Music About Climate Change Strikes Provocative Chord

Photos courtesy Lucy Jones
Seismologist Lucy Jones not only is an expert on earthquakes, but also has striven through music to call attention to climate change. She is pictured with a
viola da gamba.

If you have lived in the Los Angeles area for any length of time, you’ve probably watched or listened to seismologist Lucy Jones.
She’s kind of the Dr. Fauci of earthquakes for a lot of us. When she explains what is happening during and after a major earthquake, people listen. She makes earthquakes understandable, and she does it in a manner that people trust.
So when I learned that Jones has written a musical alert to climate change, I figured I should check it out.
You should, too.

You can find it on YouTube. It’s called “In Nomine Terra Calens: In the Name of a Warming Earth” and is played with four viols — bowed, stringed musical instruments — one of which plays the temperature data. The musical and visual mix tracks the temperature from 1880 and includes natural disasters as well as international events that occurred in a particular year.
Jones hopes this music will help people better understand and be concerned about climate change.
The Pasadena resident explained that she is an experimental seismologist, a scientist who looks at data about Earth. She is not an atmospheric scientist, but she can see trends about Earth’s temperature that she finds “terrifying.”
“I am also a musician and I sometimes hear the data,” Jones said in “The Music of Climate Change,” a 2019 online article. “The data is like a graceful minuet accelerating into a frantic jig.”
Jones played cello when she was young, and when she was in college, she joined a group that played music from the Renaissance period. She learned how to play an instrument called the viola da gamba — and she’s been playing this kind of music with this instrument off and on ever since.
The English name for the whole family is viol (pronounced “vile”), and the instrument is not well known — having been overshadowed by violins and also by changes in tastes and politics. The viola da gamba should also not be confused with the modern viola. Renaissance music is that written from about 1400 to 1600, followed by Baroque — where music lovers can find J.S. Bach — which went to about 1700.
We are not going to have a quiz at the end of the column.
“Older music is more temporal,” Jones explained. “The tempo makes sense to me. It’s music that fits the way my brain works. This music wasn’t meant for concert halls. It was meant for sharing with friends. This way I am sharing with my musical friends. I am able to share this with a group.”
Her music is combined with a video that artistically tracks the ebbs and flows of the music and the data. It was first played in 2019 and it has also been played at the prestigious Venice Biennale in Italy. Jones also virtually participated at the Understanding Risk Forum — an annual conference of people involved in disaster risk reduction.
“When we play it, people say, ‘I get it.’ What happens when you play is that you listen to what others are doing. When you play together, you are aware of the data and you say, ‘Now I get it,’” Jones said.
Jones noted that she grew up listening to Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger — folk singers who spread a message through their music.
“We can use music to inspire people to action,” she said. “We can make better use of it. Rock music can bring people together. It’s a shared experience. We should be using music a lot more.”
What she has done with her music about climate is use a consort of viols (or the viola da gamba that she plays) — a small group that was the predecessor of the string quartet — which plays interlocking harmonies. In one style of music for this form, one instrument plays a drawn-out melody and the others play intricate lines around that steady line, called “cantus firmus” or fixed song.
She began composing in 2013 and finished in 2018. Since she started, both the temperature and the music have gone higher — in the case of the music, an extra fifth of the normal range of the viola da gamba.
The music is part of a video that uses the visual and auditory arts to experience the warming Earth. A friend and colleague from the Art Center College of Design, Ming Tai, led a team to create animation of data to go with the music.
The piece ends with one long, very high note, which Jones said is an ending “without direction to represent the uncertain future.”
“We stand at a decision point where the future of the world really rests on our decisions,” she said.
She hasn’t figured out music to describe earthquakes, but Jones said that a piece called “Earthquake Quartet #1” features trombone, cello, soprano and seismograms.
Jones retired from the U.S. Geological Survey in 2016, but kept her appointment at Caltech as a visiting research associate. Her last decade at the USGS was spent leading a multidisciplinary effort to understand the risks from natural disasters and to communicate them to communities at risk. She learned through that process that all of the meteorology-driven disasters are getting more intense because of climate change.
“It became clear to me that the dangers posed by climate change over the coming decades will dwarf what earthquakes can do,” Jones said, noting that climate change does not affect earthquakes.
“To the degree that I can communicate with the larger society, I realized that I could do more good by convincing people we need to act on climate change than acting on earthquakes,” she added. “However, it was only after I stopped being a government scientist in 2016 that I could be more publicly talking about a field outside my own expertise.”
Jones loves to play the viola da gamba, and she and her friends often got together at people’s homes to play. They decided to create a formal group — LA Baroque — and the Rev. Anne Tumulty in 2015 offered St. James’ Episcopal Church in South Pasadena, where Jones is a parishioner, as a home for the outfit. It traditionally does three concerts a year, along with other special events. It also plays at Good Friday services at the church because, as Jones said, Baroque music offers opportunities for “glorious music for Good Friday.”
Jones continues to think a lot about disasters. She has started a nonprofit, the Dr. Lucy Jones Center for Science and Society. A partnership between the center and Caltech prompted her to lead two workshops on how scientists can effectively work with policy makers.
I started my column referring to Jones as the Dr. Fauci of earthquakes. That’s a compliment to both of them.
“I sympathize greatly with Dr. Fauci,” Jones said, “and appreciate his skill in speaking clearly and simply. For both of us, people respond to the expertise and the ability to share it. What is important is that he is giving us the consensus of the scientific research in an easily accessible way. He has a bigger battle than I have ever faced with a concerted political attempt to undermine the science. Only once in my career did I receive a death threat, but Dr. Fauci is dealing with them regularly.”

Editor’s note: Readers can find the mix “In Nomine Terra Calens” by linking to Dr. Lucy Jones on YouTube. A more detailed explanation and the audio-visual presentation is at drlucyjones.com/the-music-of-climate-change.