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The Crossroads Project Merges Climate Science and the Arts

Tuesday performance a featured BU Earth Week event


Let’s go out on a limb here and say that conference keynote speakers, while often informative, rarely blow your mind. But that’s exactly how Dennis Carlberg describes The Crossroads Project, a performance merging climate science with music and the visual arts that capped a sustainability conference he recently attended.

“Honestly, I think everyone who walked out of there was silent,” says Carlberg, the University’s sustainability director. Crossroads “changes your mood. It changes your space. It makes you think. For me, it was very powerful.”

So powerful that he and Lisa Tornatore, the University’s sustainability outreach coordinator, immediately called the physicist and the chamber musicians behind Crossroads and invited them to perform at BU. The group will bring its sensory-overloading experience to the Tsai Performance Center tomorrow, Tuesday, April 23, as part of sustainability@BU’s Earth Week festivities. The 80-minute presentation will be followed by a panel discussion, moderated by Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore (SED’87) and featuring Crossroads performers, BU faculty, and a Boston environment and energy official.

The BU Arts Initiative, sponsored by Provost Jean Morrison, is the key supporter of the performance—its second signature event this year. “The Crossroads Project uniquely meets the provost’s goals of weaving the arts into the fabric of the BU experience,” says Ty Furman, the initiative’s managing director.

Crossroads was the idea of Utah State University physicist Robert Davies. He’d been giving presentations on climate change and sustainability science for years, and while he thought his audiences mentally absorbed the information, he didn’t think they understood it viscerally. So what could make his message stick? For him, chamber music “unclogs” his mind and makes him think in more creative ways. So he approached the university’s ensemble in residence, the Fry Street Quartet, with the idea of combining music and science in a hybrid performance.

Quartet members Bradley Ottesen, Rebecca McFaul, Anne Francis Bayless, and Robert Waters immediately signed on. Visual artists later joined their ranks. And together they created Crossroads, which premiered last September as part of a monthlong USU exhibition that has since taken Davies and collaborating musicians around the world.

“This experience is really not about informing people; it’s about giving people just enough information to put them in a certain brain space,” says Davies, who is also an associate of the Utah Climate Center. “The idea was to have them walking out of the doors just haunted and motivated, both simultaneously, to learn more…and to provide them with the resources to do that.”

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Crossroads will be performed at the Tsai Performance Center at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 23.

“We hope,” says violist Ottesen, a USU Caine College of the Arts assistant professor, “that the performance can serve as a nucleus around which other things can happen, around which people can get together, talk, and draw in people who might not otherwise be there.”

Crossroads is divided into four movements that Davies says link the “big ticket items” of sustainability science—food, water, energy, and the biosphere—with “what is right about natural structures, and contrast that with what’s going wrong with human structures.” Still images and paintings, notably by photographer Garth Lenz and artist Rebecca Allan, flow across twin screens throughout Davies’ presentation. Meanwhile, the quartet starts with a piece by Joseph Haydn, follows with a contemporary piece by composer Laura Kaminsky, pauses for an eight-minute stream of silent imagery, and finishes with a piece by Czech composer Leoš Janáček.

“You could hear a pin drop the whole time,” says Carlberg of the silent segment. “You sort of fall into your own space and are thinking about what the message is. At first you don’t get it. And then…it finally hits you” about the impact of society’s footprint on nature.”

Davies and the musicians had originally planned what they call an “after-mission,” where people could talk about the issues, but audience members never approached them. Violinist Rebecca McFaul, a USU Caine College of the Arts assistant professor, thinks that means their message finally stuck. “We wanted people to look inside at what our lives are built upon,” she says, “and have all of us together confront the fact that we are participants in this destructive system. And that’s not easy to do.”

The point of Crossroads is not to convert climate change deniers, Davies says, but to inspire to act the vast majority of Americans who do believe. “The people who don’t acknowledge it are not standing in our way,” he says. “It’s those of us who understand the problems, yet cannot come to a place in our lives to prioritize doing something about it.”

And that’s why Carlberg and Tornatore wanted to bring the group to BU. “I am hoping that people are inspired by it, inspired to act, inspired to get involved, inspired to make a difference,” Carlberg says. “Everybody has to do their part.”

The Crossroads Project will be performed at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, April 23, at the Tsai Performance Center, 685 Commonwealth Ave. The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. The event will be closed-captioned and include ASL interpretation.

A panel discussion will follow the program. Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore will moderate the featured guests: Robert Davies; the Fry Street Quartet members; Brian Swett, Boston’s chief of environment and energy; Lynne Allen, a College of Fine Arts professor of art and director of the School of Visual Art; and Cutler Cleveland and Nathan Phillips, both College of Arts & Sciences professors of earth and environment.

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Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
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