Water Rhythms: Listening To Climate Change

Susie Ibarra and Michele Koppes present a podcast of soundscapes and stories in Water Rhythms: Listening to Climate Change. Water Rhythms is the story of climate change as told by the ice and water. It is the acoustic story of our entanglements with a changing climate and changing landscapes of our own making. Through Water Rhythms, we invite listeners into more embodied ways of understanding how we are inextricably connected to the Earth’s freshwater, by bringing sound, music and science together, in dialogue.

Podcast Credits

Podcast produced by Alannah Chance

Interview with Michele Koppes (climate scientist, geographer and glaciologist) and Susie Ibarra (composer, percussionist, sound artist)

Soundscape composition of Water Rhythms edited and mixed by Jake Landau and Susie Ibarra

Copyright Susie Ibarra & Michele Koppes

Field recordings are from 5 water towers that Susie and Michele have been recording glacier melt and freshwater in the Pacific Northwest BC Mountains, Easton Glacier, Indian and Sikkim Himalayas and the Greenland Icesheet. This field recording and research is supported by Asian Cultural Council Scholar Fellowship and Rockefeller Foundation, Bennington College, Splice, and National Geographic Explorer Storytelling grants.

Excerpts of music in the podcast include Susie Ibarra’s Water Rhythms Splice soundpack on Splice Explores, and compositions by Ibarra including Pulsation commissioned for Kronos String Quartet 50 for the Future and These Trees That Speak commissioned for Ethos Percussion Quartet album BUILT.

Transcript of Podcast

NSCRIPT: Water Rhythms Podcast TRA

[sound of hydrophone recording from Easton Glacier]

Michele: This urge to capture these water rhythms, these sounds, was born for me when I was sitting at the toe of a glacier in British Columbia. We had put some hydrophones in the water and we were listening to the water that was coming out of the glacier. And I had this moment listening to the sounds of the air bubbles in the water and the rocks tumbling down, this sense of, longing and loss for things that are changing.

Because I realized in that moment that the sounds that I was listening to, they were disappearing.

[MUSIC: Pulsation: composed by Susie Ibarra; performed by Kronos Quartet]

Michele: hi, I’m Michelle COPUS. I am a geographer and glaciologist

Susie: Hi I’m Susie Ibarra I’m a composer, percussionist and sound artist

water rhythms is the story of ice and water, and it tells the story of life and how life is changing due to climate change.

Susie we are listening to climate change so we’re actually listening to the sound of water and how the earth is changing through rhythms

Michele:  Both Susie and I have been mesmerized by water and fresh water and the rhythms of nature and the environment. And I was looking at it from a means of telling the story of climate change, um, through sound. And so we started to think through, how could we explore sound and listen deeply and intimately to climate change.

And from that was born this idea of following the sounds of water from the source to the sink from the mountains. From the glaciers and mountains to the ocean.

[Water Rhythms NY Install composition]

Susie I think I’ve always been informed spatially

Early on as a composer, I always wanted to include field recordings. It’s something that is part of my language and aesthetic. I was definitely interested to see and excited to see how through sound we could perhaps learn more about what is actually going on right now.

SUSIE: I think it’s very intuitive to listen to the water in the river and to listen to fresh water, you can hear all the music that people are creating all over the world. When I started to transcribe these rhythms, they were actually beats and rhythms that I knew very well from playing a lot of different music, a lot of different drumming from many different cultures and countries. It blew me away basically to hear how we’re, we’re repeating it.

We are the river. We are the water we’re playing all of these rhythms and it doesn’t matter what country you’re from. And also just the heartbeat of it, the tempo.

But what we really have to imagine is what if you don’t hear it.

What does that really mean? These things are disappearing.

Michele: So I’m a scientist and my research has been on how glaciers and landscapes are shaped and shaping each other through climate change and part of the tools that we use to try to understand what’s going on in the ice or in the, in the water that is emanating from the ice, is to use hydrophones and collect the acoustic signals that come out of that.

[sound of hydrophone recording from Easton Glacier]

Science tends to be very reductionist. You know we take these beautiful complex systems, the earth system, and then we reduce it to lines on a graph or a waveform on an oscillator. And I was always curious about what we were missing.

Seemed like we were too reliant on one form of knowing and we weren’t actually capturing all the other ways in which we interact with the landscape.

[MUSIC: These Trees That Speak: composed by Susie Ibarra; performed by Ethos Percussion Quartet and commissioned for their album BUILD]

So for this podcast, we’re taking these stories that we’ve collected in many rivers, and we’re bringing it together to one hypothetical river that represents all the stories and journeys of the river,  from the source to the sink, and we’ve taken field recordings around the world and we’re putting them together in this space to follow a hypothetical river from the glaciers through the mountains and ultimately to the lowlands and the sea

[Sound of walking on Ice and Snow in Greenland]


MICHELE So we want to start our journey at the source at the glacier

when you arrive at the edge of the Greenland ice sheet, it is massive, it’s ice as far as you can see. Wind that is blowing you sideways. It’s somewhat overwhelming.

When I’m standing on the ice here and collecting this recording, it is blue sky overhead. It is, uh, it’s just a vast white plane and you can hear the sounds of me and my field team walking across the ice and just this feeling like we are so small in this vast landscape and there are crevasses in the ice, big gaping holes that we have to navigate around and move our way across this, this moonscape

[Sound of a hydrophone recording of a gentle stream in Greenland ice sheet]

The sounds that we’re hearing are from the central West coast of Greenland. And this is right where the ice is melting and feeding the rivers downstream.

By putting these hydrophones in, and then trying to capture how much water was being generated, how much were we losing from these glaciers? And realizing that these sounds are shifting, what we’re hearing today is not what we’re going to be hearing in 10 years or 20 years as the ice shrinks even more.

As you reach the very, very edge of the ice. It is melting, not only at the surface it’s also melting from underneath. And so it’s opening up these gaps, these caves. And so you can walk up and underneath the ice sheet. The water that’s at the surface moves its way through cracks and crevices and then enters into the cave and the roof of the cave is melting and dripping down.

[sound of dripping water in Greenland ice cave]

The sounds that you hear, the drips in the ice cave, and those drips are coming more and more and more frequently as the ice is melting further as the temperatures rise and the air in the cave is warming up, and the ice is dripping faster and faster.

So I’ve been working here for many years. Well, we’re tracking kind of what’s happening to the Greenland ice sheet and how it’s responding to both climate change in air temperatures, but also ocean temperatures.

[Sound walking on ice and huskies barking and howling]

And the communities that live along the edge of the Greenland ice sheet, the communities in Ilulissat, um, who are predominantly, uh, fishermen, with their, their sled dogs, their Huskies, and so the halibut that they catch require the cold, fresh water of the ice in order to survive. And so the fishermen are very attuned to where this water is coming from and what, how it’s changing.

SUSIE: I remember when Michelle first, uh, brought me to Eastern glacier, and we specifically were listening very musically about the pitches of each of these stones.

[Sound of hydrophone recording in river in Easton glacier]

And we would walk past an area and say, well, I could tell by the shift in this landscape that this just changed. As a performer, it feels like improvisation. You’re dealing with chaos and constant change and, um, And you’re interacting with it. So there’s a realization of how fast it’s changing. and that was heavy.

[MUSIC: Pulsation: composed by Susie Ibarra; performed by Kronos Quartet]

These recordings at Eastern glacier, Michelle and I took this trip up in Washington, and the hydrophone sounds were the ones for me that really revealed a lot about the rhythms and another way, another lens of listening and seeing how we are connected through music to water.

I think we hear that and have been hearing that for many generations, we might’ve just forgotten that. And when I listen to the rhythms, it’s very telling because culture has been built on it.

MICHELE : These sounds are coming from, um, under the water. As the water is leaving the glacier Valley and moving downstream. And you can hear, hear the sounds of the rocks and pebbles and sediment that are being carried in the water and tumbling down the Hill slope. And how the water is shaping the water


[loud sound of rushing water as the river tumbles down a steep slope in himalayas]

[MUSIC: These Trees That Speak: composed by Susie Ibarra; performed by Ethos Percussion Quartet and commissioned for their album BUILD]

MICHELE: So now that we’ve been on the ice and under the ice, we’re following the water as it’s descending the mountains. What we’re hearing here is the collecting of this Meltwater and it tumbling and cascading down the steep mountain sides and picking up debris from under the ice and carrying that down downstream to the lowlands.

The water is starting to accelerate. it’s starting to cascade and it’s very turbulent and very powerful

SUSIE: So this is the sound of the rivers coming off the mountains in Sikkim and the Himalayas just above India, just below South China and in between Bhutan and Nepal and also West Bengal.

And the waterfalls are really powerful, especially, I guess, depending on the time of year, how much melt is coming down, it’s really, it looks really clean, it’s just this like light blue. I mean, you almost would look like certain parts of the sea. It is strong. That water is definitely strong. I’m also wondering who are the people who string all the flags from one mountain to another, And it’s beautiful. Tibetan flags everywhere, Yeah. But we are listening both underwater and above.


[Sound of rushing river and fast flowing waterfalls as they fall down mountainside]

MICHELE: Contained in the water, as the water is tumbling down the slopes, it’s picking up air and trapping air and those air bubbles are rising back up. those clicks and clacks and all those poly rhythms that you’re hearing in the water those are all the air bubbles. And it is indicative of just how much power the water has. What this tells us about the changes that are happening has a lot to do with how much water is changing over time.

So one notion that we’re trying to capture in water rhythms is this idea of peak water. So what happens is, as the glaciers are shrinking originally, originally at the start, they start to produce more water. And so you’re going to hear more water moving through the system louder and crescendos

[Sound of trickling river water]

Over time though, those storage tanks are getting depleted. So over the decades, you start to hear less and less water in this, in, in these rivers. In some places we’ve already passed peak water and there’s less and less water every year in these rivers. That’s the adaptation that we as communities are trying to adapt to.

[MUSIC: These Trees That Speak: composed by Susie Ibarra; performed by Ethos Percussion Quartet and commissioned for their album BUILD]


Now we’re moving a little bit downstream also in the Sikkim Himalayas, along the Tiesta river. So the water is becoming more organized, but it’s also passing through a lot of waterfalls and we’re entering the spaces where there are more communities living along on the river.

[Sound of Tibetan Bells, chants and drums over hydrophone recordings of the river]

So in Sikkim, um, we’re still up in the mountains, in the Himalayas. There’s a lot of waterfalls everywhere. I couldn’t believe how abundant these waterfalls were. And it’s kind of breathtaking because they build their monasteries right up on top of these they’re pretty much in the sky. And it’s at pretty high altitude. It’s beautiful, with all of the prayer wheels outside and at certain hours you can hear them with their prayers and the drums and the bells and the symbols.

There’s also temples right along the water. And so people will go and they will take the water from the river. They bless themselves with it, and then they go on their way. And so the, the water becomes is a, is a really. Important part of their spiritual lives of their daily lives and practices.

water is the tie that binds a lot of spiritual cultures and practices. So for instance, when we think about, um, Christianity and baptism, it’s baptism with water, um, in the Hindu traditions, people will baptize and cleanse themselves with the water and their water comes from not only the river today, but also The Sada Swati, the Ganga, the mother river, the sacred river, um, in the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the water is also sacred. It emanates from, um, the sacred peaks such as Mount Kailash

[MUSIC: These Trees That Speak: composed by Susie Ibarra; performed by Ethos Percussion Quartet and commissioned for their album BUILD]


[Sound of rowing in the ganges]

So now we’re moving along the river from the mountains, the uplands down to the lowlands and the water is it’s moving from these steep slopes to this very flat broad plane. And it. Gets slower and more organized as it moves through into the lowlands. So the water is getting more organized and the communities are also getting more organized around this water because the water, uh, the rivers are more stable.

They’re not so quick to. Flood or bounce around the landscape. And so we’ve built our cities, um, around this water. So what we’re moving out of the Himalayas, and down into the broad plain of the Ganges river. And heading to Varanasi, which is, uh, a sacred city in the Hindu spiritual tradition and a place where people have been engaging with the water for thousands of years.

Yeah. Yes, as Michelle was saying , or also known as Banaras is one of the most spiritual places for Hindu culture. And then right next to it is also Sarnath, uh, one of the very spiritual places for Buddhists. And so these two are down on the low lens, right along the Ganges sign, that this is a little bit more inland right from there.

[Sound of rowing on river, morning Raga, Washing, laughing and sound of river lapping]

And it’s extraordinary because they really have maintained their river culture. It, it dictates it runs the ritual and their, uh, daily clock. Right. We would go out as early as 4:00 AM onto the river to start recording sounds. And the ciders are already sitting on the steps of the river and the guts praying who knows that they maybe they have been there for like half an hour, an hour earlier that they’re already starting their days.

And people travel on the boats to each of these guts to visit the temples, to pay their respects. They’re also doing their washing there. Um, Uh, the youth, the girls, they start their prayers and songs at five. And then it’s six, you’ve got another prayer of some of the young men. Then you’ve got morning yoga and in the Plaza where all of the community comes and there’s morning raga and yoga exercise.

It’s just all along the river, people that are coming in and out from that. So they have really maintained that traditional culture and they rely on it. They rely on, on Ganga.

[Sound of morning prayers by girls in varanasi]

In Hinduism, uh, the mother, mother Ganga, the Ganges river is the source of life and it’s actually the sacred river Saraswati that flows underneath today’s Ganges river. And so in Hindu tradition, the connection that we ha that is made to the river today is tapping into that spiritual river, that sacred river that lives underneath

[Sound of hydrophone in ganges here with occasional birds and temple bell]

So as the monsoon is changing here and as climate is impacting the low lens, one of the major changes that happen is they’ll have more flood. Incidences and then drought as well. So people’s relationship to the water is changing because of climate change. So the water becomes this lifeline, um, and it also becomes this. Uh, hazard

[MUSIC: Pulsation: composed by Susie Ibarra; performed by Kronos Quartet]


[Sound of the sea recorded in Mumbai]

The end point of the journey is the river entering the sea, all water, all rivers lead ultimately to the ocean. Fresh water is only 3% of all the water on earth and it’s fresh water that really is the tie that binds humans and societies and cultures to the landscape and where the water exits to the sea it starts a whole different journey. And as we’re listening to the sounds of these waters changing, we’re listening to the dwindling connections of our ties to fresh water.

[MUSIC: These Trees That Speak: composed by Susie Ibarra; performed by Ethos Percussion Quartet and commissioned for their album BUILD]

SUSIE: I think about the cycle of rhythms as the water keeps moving and that it is cycling on, a lot of times it’s going to start into a new place because rhythms always come back around and play themselves. Once they hit into the sea, well, that’s a new cycle.

we are recording a kind of shared memory of this moment of the water and the landscape. So it won’t be the same, what will come after and what came before it is different. I invite people to take this in and to let yourself listen and that is valuable and necessary

The rivers are the lifeblood of the earth. And so we are entangled with the rivers, with the water. And so listening to the story of the river is listening to the story of ourselves.