The interview below was initially published on The Climate Music Project’s website.
Erik has been writing and recording music for theater, dance, film and television in the Bay Area since 1982. His extensive collaborations include experimental theater/dance performance, film, and rock and jazz ensembles. His latest album, Criteria Obsession with his band Castle Canyon, is an entertaining romp through the instrumental rock landscape. Erik runs WackoWorld Music as well as the recording studio Crib Nebula in San Francisco. He teaches musicianship, improvisation, synthesizer madness and piano for all ages at his studio and at the Community Music Center in San Francisco. Erik holds a degree in composition from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
How did you get started as a composer and musician?
At an early age I was drawn to music so naturally, that it can be hard to point to where the ‘start’ is. But, in terms of career, I started forming my own bands, performing my music when I was 15. At 20, I became interested in music for modern dance, and collaborated with many choreographers, setting music to their dances. I also accompanied dance classes. Those were my first music ‘jobs’, outside of playing gigs with my bands.
Who were your role models as you were just getting started?
My parents and my oldest brother, Jeff, were my role models. My parents were very energetic and encouraged active lives that included creativity as a given- a somewhat unusual mixture of sports and arts. Jeff wrote poetry and songs, and had taught himself how to play guitar. My first songs were written by using his poems for lyrics.
In music, it would be Igor Stravinsky, Dave Brubeck, Willie Dixon, Count Basie, Frank Zappa, Beethoven, Keith Emerson, and the band Cream (Jack Bruce and Ginger Baker). Sometimes, in music, ‘role models’ means you are inspired by their music and wish to fashion music like that. Zappa, though, was a more clear role model because he led a large ensemble, toured regularly, was very disciplined about his work, and I could go see his bands pretty often. Emerson was influential because his level and style of play became a clear goal.
Collaborating with scientists on “Climate” was new and very interesting for me. There were many revisions, including completely changing the original theme a few times, due to the ‘destructive’ nature of the data, and the music becoming unrecognizable too fast. Working with inflexible data (Co2, temp, ocean acidity, etc.) to drive a piece of music is not common. Something you like at a certain point will be ‘blown up’ within 30 seconds! One must ‘give over’ their ego in this situation.
Why are you involved in The ClimateMusic Project?
I welcomed the invitation to write and perform ‘Climate’ for CMP because I feel very strongly about the necessity to communicate the urgency of stopping the negative effects of human caused climate change, and, being a composer, this was the best use of my talents to do something. I also like the intersection of science and music very much, so it was a good fit.
As an artist, was the process of creating Climate in collaboration with scientists challenging? If so, how? If not, why not?
Why, it was as easy as pie, if that pie was about as large as the planet.
Seriously, I am used to collaboration, and though working with scientists was a new twist, I found it productive and interesting. Decisions that had to be made were whether the climate data was going to be the music (sonification), or where the data was going to alter music composed before the data collided with it. We chose the latter, as that was the more interesting scenario for a dramatic rendering.
Figuring out the best way to create the piece, and how to incorporate climate change data as a control on the written music was a challenge. The hardest part was composing a ‘theme’ and framework that would not devolve too fast as the data we were using began to change the music. There is a subjective response of the ear, outside of prescribed numbers, that gauges where ‘double’ of something is, for example. So, we had to find an ‘end point’ of the piece, where the greatest degree of climate change would be, hear what that would sound like, and work backward from there. I had to compose a few themes and test them out before we arrived at the one we used to be the basis for Climate (the unused ones would fall apart too fast). Working with a band while doing this was invaluable. Their input was very important.
When external data is determining how and when your music changes, it is very different from how a composer works. A musical idea you’d like to repeat…you don’t get to, because the data has pushed it further down the line. I found this fascinating, fun, but also quite different from being in control of one’s compositional decisions.
With so many social and environmental crises in the world today, do you think music has the power to effect social change? Why or why not?
Yes I always think music does. I wouldn’t be a musician if I didn’t. Music communicates at a primal, non-verbal (even songs with words, as odd as that might sound) level that spoken or written word does not do. You always have a chance to get to a listener and carry them somewhere different, and possibly get them to see things in a new light. I find this to be especially true for people who may already agree with a cause, but the music opens a door and they put their heart into it as a result of the music. The connection becomes deeper. With Climate we have certainly found this to be true with our audiences.
What advice would you give to someone who is looking to get involved in the fight against climate change?
Do what you can using the talents you have, whatever type of energy you can put into your activism to help educate people, and to get real policy enacted by your local, state and federal governments. Everyone is going to be making sacrifices, but the biggest changes will have to come from the top down, though, as we find, those changes often start from the grassroots and climb up. Vote for the sake of all humans, and to avert social, cultural and environmental disaster. Put people in office that will do the right thing. They aren’t doing it now, that’s for sure.
Where can people hear your music?
Erik Ian Walker can be found at Bottomfeeder Records on Bandcamp ( https://bottomfeederrecords.bandcamp.com), Apple Music, CDBaby, Spotify, and all digital streaming outlets.