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Exploring Water, Cities, Climate, and Music in India With DJ Spooky

By Paul Miller/DJ Spooky, National Geographic Emerging Explorer

Vagai Dam creates a striking even if unnatural waterfall. (Photo Courtesy Paul Miller)
Vagai Dam creates a striking even if unnatural waterfall. (Photo courtesy Paul Miller)

I’m in India for the next couple of weeks taking a bunch of ideas about art and data to different logical extremes (view my Google Photos Storyboard). I’m working on a group of compositions about water, cities, climate change, and the evolving role of the artist and composer in a data-driven society.

How do we make a portrait of a rapidly evolving world with music? That’s a question I’m asking myself throughout this journey.

My composition is called “The Heart of a River” because rivers are networks and they amplify network effects. From the Tigris and Euphrates rivers of Mesopotamia to the Yangtze of China, from the Danube to the Thames, from the Mississippi to the Hudson, from the Amazon to the Yukon, we’ve seen over and over that where we have rivers, civilizations evolve beyond almost anything we can predict.

As I write today on the banks of the Ganges River in Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities, you can feel the sense of urgency in the air. The unbearable smog of Delhi and the charnel house quality of smoke and dust here point to the lingering effects of fossil fuels and their impact on our beliefs about our ability to change society and consumer culture.

These things inform how I understand the role of song in cultural heritage and the way we think about rapid growth.

The colors stick out in a photo, but the sounds are what this trip is really about. (Photo Courtesy Paul Miller)
The colors stick out in a photo, but the sounds are what this trip is really about. (Photo courtesy Paul Miller)

Chennai
12/9/2015
I got off a Lufthansa flight in the middle of the night in Chennai on the tail end of Cop21 and the United Nations Paris Agreement which signaled to many in the developing world a kind of final intervention that is required to balance the greenhouse gas emissions of various state actors and corporations with the overall consensus of scientists that we’ve already passed most of the signposts on our way to environmental catastrophe without even blinking our collective eyes.

Despite that theoretical progress, we are basically putting a band-aid on a huge gaping problem that even optimistically, can’t be solved under current political, social, and economic conditions. In India the signposts are everywhere: record-level pollution, record-level heat, record-level flooding. And yet life goes on.

I arrived in Chennai in the aftermath of massive flooding that had incapacitated the local government and killed hundreds of people (in the same vein as the heat wave of earlier this year, which had killed thousands), and it was uncertain if the airport would even be functional. I had a nine-hour layover and decided to walk around and see if the flooding had affected the regions surrounding the airport.

What basically would have passed as normal for many regions of India—cows, plastic strewn everywhere, and of course, ubiquitous traffic at any hour—was supplemented by huge piles of rubble and mud. At the late hour that my flight landed, it all left me with a surreal sense of how intense the flooding had been.

I hadn’t quite known what to expect. Friends from India had sent me photos of the streets of Mumbai melting in the summer heat, and the basic under current seemed to be that India was deeply apprehensive about climate change from the Himalaya Mountains in the north to Karnataka in the south.

There's nothing quite like being blessed in the street by a holy elephant. (Photo Courtesy Paul Miller)
There’s nothing quite like being blessed in the street by a holy elephant. (Photo courtesy Paul Miller)

I am in India working with a group from Columbia University under the guidance of renowned Indian architect and historian of urban planning, Geeta Mehta. The team consists of us, her crew of graduate students, and fellow professors Laura Kurgan and Kate Orff. We are joined by environmental artist Felicia Young who has done several projects exploring how to restore river systems using art. There is also Corie Radka from the Resilience Collaborative, a firm that shifts money from fossil fuels to regenerative enterprises and offers an economic-based critique of the fossil fuel economy and the financial structures that hold it together.

For the first part of my project, I’m looking at how rivers, data, and cities interact, and I’m visiting several megacities that are crucial players in India’s efforts to cope with climate change.

Imagine if you were a composer making music out of data and applying that concept to climate change. How would you proceed?

I will be gathering information over the next couple of weeks which I will transform into a batch of compositions that reflect how the arts can help reframe the debate on climate change and human activity. I firmly believe that we can slow the momentum of climate change and alter the disastrous course we are on, and if there’s one place that can show how art, science, and culture can interact to help us do that, it’s India.

I hope you can join me over the next several weeks as I blog from and about the different rivers, sounds, information, and ideas I’ll be exploring.

Follow DJ Spooky’s Google Photos Storyboard