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Astoria composer releases ‘Music for Icebergs’ album to combat climate change

Photos: Marie Torio/BORO

Astoria film composer and French horn player Mike Sayre released his first album, “Music for Icebergs,” today.

The music — a fusion of ambient music, sound design and contemporary film score — creates a “sound world,” he said, that he hopes will transport listeners to Antarctica and spark an interest in climate change.

“Most of us will never go to Antarctica, but it’s one of Earth’s treasures,” he said. “As more people develop an emotional connection with that landscape, I think we’re all more likely to protect it.”

We spoke with Sayre about the inspiration behind his album and how art can change the world:

QNS: What inspired you to write “Music for Icebergs”?

Mike Sayre: It was one of those rare instances where an idea came to me fully formed. I was sitting at a conference last summer, the OZY Fusion Fest, when I saw a presentation by a visual artist named Zaria Forman. She makes these enormous drawings of icebergs and ice formations and such. When she showed her art and described what it felt like to be there, I was immediately drawn to what it might sound like. I started jotting down ideas like crazy. It’s such an evocative, dramatic environment, and I wanted to give people a way to immerse themselves in that world wherever they happen to be.

Zaria also pointed out — and I absolutely agree — that we often talk about climate change in a sterile, scientific way that simply doesn’t affect people who aren’t already activists. When you talk about a two-degree global temperature change, you can just feel everybody’s eyes glaze over. Even though that’s cataclysmic from a climate point of view, it simply has no bearing on their lives. But if you give them an emotional experience, if you can somehow make it real, then they can relate.
Also, it was fun to make.

Whale Bay, Antarctica no.4, 84"x144", soft pastel on paper, 2016. Courtesy of the artist Zaria Forman
Whale Bay, Antarctica no.4, 84″x144″, soft pastel on paper, 2016. Courtesy of the artist Zaria Forman

QNS: When I listen to tracks from “Music for Icebergs,” certain nature sounds such as wind, droplets and trickling water stick out to me. I am also struck by a sense of urgency. What instruments and other techniques did you use to create this sound?

MS: Some of the sounds are instruments I play — some French horn, some guitar, some keyboards. There’s a little of my voice hidden in there too. A few of the sounds, like running water, are actual recordings. But most of the elements are things I created using a variety of synths and sound design tools.

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For example, the sound of the wind is actually a synthesizer that I manipulated to simulate wind, because real wind is pretty random and noisy, and it’s hard to shape it to make it go in a particular musical direction.

It was more important to me to get the drama and emotion right than it was to make things sound exactly as they do in the real world. One of the sounds I needed was the calving of an ice shelf. That’s when thousands of tons of solid ice crack off and fall into the ocean. It’s one of the most dramatic and terrifyingly beautiful things in nature — so much so that you have to be really far away to record it safely. All the recordings sound distant and wimpy. So I cooked up my own version of it using various percussion and synth elements. Like a foley artist might for a film.

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QNS: As I listened to the album’s tracks in order, one of my personal takeaways was a progression from a feel of impending doom to a feeling of hope, despite a sense of danger that still persisted. What messages are you hoping to convey to those who listen to your album from beginning to end?

MS: Thanks for saying that. That’s actually exactly what I was going for! There is a narrative arc to the album that people will get if they listen to it in order. It begins with the formation of the glaciers long ago, then passes through human discovery and the consequences of that, and ends with a reflection on the current state of things.

The hopeful tone at the end also reflects that we are at something of an inflection point. Activists and responsible politicians have had a lot of success making climate change part of the national conversation. Whatever the politics of the moment, there are millions of Americans who are paying attention and changing how they live to protect the planet. There is reason to be hopeful.

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QNS: For you, how do music and activism go hand in hand? What would you tell artists of all kinds who want to use art to change the world?

MS: Here’s how I see it: artists traffic in ideas, and popular ideas are eventually made real. When you change what people think about and talk about, you might start to change their choices.

The current administration seems hell-bent on setting back environmental policy by a few decades. People should definitely protest, organize and engage with their representatives. But as artists I think we also have a special role to play when the politics aren’t going our way, by holding vigil for what we know to be true and good. This administration will be gone in a few years, but we — and the ideas we share — will still be here.

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“Music for Icebergs” was released by Teknofonic Recordings today and is available on iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Tidal and other digital outlets. Sayre is planning on donating a portion of the album’s proceeds to organizations that combat climate change. Visit musicforicebergs.com or like Sayre’s Facebook page for more information.

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