’s not a cool idea.’ But the song’s viewing figures on YouTube currently number in the tens of thousands, in stark contrast with many of his earlier, towering anthems' multiple millions of views. Where many of the songs appearing before the entrenchment of ‘climate change’ in the wider public consciousness may have attained a certain level of success if measured in terms of popularity, more recent songs consciously addressing the topic have not acquired an equivalent standing.
[Update 30.4.19 - a new song entitled 'Earth' by Lil Dicky has now rapidly amassed over 67 million views at the time of writing, following swiftly in the wake of recent global protest movements inspired and driven by individuals such as Greta Thunberg and groups including Extinction Rebellion. The largely animated music video for the song involves at least thirty global celebrities and appears to be aimed at a younger audience. Viewers are encouraged to visit website www.wearetheearth.org at the end of the video, where they can learn about climate change and how to take action, and are encouraged to support the song by watching and sharing it, or buying merchandise, the profits from which 'go directly towards helping the earth.' Whilst sceptics may point to flaws including the extensive use of profanity (a 'clean' version of the song is also available), endorsement of marijuana, sexual references, over-simplifications in the song, such as the lines 'We love you India, We love you Africa, We love the Chinese; Germany, we forgive you,' and the quasi-messianic description and appearance of Leonardo DiCaprio, it is hard to ignore the popular success of the song, the positivity of its website, and the incorporation of direct lines referencing climate change, such as 'there are so many people out there who don't think global warming's a real thing.']
Sir Paul McCartney performing live in October 2018
In contrast, numerous works falling into the broad category of environmental ‘sound art’ have achieved critical (if not necessarily popular) success deemed worthy of further scrutiny and repeated hearing. Standing on the shoulders of acoustic pioneers from Schaeffer and Cage to Westerkamp, composers and sound artists such as Matthew Burtner, David Monacchi, Leah Barclay, Walter Branchi, Andrea Polli, Magz Hall, David Dunn and Douglas Quin amongst many others have produced pieces which variously incorporate everything from submarine hydrophone recordings of Arctic ice melting (Burtner’s ‘Iceprints’ (2009)) to an acoustic transformation of the violin into the sound of a seal (Quin’s ‘Polar Suite’ (2011) written for the Kronos Quartet and utilising Keith McMillen’s revolutionary ‘K-Bow’ technology). Many of the newer works in the genre intentionally aim to reach across geographical boundaries or encourage the global artistic community to engage with new, freely accessible resources online. Self-proclaimed ‘ecoacoustic’ composer Burtner’s ‘telematic’ opera ‘Auksalaq’ (2012) deals directly with impacts of climate change in the composer’s native Alaska, interconnecting live-streamed stages in multiple locations. Australian sound artist and composer Leah Barclay designed ‘Biosphere Soundscapes’ in 2012, with its recordings from UNESCO Biosphere and other reserves forming ‘a platform for artists, scientists and global communities to collaborate and expose the creative and scientific possibilities of sound and acoustic ecology to a global audience’. The public release of a number of 2009 recordings of melting glaciers and icebergs by the UNFCCC formed another powerful artistic tool, leading to the 2015 ‘Iceberg Songs’ campaign as presented at COP21. Among the pieces displayed were works by Trentemøller, Marc House, Chris Buseck and Robot Koch. UNFCCC spokesman Nick Nutall stated that icebergs had ‘become louder over the last couple of decades… today, more than ever, the sounds they make remind me of animals in pain.’
From established canonical works such as Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’, Beethoven’s programmatic ‘Pastoral Symphony’, through the potent and evocative works of Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss and Jean Sibelius, to Olivier Messiaen’s ornithological preoccupations and John Cage’s later manipulations of the sounds of cacti, classical music can claim a long and rich history of interaction with the natural world. In Cage’s ‘Lecture on the Weather’ (1976), the composer subjects writings of American naturalist Henry David Thoreau to I Ching chance operations, randomly allocating excerpts to twelve speakers or instrumentalists whilst various field recordings of natural phenomena are heard and drawings by Thoreau shown. In his preface to the piece, Cage wrote: ‘not only will Earth's reservoir of fossil fuels soon be exhausted: their continued use continues the ruin of the environment.’ A number of contemporary classical pieces to inspire environmental concern in the listener have successfully harnessed the power of natural field recordings, such as Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara’s 1972 masterpiece ‘Cantus Arcticus’, subtitled Concerto for Birds and Orchestra, and Alan Hovhaness’s ‘And God Created Great Whales’ (1970), hauntingly utilising the vocalisations of whales, although again, these can not strictly be seen as a response to the later interpretation of the threat of anthropogenic climate change. British composer Tony Biggin's hour-long ‘Cry Of The Earth’ scored for SATB choir and soloists, actor/narrators and orchestra was first performed at London's Royal Festival Hall in 1990 and has since been revised and performed in the Netherlands. The piece deals with what Biggin calls ‘the most important issue of our lives - climate change and the environment.’ Stephen Albert’s Pulitzer prize-winning ‘Symphony: River-Run’ (1983-4) and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s ‘Symphony No. 4 ‘The Gardens’’ (1999) are discussed by Aaron S. Allen, and Philip Glass’s score to Godfrey Reggio’s gargantuan ‘Qatsi Trilogy’ (1982 - 2002) is also notable. Lesser-known and more recent works which grapple with climate-related concerns include Christopher Tin’s crossover album ‘The Drop That Contained The Sea’ (2014) and Allan Zavod’s ‘Environmental Symphony’ (2015). More overtly popular is crossover artist Ludivico Einaudi’s Greenpeace-backed ‘Elegy for the Arctic’. Inspired by 8 million globally-sourced messages calling for action to protect the Arctic, the Italian’s filmed performance of the piece on a grand piano against the backdrop of the Wahlenbergbreen glacier has to date obtained nearly 10 million views.
John Cage Branches
However, in the post-millennial age, the selection of revered contemporary composers to have explored this territory in large-scale works is few and far between. Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer (b.1933) is known for encouraging a greater awareness of soundscapes, whether resulting from natural processes or living organisms, or from human activities, many of these soundscapes informing a number of compositions, such as the second string quartet or No Longer Than for choir. In a recent interview for Esprit Orchestra, Schafer said ‘I did a lot of work in which the environment is my orchestra… I have great hope for the future that we are going to rediscover the acoustic environment in which we live.’ Rachel Portman (b.1960) and Owen Sheers’ Oratorio ‘The Water Diviner's Tale’ was premiered at the 2007 Proms. Flying the flag for female film composers over recent decades, Portman clearly possesses tremendous musical gifts, but in this work, none of them impressed Telegraph critic Geoffrey Norris, who wrote of the piece that ‘nothing really had the pungency to prick the conscience or make a memorable or moral point.’ In contrast, Michael Billington of the Guardian states that ‘the piece deserves to have a long life in smaller-scale school and college productions.’ British composer Bob Chilcott’s (b.1955) Environmental Cantata with text by Charles Bennett entitled ‘The Angry Planet’ was performed by over 600 singers at the BBC Proms in 2012. Designed to highlight humanity's negligence towards nature through a series of dream encounters, the composer's intention was that the piece should ‘ultimately evoke a sense of hope for the future.’ The Kronos Quartet have worked extensively with Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq (b.1975), alongside other environmentalists such as Canadian composer Derek Charke (b.1974) and aforementioned Douglas Quin. In an article on Tagaq’s work for ‘Artists and Climate Change’, Chantal Bilodeau writes ‘Tagaq’s music is not about climate change. It is so infused with the sounds of her native land, and so rooted in the Inuit culture – both traditional and modern – that it simply is climate change.’ American composer and sound artist Ashley Fure (b.1982) created the otherworldly ‘The Force of Things: an Opera for Objects’ (premiered in Darmstadt in 2016) as ‘an immersive work of music theatre that wrestles with the animate vitality of matter and the mounting hum of ecological anxiety around us.’ In a note on her website, Fure sates that the work ‘has a palpable sense of urgency… [its] moves attempt to train our perception beyond its given boundaries—below the sounds we’re built to hear and through the sensory illusion of stasis that renders us still in the face of collapse.’ Finnish composer Minna Leinonen (b.1977) wrote ‘Sirri’ for Viola da gamba and chamber ensemble in 2018, utilising a powerful Margaret Atwood 2015 text about climate change entitled ‘It’s not climate change - it’s everything change.’ In a note in the score, Leinonen places focus on the purple sandpiper as the first bird in Finland to become extinct as a result of climate change.
But among all contemporary composers known for their preoccupation with the natural world, John Luther Adams (b. 1953) has long been a linchpin. Despite his prior activism, his wealth of environmental discourse and numerous compositions deeply connected to natural forms and processes, Adams eschews categorisation and staunchly opposes description as a creator of political art. Believing that ‘music can contribute to the awakening of our ecological understanding’ and can ‘matter as much as activism’, much of Adams’ work is designed to sit as comfortably with audiences in a national park as in the concert hall. ‘Strange and Sacred Noise’ (1991-98) was inspired by a trip along the Yukon River in which Adams’ recordings of a variety of ‘symphonic’ water and ice formations helped shape the compositional process. Amelia Urry claimed in 2015 that ‘Climate Change just won its first Grammy’ in the form of Adams’ ‘Become Ocean’ (2013) which had already won the Pulitzer Prize for Music and garnered high praise from celebrated critic Alex Ross. In a note in the score, the composer explains that the intentionally ambiguous title derives partly from the idea that ‘as the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again [referring to early forms of life emerging from the sea], we may quite literally ‘become ocean.’’
A performance of John Luther Adams' Inuksuit in 2017
Alongside playing an important role in many recent climate marches and demonstrations around the world, music has been shown to be an effective tool to be incorporated into direct action and non-violent protest efforts. Among numerous recent examples to gain wide press coverage include the Greenpeace-backed collaboration involving the Crystal Palace string quartet and guests joined by Charlotte Church in their ‘Requiem for Arctic Ice’, performed in 2015 in front of the Shell building in London, in protest at the oil company’s drilling activities in the Arctic. In the United States, the Sunrise Movement have reinterpreted protest songs specifically for the climate action movement, with two hundred of their activist members utilising such songs during a sit-in in the office of Nancy Pelosi, resulting in the wider recognition of their stated aim to bring about the ‘Green New Deal.’
But among the unresolved issues for any music claiming to be ‘environmental’ include the resources required for performance, recording, distribution, consumption and even complications involved in the manufacture of certain musical instruments, whilst debate persists over the ecological merits of electronic music stands and iPads against more versatile recycled paper scores. Most music is presently produced, recorded and consumed through electronic devices, each requiring sources of energy. Every element of a device, whether the screen of a smart phone, coil of a microphone, computer chip connector or speaker diaphragm ordinarily originates from the mining, production and transportation of various minerals, rare earth elements and plastics. The long traditions of manufacturing high-end guitars using certain threatened hardwoods, the overuse of Brazilian pernambuco in string bows, and the production of other woodwind and string instruments involving similarly imperilled natural resources have led to environmental groups partnering with instrument makers to safeguard a more sustainable future. Aaron S. Allen asserts that ‘in unwitting ways, musical cultures have contributed to the destruction of the ecosystems on which they depend.’ Counteracting this issue in an imaginative way, the Vienna Vegetable Orchestra (founded in 1998) play plant-based (although electronically amplified) instruments created from scratch for each concert, the remnants of their carrot recorders, eggplant clappers and zucchini trumpets transformed into an edible soup following a performance.
The Vienna Vegetable Orchestra live in 2015
It is not unreasonable to expect that large concerts, recordings, downloads, streams, and music festivals would ordinarily involve a high carbon footprint, with amplified outdoor events also presenting challenges to local ecosystems. In reaction, new initiatives have sprung up, from the Green Music Alliance to the Green Orchestral Charter developed by the Association of British Orchestras, Orchestras Live, Julie’s Bicycle and the British Council, in which groups can pledge to abide by certain recommendations and calculate their footprint. Festivals such as ‘Ear to the Earth’ (see also ‘Live Earth’ from 2007) and labels such as Earthology Records and EarthEar are able to encourage more environmentally-conscientious practices in reducing waste, promoting locally-sourced products, using renewable energy, recycling CD jewel cases and carbon offsetting. Finland’s Lahti Symphony Orchestra are paving the way for other orchestral groups, partnering with a wing of the UNFCCC to enable online ticket purchases which fund environmental projects. Although carbon offsetting remains a controversial solution, the orchestra now aims to make its operations carbon neutral utilising a system based on calculations by Pilvi Virolainen in collaboration with the Environmental Technology unit of the Lappeenranta University of Technology. Large-scale soundtracks for film and television similarly necessitate large quantities of resources, and the energy required for their production. For the studio recording of Steven Price's music for recent Netflix series Our Planet, London-based copyist Lillie Harris went to lengths which one hopes would become industry-standard. Harris prints with recycled paper and natural fibre Scotch tape, using an energy-efficient printer, all hardware running from a 100% renewable energy supplier, the score and parts transferred to the studio using public transport and recycled bags. And record label Decca are catching on. Their album packaging for the release of the soundtrack to Our Planet utilises ‘algae and FSC fibres, Shiro Alga Carta, developed as a way to reprocess the damaging algal blooms of the Venice lagoon into a sustainable paper product.’ Following on from their 2005 ‘green’ Welcome to the Universe tour, the band 30 Seconds to Mars, fronted by actor Jared Leto, went to great lengths to film their music video for the song A Beautiful Lie (2008) on their album of the same name, in the Arctic Circle. In their online manifesto, the band state ‘we are aware of the implications and banal social dangers that could come with making an environmental statement in a music video. But we were compelled and inspired to move forward regardless… we decided that being part of the solution… is better than sitting around and complaining about it… It’s time to try to do what we can, both as individuals and collectively, to find better and kinder ways to live. It’s not our right; it’s our responsibility. We are all guilty. We can all change.’ Calculating that the project had involved the consumption of ‘approximately 250,000 Kilowatt hours, or 350,000 pounds of CO2 emissions, approximately equal to planting 46 acres of trees or not driving 36 cars for one year,’ the band made the commitment that ‘emissions from the energy consumed in connection with producing the music video [would be] offset using Solar Energy Certificates purchased from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation,’ and that ‘the proceeds from downloads would go to an environmental charity.’ It would be interesting to establish the extent to which other bands have been directly inspired to follow suit.
Marco Lambertini, Sir David Attenborough and Al Gore at a special screening of Netflix documentary Our Planet at the World Economic Forum in Davos, January 2019
Other notable artistic solutions include the all-encompassing, immersive, multimedia approach. Icelandic singer Björk's immersive Biophilia project was released in 2011 in the form of apps for tablets and smart phones. Utilising technology to bring its audience more in touch with nature, the work has been used in school curriculums to complement the teaching of music and science, with proceeds from related events funnelled into the foundation of a national park in the singer's homeland. Some groups and bands choose to project their serious message through the lens of a generally positive, enthusiastic musical landscape, such as the Australian group, Formidable Vegetable Sound System. Labelling themselves the ‘world’s most triumphant experiment in ecological electro-funk-swing,’ the entertaining collective espouse the ‘principles of permaculture’ through music, and have toured festivals around the world since 2012. A recent Rolling Stone article also praises the various efforts of a number of other popular artists, including Dave Matthews, Adele, Radiohead, Perry Farrell, U2, Green Day, The Roots, Bat for Lashes, Phish, Neil Young, Sheryl Crow, Cloud Cult, Jack Kohnson, Pearl Jam, Linkin Park, Justin Timberlake, Maroon 5, KT Tunstall, and will.i.am. 
Björk in 2003
In recognising that ‘the work of artists may [in our time] prove to be more important than ever,’ we creators of new art and music must decide for ourselves how best to convey the most important message of our lives in the most convincing fashion imaginable. Perhaps some of the common traits of the more successful examples in the field thus far are those which share an aim to include and involve the audience and participants in an approachable rather than an overly esoteric manner; which incorporate elements of fun and lightness whilst touching on the seriousness of the message and retaining artistic and scientific integrity; and which simultaneously refrain from oppressing the audience and participants with the paralysingly depressing state of affairs in what is now a devastatingly urgent situation. Future performances and recordings can raise their ambition to incorporate some of the green concepts and solutions successfully utilised in the past, alongside providing empowering information for audiences. Such information might include everything from how to change local energy supplier or safely share transportation, consume in a more sustainable manner, lobby political representatives, engage with ideas such as permaculture or upcycling, and become involved in green groups. That there is not one prevailing piece of music or musical group around which a universal audience might be galvanised on this topic should serve to inspire, rather than to discourage, all artists and musicians to use the fullest extent of our skills, combined with a deeper understanding of our audience's psychology, to tackle what remains the greatest threat to all life on earth. Whilst artists and musicians are often viewed as lingering far beneath the more immediately useful scientists, legislators, activists, charity-workers, and engineers amongst many others, on the lower rungs of the long ladder society needs to climb to solve the multitude of challenges posed by climate change, we too can play a significant part.
South Czech Philharmonic performing One Home in 2018
[Not intended as an exhaustive survey of all prior works in a constantly expanding field of musical activity, this brief overview aims to showcase some of the better-known examples, whilst indicating the scale of the task ahead, and encouraging others to explore and participate in a growing and artistically-stimulating space for innovation. The more widespread the seriousness with which the public takes the issue of anthropogenic climate change, and the more rapidly technologies evolve to facilitate greener solutions for entertainment and the arts, the easier it will become for musicians and artists to find their audience.]
1. Adams, J. L., Winter Music: Composing the North, Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.
2. Allen, Aaron S. "Ecomusicology." In The Grove Dictionary of American Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/subscriber/article/grove/music/A2240765.
See also: Allen, Aaron S., and Kevin Dawe, eds. Current Directions in Ecomusicology: Music, Culture, Nature. New York and London: Routledge, 2016. www.ecomusicology.info and a number of other excellent articles by Aaron S. Allen here: https://libres.uncg.edu/ir/uncg/clist.aspx?id=2960
3. Gilmurray, J., Ecoacoustics: Ecology and Environmentalism in Contemporary Music and Sound Art [Online]. Available from http://www.academia.edu/2701185/ECOACOUSTICS_Ecology_and_Environmentalism_in_Contemporary_Music_and_Sound_Art See also Environmental Sound Artists: In Their Own Words, OUP, 2016.
5. Pedelty, Mark. "Woody Guthrie and the Columbia River: Propaganda, Art, and Irony." Popular Music and Society 31, no. 3 (2008):329–55.
7. There are an increasing number of powerful and informative sonic representations (or 'data sonifications') of graphic information about rising atmospheric levels of CO2 (e.g. Lauren Oakes, Daniel Crawford) which might otherwise be included in a similar category, but these lie beyond the scope of this article, which will focus on more directly musical examples.
10. Cage, J., Empty Words - Writings ’73-’78, Wesleyan University Press
12. Allen, Aaron S. "Symphonic Pastorals Redux." In Extending Ecocriticism: Crisis, Collaboration, and Challenges in the Environmental Humanities, edited by Peter Barry and William Welstead, 187-211. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017.
21. Adams, J. L., "Music in the Anthropocene" [online] lecture at Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity (2016) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wWG0zpPOGcQ
24. For the full score, see Taiga Press, musicsalesclassical.com
26. Allen, Aaron S. "'Farro Di Fiemme': Stradivari's Violins and the Musical Trees of the Paneveggio." In Invaluable Trees: Cultures of Nature, 1660-1830, edited by Laura Auricchio, Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook, and Giulia Pacini, 301-15. Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2012.
28. Scientist Rabih Bashroush calculated that five billion downloads and streams clocked up by the song Despacito, released in 2017, consumed as much electricity as Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Somalia, Sierra Leone and the Central African Republic put together in a single year. See: www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-45798523