Disappearing notes in classical tune highlight the dramatic loss of Humpback Whales

Hebrides Edited score with notes buffed out to reflect declining humpback whale population. Credit: Ewan Campbell

Frustrated by the apathetic response to biodiversity loss, a Cambridge team has developed a dramatic new way to highlight nature’s demise – and people are listening.

Driven by the observation that human activities silence nature, Dr. Matthew Agarwala sound to convey the enormity of biodiversity loss and draw attention to what needs to be done to help species recover.

His collaboration with composer Dr. Ewan Campbell captures the attention of a new audience by pairing together a piece of classical music: Mendelssohn’s’Hebrides Overture’with the loss of an iconic species: the North Atlantic humpback whale.

Crucially, the 30,000 or so notes in the original music score roughly correspond to the number of humpback whales that were in the sea in 1829, when the piece was written. But then large-scale commercial whaling began to cause a dramatic decline in whale populations — and by 1920, two-thirds of all humpback whales had disappeared.

Campbell divided Mendelssohn’s score into decades and then deleted the notes in proportion to the decline in the whale population as music and time progressed. The resulting piece, ‘Hebrides edited’, has proven to be a dramatically simple way for the public to understand the sheer magnitude of biodiversity loss over time.

A short film about the music and its impact on the live audience, will be released online on Friday 14e October 2022 as part of the Cambridge Zero Climate Change Festival.

First, the score is played by the Hebrides Orchestra. Then, after 1 minute 51, the same piece is played by only 1 in 16 remaining notes – this represents the precipitous decline in whale population since 1829. Credit: Ewan Campbell

The music was performed this year by the 38-piece Wilderness Orchestra at the August Wilderness Festival in Oxfordshire, conducted by Campbell and narrated by Agarwala. Audience response was overwhelmingly positive and the piece received a standing ovation.

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

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

He added: “Researchers, myself included, have been sounding the alarm about the impact of biodiversity loss for a long time, but the message is not getting through. Music is deeply rooted and emotional, drawing people’s attention in ways that scientifically articles that can. ‘t.”

Hebrides edited doesn’t just come to an end. The duo also want to draw attention to the policies that would be needed to help humpback whale populations recover – so the last part of the piece looks to the future, allowing for an optimistic 8% increase in whale population per decade.

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“We can see that when the oceans are better managed, whale populations can recover,” Agarwala says.

The orchestra will perform ‘Hebrides Redacted’ at the 2022 Wilderness Festival, UK. Credit: Tom Besley

He says that if the ocean food chain is protected through enforced marine protected areas, sea freight is diverted to reduce the number of whales attacked by ships and ocean pollution is minimized, the humpback whale population can fully recover. And so their music does the same.

“At its nadir, the score is thin and fragmented, with isolated notes reaching for a tune only partially present. But even in devastating destruction, nature is resilient and always beautiful, and so even when two-thirds of the music is absent, there is is still a delicate beauty, albeit a pale imitation of its once dramatic glory,” said Campbell.

He added: “Editing is a word normally associated with censorship and the silencing of history. I think it’s very appropriate for this piece of music – we show how human activities have silenced nature.”

Agarwala and Campbell are excited about the power to engage the public when art and science work together in this way. They have ideas for many more music projects, which they also hope will encourage policymakers to take action to protect the natural world.

The Cambridge Zero Climate Change Festival 2022 includes a focus on ensuring that the conversation about climate change is accessible to the general public. It runs from Friday 14e until sunday 16e October.

Inspired by his 1829 journey to a sea cave – Fingal’s Cave – in the Inner Hebrides of Scotland, Mendelssohn’s original music captures the beauty, strength and vitality of the sea just before the introduction of mechanized industrial fishing.


Can improvisation bring the audience back to classical music?


Provided by the University of Cambridge

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