What is the sound of a dying planet? With live visuals and musicians from the Danish Chamber Orchestra, directors Leah Borromeo, Katharine Round and Jamie Perera re-imagined the Anthropocene as a four-part symphony composed from climate data. The effect is both haunting and beautiful.
We caught up with Leah Borromeo to find out what inspired Climate Symphony, its mission and what their plans are next.
Leah Borromeo (left) and Katharine Round (right) – Disobedient Films.
Tell us about you and Climate Symphony – what’s your mission?
My name is Leah Borromeo and I’m a journalist and filmmaker. I work with another filmmaker, Katharine Round and the composer Jamie Perera on Climate Symphony. It started as an idea conceived for a journalism hack day hosted by the Centre for Investigative Journalism. The objective was to find new ways of telling climate stories and our point, at the time, was to see if we could use sound as a narrative and reporting device.
When the idea won the hack day, I immediately phoned Katharine and Jamie to see if they would be up for helping make this into a “thing”. That’s how it started.
The mission hasn’t really changed – although we have added visual and experiential elements to the original concept. We work within a niche realm called data sonification – a bit like data visualisation but with sound. Our aim is still to tell stories with sound while staying true to the data.
Jamie Perera, one of the three directors of Climate Symphony.
What drives you?
The knowledge that we are working in an area that not many people have worked in is a strong motivator. The idea that we are injecting new concepts into how people tell stories is also a driving factor. Being challenged and making something new from seemingly abstract datasets is also cool.
What is your greatest achievement to date?
Working with one another and getting the concept out to wider audiences has been fun, but the greatest achievement has been to open up people’s minds as to what narrative can be constructed of.
What are the challenges you face?
A lot of what we do is still a little bit out there for some people. Although the general response has been “ooh cool”, I think we still need to massage the concept so that the general public will be able to understand it. A journalist colleague once asked me “what’s wrong with words and pictures?” and that’s the kind of thinking I feel I need to address. I can’t speak for Katharine or Jamie when it comes to what their individual challenges are, but I do know that one of our biggest collective challenges is to keep smoothing the concept into something elegant with each iteration.
What are you working on that’s getting you fired up and excited?
We are currently looking at decades worth of data from a little old lady in the middle of England. She took a variety of weather occurrences recordings from her back porch. That’s not weird to get excited about, is it?
Where do you want to take Climate Symphony next?
Ideally, we will find a sustainable way to take the concept and the show to countries in the global south and around the world – we would like to tell climate stories using localised data and narratives. We would like to be able to, eventually, make data sonification as pervasive as data visualisation – and see how it can be used as another way to bring focus on lesser told but important narratives.
How is what you are doing inspiring change in others?
These days, the only change I’m doing is the diaper change (and I try to get my partner to do as much of that as possible!). In all seriousness, though, I find it’s a bit big-headed to talk about how inspirational we are. The effect of what we do can be immediate – thanks to the feedback and contacts we have received from our shows and as a result of people hearing about what we do. That is, obviously, satisfying and scratches a bit of the ego now and again! But ultimately, it isn’t about us inspiring change. It’s about individuals taking small steps together in the fight against climate change.
Can you recommend a life- or game-changing book and useful website for our readers?
“The Lorax” and “Tango Makes Three” for the books.
http://xkcd.com for the website – because an off-centre sense of humour is always useful.
An example post from xkcd.com
What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?
It’s not really advice but something I read as a teenager that stuck with me was Samuel Beckett’s “Worstward Ho!” and its memified quote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
I take it as pretty good advice as I’m a pessimistic optimist; I accept that there’s a great deal of absurdity to our existence but, haplessly or helplessly, I still try to make sure that what we do in life is kind and loving.
Who inspires you the most and why?
Nobody famous or Googleable… But each time I look at this person, I see someone who has overcome one of the hardest challenges in life. They continue to be a kind and creative person despite other challenges at home. They probably don’t even know that they inspire me and I’m not about to out them – but my life is 100% better for having known them. That’s the honest answer. The expected answer is my mom, my child and Paul Robeson, an American singer, actor, and political activist.