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'A World Without Ice': Final week in Traverse City with Michigan temps above 90 degrees

Jamie Sherman Blinder

"A World Without Ice"

TRAVERSE CITY—Imagining a world without ice is, for many of us, not very difficult to do. Especially in the midst of hot and humid summers with ever-rising temperatures, icy environments can be hard to picture. 

Herein lies the importance of “A World Without Ice,” a groundbreaking, multisensory experience focusing on Earth’s changing climate on view at Traverse City’s Dennos Museum Center through July 24. 

Part science, part music, part art, this exhibit is a collaboration between Nobel Peace Prize-winning scientist and University of Michigan emeritus professor Henry Pollack and U-M School of Music, Theatre and Dance professors Stephen Rush and Michael Gould, who is also a professor in the Residential College.

Pollack and Rush were both asked to speak in a lecture on creative process where Rush says he found as many ways as possible to dress up the notion of “messing around” and trying not to predict the end result of what he sets out to do. He listened to Pollack speak next and thought, interestingly, scientists work in a similar way — they don’t know how things might turn out, but they try and fail until they get where they are going.

Inspired by Pollack’s book of the same title, the group tasked themselves with expressing the issue of climate change in an audiovisual way. 

"A World Without Ice"

“A World Without Ice”

“The chief problem Henry would say is, ‘How do you get a scientist to speak a common language for people to understand what’s going on, the Anthropocene, what we are doing to the climate, and what are we doing to the planet?” Gould said. “For us it’s not red or blue, it’s just purple; we are not trying to impose any one thing about what’s going on, we’re just trying to achieve a moment of self reflection for people to come to whatever terms, on their own.”

Gould decided his contribution to the project would explore how to “sonify ice.” He did this by suspending blocks of ice over old drums and waiting for them to start melting. 

"A World Without Ice"

“A World Without Ice”

“As the day goes on, you get drips and streams of water that almost sound like a drumroll,” he said, to which he added microphones for amplification, reverb for an ethereal feel, and slotted pans for the water to drip through more methodically.

Rush wrote the score, not only as backup music to the ensemble’s percussion — the blocks of ice — but as a delivery system for data. Rush took Pollack’s book with 100 years of climate change data and created a score for piano and tuned cymbals interpreting that data through music; notes will rise a step or half-step in accordance with temperatures increasing through time. There is no stopping the ice as the star of the show, though. 

“The ice domes all have a personality and a rhythm of their own, and that creates an interesting structure,” Rush said. “So at the end of the work, the music that plays behind this piece cuts out to create space for an ice ‘drum solo’ and it is a really cool way to celebrate randomness.”

A video created by visual artist Marion Tränkle accompanies the score and the ice drumming to immerse the viewer in an audiovisual experience; the sights and sounds of climate change.

"A World Without Ice"

“A World Without Ice”

The importance of infusing art into different areas of study is one that is of particular importance to Gould. 

“Steve and I wrote a class together called Creative Process, which got together engineers, the art school, architecture school and the School of Music, Theatre, and Dance, to explore how the creative process works across different disciplines,” he said. 

“I’m really interested in trying to capture students who don’t think the arts have a certain relevancy in what they do, but in actuality it will help not only sustain them as a human, but also deepen how they look at themselves and others on the planet, and how they look at their work. There is creativity in all fields, and harnessing that perspective will help you grow as an expert in whatever field you study.”

The installation has its final week in Traverse City at the same time the U-M Board of Regents ascend upon the city for their July meeting.

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