Jamie Perera is a singular artist who combines science and music production to create something entirely unique. The Erased Tapes collaborator and composer is one of three people behind the concept of the ‘Climate Symphony.’ Jamie and his colleagues asked the question, “What would 12,000 years of collected climate change data sound like if it was converted into a symphony?” We talked with Jamie about the concept and the music in this exclusive interview for Primare.
Jamie Perera, you are one of three creators of ‘Climate Symphony’ together with Leah Borromeo and Katharine Round. How did you all come up with this idea of creating a symphony based on climate change data?
-The idea came from co-directors Leah and Katharine in late 2015 – Leah attended a hack day at The Centre for Investigative Journalism (CIJ) where she had the idea of telling stories through sound, and brought the idea to the studio with a focus on climate change. I should make it clear that sonification — the technique that Climate Symphony uses — is not a new idea, many have done it before and it appears across many disciplines in both science and art. However I think we were lucky in our approach; I’m the composer producer of our team, but there’s a different head that comes with film directing, journalism and art, which are Katharine and Leahs’ fortes. I think coming from a multidisciplinary perspective from the outset, whilst fiercely critiquing our process, led to a really good response to the initial piece that in turn led to it being picked up by one of the Serpentine’s programmes.
On what climate change data is the symphony based on?
– Climate Symphony is made up of around 20 climate data threads from 12,000 years ago to the present day: earth system trends like atmospheric Co2, surface temperature anomalies & sea level rise. Then socio-economic trends like world population growth, fossil fuel consumption & GDP. And finally we represent anthropogenic events like the origin of farming, the Industrial Revolution and The Great Acceleration.
What was the working process on converting 12,000 years of climate change data into a symphony?
-It’s been a 5 year journey, with lots of short works that play with different variables within the practice. I also worked with other types of data and objects – mathematical proofs with Marcus Du Sautoy, sonifying the lies of Donald Trump with Leah for Cafe Oto (that was a fun one), highlighting data privacy issues in an evolving soundscape for an exhibition with Tactical Tech / Mozilla, and more. We ran a number of Labs with Forma Arts in which climate scientists, data scientists and sound artists interrogated the value of what we were doing, and had a go at applying sonification techniques themselves. Personally the process has been influenced by a PHD proposal, which I completely failed at, but it forced me to read past papers on sonification, see where my practice lay within my findings, and develop a set of basic rules for ‘creative’ sonification. Expressing objects in sound can help reframe complex issues.
The climate change symphony was supposed to premier at CPH DOX on March 22nd, where a 10 piece orchestra would perform the Symphony. What has been the hardest and greatest experiences setting this up?
– We were very lucky to get on the CPH:LABS programme, where we pitched the idea for sonifying the entire Holocene / Anthropocene. In December 2019, we heard that we had been selected for CPH:DOX, and all of the sudden the pressure was on to create a 40 minute piece for orchestral performance, with an accompanying film, in 3 months! It was an absolutely massive jump in scale. Suddenly I was enlisting the help of a programmer to convert thousands of data points (thank you Adrian Lewis), an orchestrator to help convert midi to score (thank you Dan Keen), and liaising with a conductor and Denmark’s Underholdningsorkester to figure out how we were going to do this live.
– For me personally it was one of the hardest things I’ve done, because I was consistently having to reassess methodology to be true to the data and the issues behind the data, whilst trying to make something that still sounded accessible. I’m very, very happy with the result, which will premiere at some point – it will hopefully be at the next CPH:DOX to which I’d very much like to invite anyone who reads this!
-The greatest thing to have happened took me completely by surprise. Sonification’s scientific use is turning data / objects into sound for analysis, hence understanding comes from listening. I had been in a pressure cooker trying to make a piece of music out of the Holocene / Anthropocene, and had somehow forgotten that it was a learning process in itself. The big thing for me was starting to understand how our species fell into lazy exploitative extraction, then created myths to justify the suffering it caused, and, more positively, how rapidly our awareness is changing to combat that inertia. Whether we see it or not, we are all in the stages of ecological grief, with links to this inertia… this consistent, inherited, systemic trauma. Doing this project helped me to see it and respond.
You’ve also worked with Ukrainian Lubomyr Melnyk on the respected label ‘Erased Tapes’, how did that come along?
-Lubomyr gave me my first and only piano lesson at Cafe Oto in London! We became friends, and he came to the studio one day to jam. That jam turned into parts of a co-produced, co-composed album ‘Rivers & Streams’ and a number of truly terrifying improvisational performances! Part of my work is very much in the style and ethos of Erased Tapes, so it was an easy fit. I hope to do more work with him soon.
How would you label yourself in regard to your wide spectrum of works?
-At the moment I have no idea. I’ve taken off any sort of definition on my website because I can’t figure it out! On my bio it says that I like to work with relevant sound in meaningful ways — that sort of covers it, and sort of says artist as well as composer.
What is the most essential part in your productions?
-Logic Pro X, my Roland RD-700 keyboard and space to think.
Give us 3 pieces of music you could not live without?
This is such an unfair question haha! Off the top of my head right now:
Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich
It Never Changes To Stop by The Books
Wulfstan II by Beak
What is music for you and where is your favourite space to consume it?
I’m hearing a lot of music in liminal sound at the moment. That is things like the vibration of a power station hidden behind trees, voices echoing in a museum, the sound of a playground from far away. I quite like sound that turns into music at the edge of consciousness, so I suppose my favourite place to consume it is both in unexpected places and in my head.
You have spent some time in Scandinavia, what’s your favourite part of our culture?
Ha! There is so much, but I still feel very blinkered by my experience. I like: Swedish breakfast conversation, Norwegian day ski-ing, Copenhagen lunch (and just anything to do with furniture), and Finnish Smoke Sauna. In general the Scandinavian tendency to not completely break down when there’s a bit of snow is very different to the UK’s way of handling it, and very admirable.
You have one sentence to change the world, what would it be?
To get back in sync with the planet and our own altruistic nature; we need to work together to flatten the curve of our colonial legacy and its perpetuated myths.
Thank you Jamie for taking your time for talking to us at Primare!
You are welcome and hope to see you all in Copenhagen once this covid-19 is over!
Album with Lubomyr Melnyk & Jamie Perera
Written by Marcus Schössow