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Arts & Culture

Hearing and Seeing Climate Change, Through Music and AR

Performance at The Clarice and its Virtual Reality Element Bring Listeners to Chesapeake Bay

By Sala Levin ’10

Hoopers Island

The causeway that connects Hoopers Island in the Chesapeake Bay to Maryland's mainland inspired composer Alexandra Gardner to consider the impact of climate change on this part of the state. On Sunday, her Chesapeake Bay-influenced musical piece will be performed by the Tesla Quartet at The Clarice as part of "Rising Tides."

Photo by Jay Fleming

On a precariously narrow two-lane roadway, bordered on both sides by water lapping nearly at the asphalt surface, a string ensemble performs, seemingly oblivious to its surroundings.

That’s because the four musicians of the Tesla Quartet aren’t really performing on this causeway, which leads to Hoopers Island—three watermen’s villages perched in the Chesapeake Bay off the coast of Dorchester County. They’re there thanks to augmented reality (AR) which blends the virtual world with the physical one, to tell a musical story about how climate change is ravaging this part of Maryland.

On Sunday, The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center will present “Rising Tides,” a new musical performance comprising a series of commissioned pieces reflecting how the state of Maryland, especially the water-centric Eastern Shore, is seeing communities, farmland and public infrastructure increasingly succumb to rising sea levels and other consequences of climate change. Concertgoers can watch and listen to the pieces in AR through the app ImmerSphere, which places the musicians in the spots that influenced the composers.

Richard Scerbo, artistic planning program director at The Clarice, said he has long been considering “how the music that we’re programming here at The Clarice can have an impact on our communities and speak to social issues of our time,” he said. “Climate change has been on my list.”

So he, along with the Tesla Quartet (who are being presented as part of The Clarice’s Visiting Artist Program), approached Maryland-based composers Alexandra Gardner and Adrian B. Sims ’22 to see if they might be interested in writing pieces that spoke to the impact of climate change on the Chesapeake Bay and the people who live on its shores. “The project sounded right up my alley,” said Gardner. “A lot of my work is inspired by the natural world and natural sciences, and of course I’m concerned about climate change.”

The timing was serendipitous: Gardner and her friends had recently visited Hoopers Island and been struck by the proximity of the water to the skinny causeway that connects the islands to the mainland. “It was a really sobering experience to drive out there and see the ditches beside the road as you approach the island full of water on a dry summer day,” she said. “We were like, ‘Wow, what’s it like to drive this when it’s actually raining, or at night when there’s no light?’”

[The Tides That Bind]

Gardner’s piece is made up of three movements, titled “Causeway,” “Ceremony” and “Ghost Pines.” Each is inspired by a location on Hoopers Island, locations that can be seen—and heard—through ImmerSphere. In the app, the Tesla Quartet’s music is complemented by the ambient sounds of the environment surrounding them: the gentle splashing of water, the whoosh of wind through tall grasses, or the eerie silence of a pine forest whose trees have been killed off by saltwater encroachment.

The “Ghost Pines” movement is “noisy and scratchy,” Gardner said, echoing “what I imagine (is) the sound of a tree having the nutrients sucked out of it.”

Gardner hopes that the performance—and its AR/VR component—will encourage people to face the issue of climate change in the state. “People often don’t realize there’s a problem until they see it or are in it, so this is a way to immerse people in this environment so they can experience a little bit of it, or a feeling of it, even if they can’t actually be there,” she said.

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