Blending The Sounds Of Climate Change With Appalachian Music
Daniel Bachman is an acclaimed musician, known for his unique blend of Appalachian-inspired folk music and meditative drones. But, for his latest album, titled Almanac Behind, he wanted to try something a little different.
Bachman lives in central Virginia, which has recently experienced multiple extreme weather events influenced by climate change. Unusually heavy snow in January 2022 caused power outages and trapped drivers in their cars on highways. Later in the year, intense rainfall led to downed power lines and flooding. And wildfires are becoming increasingly common in the Appalachian region.
“I had the idea to document everything that we experienced through the end of this recording process,” he said. With the help of family and friends, Bachman gathered field recordings of these sounds of climate change, and weaved them together with the banjo and guitar.
“It did feel like I was working collaboratively with non-human partners,” he said. “It makes me feel better to work with these forces, instead of trying to constantly push them away.”
Bachman also talks about his work as an independent scholar, and how the traditions of Appalachian folklore influenced his view of the album as a climatological historical document.
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Daniel Bachman is an artist, musician, and independent scholar based in central Virginia. His latest album is Almanac Behind.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow.
As the effects of our climate crisis become more visible everywhere, artists are reflecting those changes in their work. SciFri producer D Peterschmidt spoke to one of those artists, folk musician Daniel Bachman, about his new album and how the recent floods and wildfires in Virginia shaped the music’s creation.
To start things off, here’s a clip of one of the songs from the album 540 Supercell.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Daniel Bachman is an acclaimed folk musician and independent scholar. We’re here to talk about his new album, Almanac Behind, a blend of Appalachian folk music and audio collages, documenting the effects of extreme weather and climate change that’s affected his home region of Central Virginia.
Daniel Bachman, welcome to Science Friday.
DANIEL BACHMAN: Hey, thank you so much for having me.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. Can you tell me about what happened in your personal life that made you want to make an album like this?
DANIEL BACHMAN: Yeah, sure. So some people out there might remember last January, Virginia, Washington, DC, Maryland, this region got a really heavy wet snow that was really uncharacteristic for our region. Well, it was destroying power infrastructure and closing roads, and it shut down Interstate 95. People were trapped in their cars. It was really bad.
So the very first field recordings and ideas for this came from that first storm, a lot of the wind sounds and hail and sleet. And then I had the idea, OK, I’m going to document everything that we experience through the end of this record process.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. Why did you think it was necessary to have field recordings to communicate the message of the album?
DANIEL BACHMAN: Oh, well, it’s tough working in the confines of traditional Western instruments. Whether it be banjo or guitar or even piano and stuff, you’re bound to a certain harmonic range that only expresses so much emotion. And so when you get into these deep problems that we face, I feel sometimes that you lose the weight of these events if you’re just simply trying to play a minor or major scale or things like that.
But in order to really convey the power of these events, when you hear rushing water or hard-driving rain, I really thought that using the field recordings intentionally, this is something that people can– from all over the world– hopefully could relate to. These sounds are inherent to our experience living on Earth. And it just happens that I’m just interested in folk cultures and history. And that’s my vehicle for it.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. Appalachia has this incredibly rich history of not just storytelling but passing those stories down. And as you’ve mentioned, you’ve done quite a bit of your own historical research on the cultures and folklore of Virginia and its music. Can you talk a bit about that work, and if you wanted Almanac Behind to be in conversation with that history and tradition?
DANIEL BACHMAN: Yeah. There’s a tradition of documenting events, and especially natural disasters, in folk music. Charlie Patton has High Water Everywhere. There’s Dry Well Blues. Uncle Dave Macon has Tennessee Tornado. So yeah, I was definitely aiming for that energy creating this piece. I wanted it to be a contemporary document of these events.
It’s definitely abstract, but I do like to think that it does fall in line in that history and music.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. I mean, it’s abstract. But even though the subject matter is pretty dark– to me, at least– it was very calming to listen to. I’ve listened to the album a few times. And you weave emergency radio broadcast transmissions into the album. And then you follow them up with solo meditative banjo.
How did you think about balancing really intense and maybe diametrically opposed emotions on this?
DANIEL BACHMAN: Yeah. Well, there’s a lot of waiting in these events. The time between when you learn over the radio broadcasts or whatever– how you hear about these things coming– there’s a calmness that you almost feel. Even if they do hit like a train, you can see them coming. And I was hyper aware of weather while I was documenting it. I had my field recorder by the front door. And at any time that we were going to have weather that was going to produce a good audio sample, I was ready to go out there and stuff. It was pretty wild to put this thing together.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. I read that you involved your friends and family to help you gather the sounds on this album.
DANIEL BACHMAN: It felt good to bring family and friends in it. I did ask my friend Will Thornton, who’s a sound artist from Fredericksburg, if he could contribute some of his flood recordings. So in the section where you hear the waters rising and electrical lines snapping and stuff, that’s actually the sound of five major rivers in Virginia at flood stage all at once.
A friend of mine, Zeph Mann, actually made a computer program that renders photographs into WAV files. And forest fires are becoming increasingly common in the middle Appalachians here. So I took photographs of different weather events, with Old Rag Mountain, here in Madison County, with a red sun setting behind it from wildfire smoke, and then completely rearranged the pixels. And you get a new thing out of it.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Can you tell me about the cyclical nature of this album?
DANIEL BACHMAN: Yeah. The album actually plays on a loop. If you listen to it through and you have it on repeat, it starts with wind blowing through chimes on our front porch.
And as the cleanup efforts are happening, towards the end of the record, you can hear the chimes and the wind picking up again, hinting that this is a repeating cycle that we’re entering.
And if I can quote Professor Bill McGuire’s new book, Hothouse Earth, he suggests that we might not be experiencing extreme weather anymore, but simply just weather. These events are increasingly the norm. So that’s what I was getting at with the looping nature of the record.
One of the things– without getting too far out– that I actually really liked about working on this record is that it did feel like I was working collaboratively with non-human partners. Just being with these weather events, working with them to create a piece of art, that’s the energy that I like. That is making me feel better in these times a little bit, working with these forces in the Earth, instead of constantly trying to push them away or whatever.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Totally. I love that idea. What do you hope people take away after listening to Almanac Behind?
DANIEL BACHMAN: Well, currently, how we talk about climate change, I think there’s a real tendency in the US right now to put it off. But we really are seeing these drastic Earth changes happen constantly all over the globe. And so I made this album as a way for me to participate in climate activism that I see other people doing that I’m really inspired about. And I hope that it serves as a document. But yeah, this is the way that I feel that I can best participate in raising awareness of what’s happening to our Earth.
D PETERSCHMIDT: Yeah. Well, thank you. I really recommend that people check out the album. If you go to our site, you can watch the film that accompanies Almanac Behind. That’s at sciencefriday.com/climatesongs.
Daniel, thank you so much for your time. And thank you for the album. It’s really special.
DANIEL BACHMAN: Well, thank you so much, too. This is such a pleasure.
D PETERSCHMIDT: That was Daniel Bachman, musician and independent scholar.