Be part of a novel bell-ringing concert at UC Berkeley

Photo by Liam Quinn

Today at noon the bells at Sather Tower on the UC Berkeley campus will play a very special concert. Photo by Liam Quinn

Something rather special is happening today at noon on the UC Berkeley campus. The bells of Sather Tower will ring out to the first ever participatory concert of its type at Cal.

The performance has been conceived as a novel way to communicate about climate change. And, if you show up with your cell phone, tablet or laptop and an internet connection, you will be one of those creating the musical score.

“It’s warning people about sea level changes,” said Professor Greg Niemeyer, explaining the thinking behind the event. “But it’s not a fire alarm. It’s more of a thoughtful, slower approach.” Niemeyer is professor of new media and art practice, and faculty co-director of the CITRIS Data and Democracy Initiative, and one of the key players behind the project.

The 10-minute concert starting at noon sharp at Sather Tower will be led by Tiffany Ng, a UC Berkeley graduate student in music and a campus carillonist. Ng and a team of collaborators will translate human inputs to polartide.org, a website devoted to new methods of thinking about climate change, into a real-time score emanating from the tower.

Sather Tower

Sather Tower. Photo: wallyg

The upper register of Polartide will enable participants to adjust with a simple click the sea level for each of the islands of Kerguelen, the Maldives, Venizia and Reykjavik, and to produce a carillon bell. Polartide’s bottom register shows the current stock prices for the four largest oil companies. Clicking those triggers what composer Chris Chafe calls “corporate jingles” that will not play on the 61-bell Carillion.

Prof. Niemeyer created Polartide in collaboration with Chafe, director of Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics, Meyer Sound designer Perrin Meyer, and Rama Gottfried, a sound artist and a UC Berkeley graduate student. The event was sponsored by the Townsend Center for the Humanities as part of its Berkeley Book Chat Series.

The project was part of the 2013 Venice Biennale in the Maldives Pavilion, said Niemeyer. While equally participatory, it used a synthesized sound of bells rather than the real thing.

After its run in Italy, the team wanted to make it available locally, Niemeyer said.

“It’s about how we pay attention to something,” he continued. “In a playful moment we are doing something that has an impact on the world.”

After the brief concert, broadcast via speakers installed on Sather Tower, the Polartide collaborators will meet in the Geballe Room, 220 Stephens Hall, to discuss the work.

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  • Daniella Thompson

    The correct spelling for “Venizia” is Venezia. In English it’s known as Venice, Italy.