ClimateKeys: The Power of Art and Conversation with Alexander Schwarzkopf and John Barney

George Marshall, the British environmental campaigner and climate communications specialist, believes that “the single most powerful thing an individual can do about climate change is to talk about it”. But how we communicate is also important – especially when scientific facts alone are difficult to imagine. According to recent polls, over 61% of U.S. Americans say global warming is important to them, but they rarely talk about it and only 18% talk about it on a monthly basis.[1] So how do we move beyond the barrier that ‘information alone’ won’t change anything?[2]

A recent Yale Climate Connections article reports that artists play a significant role in “conveying important climate change messages in ways that inform, empower, and lead to more collective action.”[3] Lola Perrin, Composer Pianist and ClimateKeys founder, agreed and began to organize musical events, called keyboard conversations, to coincide with COP23, the climate change summit in Bonn, Germany.

Thirty concerts in nine countries are confirmed for 2017, and Albuquerque will host a ClimateKeys concert this Tuesday, November 14th.

We sat down with Composer Pianist, Alexander Schwarzkopf, and Poet and Artist, John Barney, and talked about the upcoming event, to be held at Chatter’s Las Puertas location:


NMSP: When did you realize that climate change is a serious issue, and when did you decide to address the crisis with your music?

AS: Having been vegetarian since birth, I was made aware of some of the unpleasant details of how the corporate world operates since very early on in my life. We had to travel far in order to buy healthy food. I grew up in Colorado Springs and Boulder, Colorado, along the front range of the Rocky Mountains.  I was concerned about the level of pollution, especially in Denver due to the understanding that the particulates in the air at that elevation would not dissipate so quickly, if at all.  Instead, they accumulated and, together with the rain shadow effect of the Rockies, degraded the air quality.  Then of course there is the knowledge of cloro-florocarbons in the fast food packaging, the aerosol sprays and what not contributing to the greenhouse gases and breaking down the ozone layer that I became aware of around 1989-90.  But actual thoughts about climate change came after “An Inconvenient Truth” by, Al Gore.  At that point I thought more about climate change as a crisis that was out of control.

The first time that I actually created music to address the climate crisis and devoted an entire event to it? – that would be these ClimateKeys events! And I have been looking forward to putting my creative energies toward a purpose such as this for a long time. In ClimateKeys, I see a forum where music is the central aspect of the event, inspiring further dialogue, as a means to highlight the introspective, meditative process as a distinctive form of activism, focusing on the quiet intensity of the vibrations in music, together with our intentions and the energy we put out into the world, as a catalyst of discussion and change.  Only music can do this exactly that way.  And I do not say that strictly because I am a professional musician.  I have always believed this.

NMSP: People who feel the urgency of the climate crisis often take some kind of action (everything from protests and petitions to organizing and direct-action), but they also wonder if what they’re doing helps change anything for the better. Artists have expressed similar doubts. What can you say to other musicians and artists about how this process works for you?

AS: This is critical to address.  Again, I’ve thought about this my entire life.  The aspect of being able to affect change at a critical moment is born in one’s intentions, in the little things we do, the thoughts we convey, the energy we transmit.  The rebellion lives in some of us, but none of us can do it alone.  As in the fight for freedom and equality, none of this will possibly change over night.  But I believe that standing up for what is right, pounding the peaceful path of persistence, unifying and being more inclusive of all people and all living things- this is the way in which we make change.  And when you believe in it, it is only a matter of time.  I feel strongly about making my statement through music.  I have always had the desire to communicate a message to people behind my playing and the music that I write ever since I was a child.  That was acknowledged early on.  I always thought of success as reaching one person in the audience.  Chances are, if that happened, then reaching others might be pretty good.

NMSP: Lola Perrin, the Composer Pianist and founder of ClimateKeys, inspired you to participate in this movement to bring together music and conversations on climate, to ‘break the silence in everyday spaces’…

AS: I thought it was a novel and well-conceived idea with only the best possible outcomes: inspired music and dialogue on the critical topic of climate change. ClimateKeys is focused on the music as a means to inspire dialogue. This is an important difference between how Perrin conceived of the structure and intention of this event. I am also premiering important new works of my own.

NMSP: Your concert here in Albuquerque includes ‘Liquid Piano’. Talk about the 5 pieces that comprise the whole movement.

AS: “Liquid Piano” is an inquiry into process, form and movement in water and consists of five pieces: Blue Pool, Frigid, Deluge, Bosque and VLA. Stylistically they range from the blues of Blue Pool, to the frozen landscape of Frigid, the free-form, underwater sounds of Deluge, birdsong from the Bosque del Apache and graphic score-turned-notated-composition in VLA (which stands for Very Large Array). Liquid Piano investigates evaporation, drought, flood, frost, birdsong and imaginary radio waves from outer space.

Liquid Piano is a result of my need to convey thoughts on some prominent effects of climate change and the importance of music in the process of inspiring further dialogue on climate change. A short while ago, the poet and speaker, John Barney, who will be featured at this event as well, inspired me to investigate some landscapes in New Mexico for a project we are collaborating on. Two of these pieces, Bosque del Apache and VLA, are two out of several landscapes we began examining.  What I have created here is the first iteration of my developing perspective on these sites.  As for the water process and form aspect of my concept, they were primarily inspired by another of featured speaker for this event, Reese Baker.

Reese has developed a vision and practice for water harvesting, permaculture and sustainable land development that has always been amazing to me in its simplicity.  Over the years, I became more and more fascinated by Reese and John’s compassionate perspectives toward the earth and feel blessed to be able to unify our creative powers in this event.

NMSP: What’s next for you? Will you continue to take action on climate through your music? Maybe some direct action in your future?

AS: I will certainly compose several more cycles of music based on the earth- soil, water, the environment.  By juxtaposing timbres, articulations and rhythms, I aim to create harmonic textures that become environments where the musical ideas exist.  It is a natural fit to investigate the organic processes of our realm for inspiration.  I will continue to create music that is relevant and potent to the extent that it has a greater meaning and purpose.  I am also an ultra marathoner.  Through endurance running I have found a unique way to commune with Mother Earth.  Compassion and sympathy for the delicate nature of our natural environment, and the preservation of peace- that is where I exist. I would say there is some direct action in my future.  When it calls, such as the numerous marches and protests I’ve participated in so far, I am there with my wife and daughters.  My children harbor a deep sense of gratitude for our beautiful world and have joined in on every rally I’ve been to since they were born.  This is for us all, but it is for them in a big way.  We need to leave this world a better place for them to live their lives in as well.

Art by John Barney


NMSP: John, when did you first begin talking about climate and what changed for you (in terms of communication) since that time?

JB: I first started talking about climate change when I was in grad school for landscape architecture in the 1990’s. A lecturer/participant at a design charrette I was involved in 1998 said that designing without thinking about the carbon footprint and other metrics of sustainability was like “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” It got my attention. I started reading everything I could. The following year I took an environmental engineering class where we graphed world CO2 levels over the last century and learned how to calculate the carbon footprint. It was terrifying and fascinating. And then in one of my final projects, I looked at how the local County landscape could be planned from a land use perspective in order minimize carbon impacts – it was astonishing how much land it would take to sink the carbon created by one fairly progressive community. I started walking every day to class, and going to the farmer’s market. And of course talking about what I was learning about with everyone.

NMSP: People often to cling to narratives like ‘we’re out of control’ and ‘the crisis is too big to solve’. How can poetry and art disrupt this thinking? (can it?)

JB: The situation is enormous and feels out of control. However, I think poetry and art have the power and possibility of shifting that in a moment from a seemingly out-of-reach, somewhat abstract, impersonal perspective to a personal perspective which opens again, potentially, to something universal. In this dialog, the role of art – it seems to me, is to bring other perspectives on the same subject matter in such a way that it raises questions and creates space in a dialog where right now there is no space. I know from personal experience, and my own recovery process, that I am the only the one I have the power to truly change, and that my personal experience in my community and the outcome of my personal inquiry of my art is what I have to share as an artist and poet. If that changes hearts and minds, so be it, and yes, that feels good! However, if I assume that will always happen or assume the mantel of some kind of larger righteous vision, it can become problematic and potentially painful for myself or others really quickly. For me, art can never be a one-sided communication – it relies on an audience to receive, process and respond to it.

NMSP: Is poetry ‘the art of saying the unsaid’? Does language of the artist help us see the bigger picture, to feel what’s at stake for humanity and the living systems if we fail to act?

JB: I’m not sure it is saying the unsaid at this point, but more like saying what is already said sometimes IN ALL CAPS ALL AROUND US in a different way so that others among us can hear it, feel it.  Sometimes a different perspective – e.g. a Navajo poet writing about her grandfather living near a fracking operation and having to drive to visit her grandfather from where she now lives in her gas-warmed house in Albuquerque because that is where her job is.

Part of the issue is that we are all implicated in climate change just by being a part of a nation and culture that consumes 2/5 of the world’s hydrocarbons. Not to denigrate the numbers or the facts about the enormity of climate change – but perhaps narratives coming from the idiosyncrasy and specificity of the local and personal can be more compelling at this point. It makes the situation more relatable…. And then perhaps through juxtaposition of imagery and the breaking open of words and common tropes in new ways creating perhaps new metaphors like we do in poetry and art, we can break down conceptual and emotional barriers and create an opening wherein a more profound dialogue can happen — maybe a place where we can grieve together and then heal and grow together.

NMSP: How can climate organizations work with poets and artists? What do people living creatively have to teach NGOs and grassroots organizations about communicating with an audience – possibly even growing a movement?

JB: I think we have a lot to learn from each other. I am so grateful for the work being done by so many people in the organizing community. What I have learned from them as an artist is to not be afraid to let go of what I think I am about as an artist all the time, and let my voice and my art be in service of something larger, whether it is for the struggle for immigration rights or bringing awareness to climate change. As artists, we have to be a part of the community and time we live in, and I believe we have an important contribution to make. What that will mean for each artist is of course different. For me it means giving time and giving voice to those aspirations within me around the issues that resonate most with me and to do it in my unique way — hence the Minnow Project. I think what we can teach organizers is maybe to return to the common ground of the heart without relinquishing your vision. Be creative in your ways of communicating – connect with the heart of everyone involved in the conversation. And then, I think, remember to play and be playful! Artists are serious, and art like organizing is serious business, but in other ways, we are all tinkerers and love to play, and in my experience, when I give myself over to those moments, that is often when the biggest breakthroughs in the work happen.

NMSP: Talk about your collaboration with Alex – on ClimateKeys and other projects.

JB: Alex and I met when he played at Chatter 3 years ago and I was reading my Albuquerque poem. We had talked about collaborating on some work that would have both a libretto that came from my writing and music from Alex. Back last February, we did a whirlwind tour of a range of “production” landscapes in New Mexico, from Bosque del Apache and the VLA to the Santa Rita mine and Mountain View. Two of the collaborative pieces, Alex has already written music and they will be premiered in the Albuquerque ClimateKeys event, which is exciting. I have started to write for these pieces, but we have yet to marry text to music, even though they are completely related. Working with Alex on these pieces, as with other significant collaborations for me in the past, has been an amazing learning process and growth experience. We have had some really interesting conversations synesthesia and about the idea of the “score” and the process of generating performance from it: we had this “aha” moment when we realized how he sees sound, and how some of my drawings are meant to be heard. We hope to complete the New Mexico suite by February of next year at the one anniversary of our whirlwind journey and premiere it sometime thereafter.

Art by John Barney

NMSP: You attend Chatter, the Albuquerque musical venue (and our host for the ClimateKeys event), every Sunday. You sometimes read poetry, but every week you listen to the music and draw and paint in your sketchbook. What has that experience taught you about the arts, audiences, and conversation?

JB: The arts are an ongoing, growing conversation, or maybe more like a series of conversations that loop in and out of each other endlessly. And they bring people together in a way that can facilitate more conversation. For me Chatter is like the best of my experiences as a kid in the Unitarian Church – some amazing music that opens you up, something provocative to think about– usually the poetry, some silence and more music to reflect on all of it, and a whole bunch of amazing people to share about the experience before and after the performance. I draw pretty much every performance and it’s always interesting to hear audience members’ responses to the performance and to how it is translated onto the paper.  Often the drawings seem to become another point of access for them to the performance, especially to the more modern/contemporary/abstract and challenging pieces, and sometimes to the spoken word of the poetry. It creates more “chatter”, and that makes me happy. I can’t wait to draw Alex and Reese and Mark doing their thing. Maybe Alex will draw me.

Additional Notes and Quotes about the ClimateKeys Event:

Reese Baker, is the main speaker for the ClimateKeys event. He is the owner and founder of The RainCatcher Inc., is a certified permaculture designer who has been involved with green building, organic farming, water harvesting, erosion control, ecological restoration and permaculture in the Santa Fe area for over 16 years. He currently owns The RainCatcher Inc. based out of Santa Fe, NM.  He holds a B.S. in Biology/Botany from The University of New Mexico and is currently involved in independent research focusing on the importance of rainwater and soil ecology in high desert ecosystems.

Reese was on the board of directors for the Santa Fe Watershed Association, and the City of Santa Fe Water Conservation Committee.  He has also taught classes on water harvesting, permaculture, and erosion control at Ecoversity, Plants of the Southwest, Santa Fe Preparatory School, Quivira Coalition, Earthworks Institute, Arboretum Tome, Permaculture Institute, Santa Fe Botanical Gardens, and Santa Fe Community College.

Ozone Hole – Woodcut by Elaine Cimino (Inspired by her conversations with James Hansen)

Elaine Cimino, is an artist, environmental activist, and founder of Common Ground Community Trust. She has lectured on the effects of global warming on drinking water and worked on environmental justice for indigenous and culturally diverse communities. Her artwork reflects the deep ecology that she practices and a sense of place within the landscape that she lives.

Common Ground Community Trust is working in conjunction with the Citizen Science Project network to record baseline data on water & air sampling prior to oil and gas industry siting of 15,000 + wells in the Chaco Mesa area and Rio Grande Valley impact all life including the 12 Native American Tribes within the Sandoval County area. To volunteer as individual and/or Youth/Student Group  Please Contact them: info (at)

All ticket proceeds from the ClimateKeys event will benefit Common Ground Rising’s Citizen Science Project.

On My Way to Chaco by Elaine Cimino


Mark LeClaire will speak at the ClimateKeys event and facilitate the audience climate conversation.

According to Mark’s 7-year old son, he’s “pretty strict but also a nice person. And he hates fracking!” A father of three, adobero & inveterate farmer, he can usually be found getting his hands dirty somewhere. He is also a musician & longtime volunteer at KUNM. Some of his musings can be found at


Chatter’s Las Puertas location will host the Albuquerque concert which features: Alexander Schwarzkopf, Composer and Pianist, John Barney, Poet and Artist, Reese Baker, event speaker, and Mark LeClaire, farmer, climate advocate, and the event’s conversation facilitator.

Date: November 14th, 7-9 PM (Doors open at 6 PM)

Location: Chatter, 1512 1st St NW, ABQ

General Admin $20, Students $10

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[1] Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

[2] In 2010, The University of Oregon published a useful guide for ‘Climate Change Communications and Behavioral Change’.  (


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