Launch of a collaboration between UNSW’s climate scientists and musicians. 
School of the Arts & Media with School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences 

Climate scientists and musicians are collaborating on a new project aimed at going beyond the numbers and connecting with us on an emotional level. They want us to feel more about climate change, and through this, know more about climate change.  

In 2021 scientist and explorer Chris Turney began working with composer Brendon John Warner on an audiovisual work that focused on environmental change, Sounds from the Ice. The current work features field recordings made by Turney during Antarctic research, and compositions recorded by Warner in response.

Inspired by this, UNSW’s Adam Hulbert invited Turney, Warner and UNSW scientist Zoe Thomas (BEES), to collaborate with music and media students in the course Synergies in Sound and Technology. This new project is exciting, not only because it models multidisciplinary collaboration on professional projects, but because it allows students, artists and scientists to all work together to tackle fundamental issues of sustainability at a time where this kind of work could not be more essential. 

Students rose to the challenge of creating meaningful listening experiences from science. Through this project, Screen and Sound student Seo Hyun discovered that “sounds are powerful”, since they can be used to evoke a connection with place. Hyun’s work aims to “take the listener under the ocean, into the deep waters where the peaceful sounds of sea creatures were hidden ... and imagine a world with (and without) these beautiful sounds.” For Chris Turney, the ability of sound to evoke place is one of the most important contributions that arts can provide for the sciences. He explains that scientists “don’t often think about taking people on an emotional journey, which is terrifically important … that’s how we relate to one another, and music is absolutely fundamental to that.” In terms of his own journey, he admits that the discovery of how music can be valuable for encouraging the emotional investment that drives the kinds of change identified through scientific research was revelatory: "I never really thought about it in that way, which is ridiculous (to think), now that we’ve done this project.” 

Zoe Thomas points out that, on the other side, “science is quite often seen as a purely academic construct: bringing music into it is really helpful for sharing that science is for everybody and understanding needs to be for everybody.” Adam Hulbert, who convenes the Sonic Arts stream in UNSW’s music program, expands on music’s ability to communicate the science, suggesting that “once you start researching things it can get increasingly complex, and part of our role as artists is to distill that and make something that can be presented to an audience and have some kind of impact”. Composer Brendan Warner also points out that it can often be difficult to digest information in written form, and so music can help us “understand some of the challenges involved and be empowered to do something about it”. He also hopes to “see action from engaging that larger audience that may not typically be the audience scientists can easily engage”. 

The audio works below each respond to one the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. Specifically: 

  • Climate Action: Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (Goal 13) 
  • Life Below Warer: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development (Goal 14) 
  • Life On Land: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss (Goal 15) 
Professor Chris Turney

Thomas explains that these are “a list of goals for everyone to identify specific actions that need to be taken to ensure the sustainable longevity of things”. Turney reminds us of the breadth of challenge and urgency required, since “they're all fundamentally interlinked, it’s not like you deal with one (goal) and it’s all sorted, you actually need to work on all of these. The current target is 2030, so we have 8 years to turn things around. And that’s a hell of a challenge for society and us. The world desperately needs students ... to be fired up.” 

Diving into these topics, students drew on research provided by Thomas and Turney, along with their own explorations and articles from The Conversation, an academic-backed media site. You’ll find a key article relating to each of the sound works with the projects. 

In working on ways to translate these ideas into audio, Adam Hulbert explains that the course has drawn on ideas from acoustic ecology and soundscape composition, as well as sound design from the arts and cinema, to find compelling new ways to connect music and science. In his opinion: “The sheer variety of student responses—from evocative soundscapes, sonification of data sets and exploration of concepts like ‘quiet activism’—speaks to the personal nature of the collaboration and the rich potential for addressing the call to action of the Sustainable Development Goals.” 

While the works here are in digital form, the longer-term goal is to bring them into the physical world with experiential sound installations. Students work with cutting edge programs used for spatial audio in music and sound design in film and VR to realise conceptually-sophisticated projects. This technology enables composers to create sonic worlds that move around and through an audience. To fully embody the spatial possibilities of these works, when the project is run again in 2022 the resulting installations will be presented in multi-speaker format at the Esme Timbery Creative Practice Lab. 

While there are beautiful and bold soundscapes below, there is also an ulterior motive to all of these works... as Turney reveals: “Hopefully when people listen to it they want to learn more, which is ultimately what we want.”  

So, to that end, we encourage you to listen deeply to these works, to explore the associated articles and resources, and to find ways to bring your own passions to tackle the important call to action of climate science. 

Listen to the students' works:

Sirens of the Seabird
By Cindy Chen

In a cinematic portrayal of seabirds’ migratory journey, Cindy Chen brings our attention to the plight of these ‘canaries in the coal mine’. Her work gives voice to these birds whose future has been put at risk by pollution and industrial fisheries, and shouts for action before it’s too late. A piece in three acts, it begins with calm waters and easy listening. Next, listen out for large flocks taking to the air with bright tones and grandiose music. The composition shifts in the final section as we follow a single bird separated from their flock, its isolation heightened by the absence of music. Over the eerie whistling of cold winds, the loan bird flies past industrial sounds of ships and horns. Bird cries pierce through this cacophony to convey the suffering of these seabirds resulting from human actions. This is the story of life in trouble, and a call to action.  

Chen was inspired by an article in The Conversation, Seabirds are today’s canaries in the coal mine – and they’re sending us an urgent message

Life Below Water
By Jordan Bowling

Anthropogenic ocean noise has steadily risen since the invention of the steam ship in 1807. Perhaps ocean noise isn't the first thing that comes to mind when you think of marine conservation, however the noise created by ship traffic has had a significant impact on the marine ecosystem. In Jordan Bowling’s data-driven composition, we hear the evolution of ocean noise demonstrated through tonal markers. As the total number of ships increases globally over time, so too do the decibels in this work. To consider what we could hear without the ‘ocean traffic’, listen for Chris Turney’s Antarctic recordings of sealions playing in the water, and Adelie penguins scuttling and calling. Most importantly, read the article below for what needs to be done.

Jordan draws from The Conversation article: Companies operating at sea must embrace conservation and sustainability — and not wait to be forced into it.

Silent Places
By Yasmin Malak

Put your ears below the surface of the ocean and what do you hear? As Yasmin Malak was surprised to find out, it’s a tragically changing soundscape that was never meant to be quiet. While we're increasingly filling the oceans with human noise, we're also silencing the natural and vital sounds under water. Like birds on land, sea creatures make sounds to mark territory, find their way home, and entice mates. Human actions are altering the chemical and physical makeup of the environment and the animals themselves. This is impacting their ability to make and hear the sounds essential to their life cycle. In her work, Malak combats the idea that the ocean was silent to begin with, highlighting this vital factor when considering marine biodiversity conservation.  

Yasmin’s work is based on The Conversation article: The silencing of the seas: how our oceans are going quiet

Goodbye World
By Roy

We’re drowning in political soundbites and media noise. Science has been muffled and the voices that should be heard are silenced by the whirling of heavy industry. Who’s to blame? Could it be that science academics have not done enough to reinforce their findings to enact change?  Are scientific reports misused?  

This work focusses on words. Both their political manipulation and their potential for positive change. It also asks you to listen, a quiet yet vital act in the battle over Climate Change.  

Roy references The Conversation article: The climate crisis gives science a new role. Here’s how research ethics must change too

Peaceful Sounds 
By Seo Hyun 

Seo Hyun wants to immerse you in the atmosphere of a vast ocean and form an emotional connection with the mighty Pacific. Pairing a cinematic composition with a written message, this video asks you to consider your personal connection to the ocean and what can be done to prevent further degradation. While researching the topic, Hyun was astonished at how much damage has been done and upset at how little attention this topic receives. At the end of the piece a whale silently questions, do you want to keep hearing these beautiful sounds of our nature, or turn a blind eye to the changes we can be making right now? 

Seo was inspired by the documentary Seaspiracy and The Conversation article: It might be the world’s biggest ocean, but the mighty Pacific is in peril


Zoe Thomas  
Research Fellow 
UNSW School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences (BEES) 

Chris Turney 
Pro Vice-Chancellor (Research) 
University of Technology Sydney 
Formerly, Adjunct Professor 
UNSW School of Biological, Earth & Environmental Sciences (BEES)

Brendon John Warner  
Musician and Composer

Adam Hulbert  
Sonic Arts Convenor  
UNSW School of the Arts & Media (SAM)

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Listen to these tracks and more from UNSW Music.