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Science, music and art: U-M professors envision "A World Without Ice" in new exhibition

By Shaun Manning

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ANN ARBOR—An art installation from two professors at the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance explores the effects of climate change through powerful imagery, haunting music and the percussive beat of melting ice.

“A World Without Ice,” a multisensory experience created by U-M SMTD professor Stephen Rush and SMTD and Residential College professor Michael Gould with visual artist Marion Tränkle and climate scientist Henry Pollack, is now on view at the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum through Jan. 5, 2020. 

“We’re all deeply concerned about climate change and presenting our work to the next generation,” said Rush, a professor of performing arts technology. 

Pollack in particular was searching for new ways to communicate the science of climate change to a broader public. Rush and Gould hit upon the idea of using recordings of melting ice and experimenting with different methods of amplifying the sounds.

The piece consists of a 26-minute video, a soundtrack and a series of ice blocks suspended above differently tuned drums. Drip by drip, the melting ice striking the drums complements Rush’s score with unpredictable percussive notes.

“As you sit and listen to the ice melting and the drums, you quickly realize that the situation is somewhat precarious,” said Gould, a professor of jazz and contemporary improvisation who is internationally known for percussion performance and pedagogy.

The soundtrack was created using what Rush described as a “sonification of data,” where the subtly rising notes represent the incremental increases in the Earth’s temperature based on actual climate statistics.

“There are things that can happen when you make music that way that wouldn’t happen sitting at the piano,” said Rush, a prolific composer who founded U-M’s Digital Music Ensemble. “In addition to the soundtrack, the percussion created by the melting ice forms such an important part of the auditory experience, like seven drummers you can’t control, moving very slowly.” 

The accompanying film, created by Tränkle, blends tranquil photographs from both the Arctic and Antarctic by Pollack and his colleagues—including sheer ice cliffs and close-ups of ice and the sea. Gould says that although viewers may be entranced by the beauty of the piece, the reality that the music and visuals represent should be unsettling. 

“One of the things that is really difficult to express when you’re talking about climate or even big ice is a sense of scale, which in itself is staggering,” Gould said. “We’re hoping that people can start their own internal dialogue, coming to terms with what’s going on but also to open a conversation.”

In “A World Without Ice,” blocks of ice are suspended above differently tuned drums, —each drip amplified as it falls. Photo by Michael Gould.

A version of “A World Without Ice” was first presented at the Kerrytown Concert House in 2012, where it consisted of a lecture from Pollack, followed by an improvised concert featuring the melting ice blocks. As it evolved, the installation traveled to U-M’s Duderstadt Center, Michigan Technical University and Oakland University. 

Mel Drumm, director of the Ann Arbor Hands-On Museum, had seen the piece in a previous iteration and approached Rush and Gould to bring it to his museum.

“Thanks to our colleagues at the University of Michigan and the Bosch Community Fund, the Museum is honored to welcome ‘A World Without Ice’ as a temporary exhibit through the year-end,” Drumm said. “The museum is always seeking to provide new and meaningful learning opportunities for our guests.  

“With the growing and important conversation occurring about climate, we found this exhibit to be an experience that is both contemplative and thought-provoking beyond any other exhibit experience we could have brought to Ann Arbor. We are delighted to share it with our community.” 

In addition to the current exhibition at the Hands-On Museum, Gould and Rush hope to continue to bring “A World Without Ice” to museums, galleries and community spaces.

“People need to go see it,” Rush said. “This is an immersive experience.”

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