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Classical tune illustrates the loss of humpback whales

A Cambridge team has developed a new way to highlight the demise of nature – and people are listening. Driven by the observation that human activities are silencing nature, Dr. Matthew Agarwala is using sound to convey the enormity of biodiversity loss. The goal is to draw attention to species recovery.

“Over the past century we have seen nearly a million species pushed to the brink of extinction – nature is going quiet,” said Agarwala, an economist at the University of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy. 

The collaboration with composer Dr. Ewan Campbell is capturing the attention of new audiences. A piece of classical music, Mendelssohn’s ‘Hebrides Overture,’ is linked to the loss of an iconic species: the North Atlantic humpback whale.

Inspired by his 1829 trip to a sea cave – Fingal’s Cave – Mendelssohn’s original music captures the vitality of the sea just before the introduction of mechanized industrial fishing.

The 30,000 notes in the original music score is the approximate number of humpback whales in 1829, when the piece was written. Extensive commercial whaling led to a dramatic decline in the whale population. 

By 1920, two-thirds of all humpback whales were gone. The resulting piece, ‘Hebrides Redacted,’ is a dramatically simple way for audiences to grasp the enormity of biodiversity loss over time.

Researchers have long been sounding the alarm on biodiversity loss, but the message isn’t landing. The project relies on the visceral and emotional response to music that grabs attention in ways that scientific papers do not.

A short film about the music and its impact on audiences has been released online as part of the Cambridge Zero Climate Change Festival. The audience response was overwhelmingly positive – and the piece received a standing ovation.

“It really was an uninitiated audience at the Wilderness Festival – people were there for a good time, not to be told that the world is falling apart through the medium of music from the 19th century. But somehow it worked,” said Dr. Campbell, Director of Music at Churchill College and Murray Edwards College, Cambridge.

The duo drew attention to policies needed to help humpback whale populations recover. The last part of the piece looks into the future, predicting an optimistic eight percent rise in whale population every decade. “We can see when the oceans are better managed, whale populations can start to rebound,” said Dr. Agarwala.

Marine protected areas could protect food chains, re-route maritime freight to reduce the number of whales struck by ships, and minimize ocean pollution to allow the humpback whale population to fully recover. And so their music does the same.

“But even in the face of devastating destruction, nature is resilient and always beautiful, and so even when two-thirds of the music is absent there’s still a delicate beauty, though a pale imitation of its once dramatic glory,” said Dr. Campbell. In this way, the piece shows how human activities have silenced nature.

Agarwala and Campbell are excited by the power of arts and sciences working together. The duo hopes that future projects will encourage policy-makers to take action.

The Cambridge Zero Climate Change Festival 2022 includes a focus on ensuring the conversation around climate change is accessible to the general public. It runs from Friday 14th to Sunday 16th October.

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By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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