The 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) is currently underway in Glasgow, Scotland, and researchers at the University of Plymouth in England have marked the occasion by releasing their digitally altered version of a popular sea shanty, “What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor.” The twist: this altered “Song of the Sea” was manipulated using actual data collected during the extreme storms that ravaged the Atlantic coasts of western Europe in 2014. The intent is to demonstrate aurally, through a well-known popular tune, the impact of climate change by providing a snapshot of the devastation and destruction of extreme storms.
“Historically, scientific data has normally been conveyed visually, as charts or illustrations,” said Richard Thompson, director of the University of Plymouth’s Marine Institute, which collaborated with the university’s Interdisciplinary Centre for Computer Music Research (ICCMR) on the project. “However, the combination of sound and images provides significantly more alternatives to convey information. ‘Song of the Sea’ is a novel way of using actual climate data in such a way that it controls the music. And with extreme natural events predicted to increase in frequency and ferocity, there is no barrier to its principles being applied to represent the far-reaching effects of climate change on our planet.”
Back in 2015, Eduardo Miranda, a Brazilian composer who heads ICCMR, designed a musical biocomputer, which translated the electrical energy generated by the slime mold’s movement into sound to compose “music.” He even performed a “duet” with the single-celled organism at a biomusic festival. Miranda also developed a a Brain Computer Music Interface (BCMI), which enabled patients at the Royal Hospital for Neurodisability in London to interact with a string quartet through brainwave signals detected by electrodes placed on the scalp.
This latest project is the brainchild of Clive Mead and Dieter Hearle, both ICCMR members. Initially, the idea was to compose one long continuous piece of music that would interpret data flowing from a marine monitoring station. However, Mead realized that this more academic approach would likely strike the general ear as “twisted, distorted, and machine-like.” Sea shanties seemed like a much more viable option for engaging public interest.
Mead identified seven different sea shanties for the project, ultimately choosing “What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor” as a proof-of-concept for COP26 because he felt it would be the most recognizable and dramatic. (The Irish Rovers have closed their shows with the tune for more than 50 years.) The first written record of the tune is a 1839 account of a whaling voyage, but some version likely existed before that. An American sailor named Richard Maitland, who performed a 1939 recording of the sea shanty, said it was typically sung “when men are walking away with the slack of a rope.”
A professional singer recorded different layers and harmony for all seven sea shanties Mead had selected, and Mead then wrote and choreographed the music with a mix of traditional and contemporary instruments drawn from online orchestral libraries. He also threw in some pilot whale, sperm whale, and dolphin sounds for good measure.
The storm data—on wind speed, air pressure, temperature, and wave height—was gathered by the Southwest Regional Coastal Monitoring Programme over a 48-hour period in February 2014, when an extreme storm washed away a main rail line linking Dawlish in south Devon and London.
It was Hearle’s job to turn all that data into sound and music, and keep it interesting. “The temperature, for example, might not alter up or down for a long time, so the temptation is to make that more sensitive,” he said. “But you have to keep it within limits.” Through trial and error, he and Meade figured out which parameters worked best for each musical component.
Wave heights were matched to an echo effect on the words, which become more distorted as heights increase. Tempo was aligned to wind speed, so the song speeds up as those speeds increased. Pressure was mapped onto pitch; you can hear a deepening and ominous slurring of the vocals at the storm’s peak intensity. And temperature matched with the drum’s distortion effect; the drum beat “crunches” as the temperature drops.
The final version effectively condenses that storm’s 48-hour period into three-and-a-half minutes. Of course, “You have to strike a balance between the accuracy of the data and the way we listen to, and appreciate, music,” Mead said. “That’s been our guiding philosophy from day one. It’ll be up to the public to judge if we’ve succeeded.”
Sea shanties experienced an unusual revival over the past year, thanks to a TikTok phenomenon dubbed “ShantyTok.” Per Slate:
[U]sers are donning Shetland sweaters and belting 19th century a cappella maritime songs, to the tune of more than 74 million views. The app’s infrastructure, built to foster video collaboration, means that individual users can record echoey solos, multiply their own voice into a chorus, or join a shanty choir of strangers. There are complicated in-jokes about what your favorite shanty says about you, staged shanty raves, and a surplus of billowy white shirts.
Who doesn’t love a good sea shanty? Now that I’ve got “Drunken Sailor” playing on a loop in my head, here’s a ShantyTok mashup rendition of the tune for your listening pleasure. (Also check out this viral performance of “Soon May the Wellerman Come” by Nicholas Evans, which turned into a top ten single for the former postman.)
Listing image by YouTube/University of Plymouth