Back in 1829, German composer Felix Mendelssohn visited the Hebrides, a group of islands close to the coast of Scotland. The trip then inspired him to write the famous “Hebrides Overture,” which he published in 1833. Now, two academics have adapted the overture to highlight the declining rate of the North Atlantic humpback whale.
Matthew Agarwala, an economist at Cambridge University who specializes in sustainability and conservation, joined forces with composer Ewan Campbell to tell the story of the humpback whale population using music. Whales are especially affected by entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, and increasing ocean noise levels.
There are roughly 30,000 notes in the original overture by Mendelssohn, which approximate to the number of humpback whales in the sea when the piece was written. But then extensive commercial whaling started to cause a big decline in the whale population. By 1920, two-thirds of all humpback whales were already gone.
Campbell divided the overture into sections that represent the decades since Mendelssohn composed the original pieces. He gradually removed notes for every decade when the whale population declined. The resulting piece, called “Hebrides Redacted,” tells the story of the humpback whale through the notes that are missing.
"Researchers – including me – have been sounding the alarm about the consequences of biodiversity loss for a long time, but the message isn’t landing. Music is visceral and emotional, and grabs people’s attention in ways that scientific papers just can’t,” Agarwala said in a statement.
The impact of music
A short film about the updated overture and its impact on live audiences was already released online as part of the Cambridge Zero Climate Change Festival. The music was also performed by the Wilderness Orchestra at this year’s August Wilderness Festival in Oxfordshire, conducted by Campbell. The audience responded with 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,” Campbell, the Director of Music at Churchill College and Murray Edwards College in Cambridge, said in a statement.
While the piece describes the bleak situation humpback whales have had to experience in the last decades, it also looks ahead with optimism. The last decades represented in the modified overture reintroduce missing notes so that by the end of the piece (the year 2100) the score is once again complete – reflecting on successful conservation efforts.
Agarwala and Campbell believe their creative approach to engaging audiences with arts and sciences could be the start of something bigger. They have other ideas for music projects, hoping to encourage policymakers to take action to protect wildlife. A report earlier this week showed the number of vertebrate animals on the planet fell by nearly 70% in the past 50 years.