At TED Countdown Summit and COP26: Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” re-scored for a changing climate

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It has been nearly three hundred years since Italy’s Antonio Vivaldi composed one of the most innovative pieces of classical music of all time: the four-part series of concertos “The Four Seasons.”

Vivaldi drew inspiration from the natural world, trying to capture its essence and give musical expression to flowing waters, singing birds, blowing winds, the crispness of spring days and the frigid chill of winter.

A deeper consideration of the work shows that he also used his music to paint scenes of people’s lives in concert with nature, saluting the spring blossoming, lounging in the lazy hot summer days, celebrating the harvest in autumn — or describing a farmer raising his fist to the heavens after a storm ravaged its crops.

Since 1725, however, the natural world that provided such majestic inspiration to Vivaldi has changed. Humans began to see themselves as separate and superior to nature, and the Industrial Revolution propelled the commodification of it. Looking for inspiration today, Vivaldi would see a world of discordant natural patterns: mesmerizing beauty, but also global heating, wildfires, melting ice, droughts and desertification, floods, rising seas, species extinction, ocean acidification, continuous deforestation and degraded land, water and food insecurity.

Over the last two years, a collective of composers, musicians, computer programmers, scientists and activists has set out to reinterpret the “Four Seasons” for a transformed world, restituting Vivaldi’s score in expected climate scenarios for the year 2050.

The project, titled “The [Uncertain] Four Seasons,” will launch on November 5, 2021, which will be Youth Day at the UN climate conference COP26, with fifteen orchestras from around the world performing a localized variation during a global live-streaming event.

“Each orchestra will perform a slightly different variation, depending on their location,” explains Tim Devine, the executive innovation director of design firm AKQA, which led the project in collaboration with agency Jung von Matt. Because the effects of climate change will be different around the globe, Devine adds, “The score has been altered using a musical-design algorithm that incorporates the latest climate modeling for predicted changes in rainfall, biodiversity and extreme weather events in 2050, as laid out in the IPCC reports.” The high degree of variability in climate impacts is stark in its representation, with some variations bordering on unrecognizable to Vivaldi’s original. In some of the scores, for instance, autumn is almost silent, reflecting a breakdown in agricultural cycles due to changed weather patterns; where Vivaldi imagined and put to music a festive moment around the harvest, in some parts of the world this won’t be the case anymore. Another example: notes that Vivaldi intended to depict birdsong are eerily absent, reflecting projection of declining bird populations and biodiversity collapse in that location.

While the variations are rooted in algorithmic interpretation, each score has also been shaped by composer Hugh Crosthwaite, making each piece a collaboration between artist and data.

The re-scoring also incorporates another climate-related phenomenon: our shifting baseline. Intense storms and thunders appear, for instance, and they repeat, but the repetition “normalizes” them, the way the repetition of extreme wildfires or heatwaves is also slowly becoming “normalized” in our real-life perception.

The result is a hypnotic, disconcerting performance, with the original Vivaldi score as the reference point, including very recognizable segments (think of them as a still-vibrant forest or a normal-weather month), but with climate change erupting in surprising and emotional ways. As in the original, the violin is the main “storyteller,” with the whole orchestra participating in describing the uncertainty brought about by climate change.

Through the performances, the producers are hoping to motivate action, with visitors to the project’s website encouraged to participate in the UN’s Act Now campaign and encourage local leaders to sign the Leader’s Pledge for Nature, aimed at reversing biodiversity loss.

Attendees at the TED Countdown Summit (October 12-15, 2021) in Edinburgh could watch and listen to segments of a pre-recorded performance by the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic (one of which is embedded in this post).

On November 5, “The [Uncertain] Four Seasons” will be officially launched at the COP26 in Glasgow. Fourteen orchestras from around the world, from Brazil to Kenya and from South Africa to Germany, have recorded the piece each in their local variation. A film shown to delegates will showcase segments of all the performances. The same day, the project’s website will make available, and comparable, the full recordings (each about 40 minutes long, as was Vivaldi’s original score). It will also feature introductions by key figures from each region, such as diplomat Christiana Figueres from Costa Rica and filmmaker Damon Gameau from Australia.

“The [Uncertain] Four Seasons,” however, don’t only serve as a warning. The emotional experience wants to motivate action but provides also hope. As Damon Gameau said in introducing the world’s first performance of “The [Uncertain] Four Seasons”, by the Sidney Symphony Orchestra, this is also “a Four Seasons written for a new ecological possibility … because if you listen carefully, there is a new song emerging, a new concerto being written by a growing community that believes we can once again inhabit the world that Vivaldi so beautifully articulated 300 years ago. But we all have a note to play.”

Watch the project’s trailer.