Sounds of the Sea

November 23, 2016

Neil McCalmont '19

Sophie Davis and her crew mates made music on the deck of their research vessel
On rare occasions when the weather and workload cooperated, Sophie Davis and her crew mates made music on the deck of their research vessel.

Sophie Davis is passionate about the environment and also about her music. A double-degree student at Oberlin majoring in environmental science and violin performance, Davis seeks connections between the two worlds, asking how music can be used to heighten awareness of climate change.

One connection she found came through a project devised with her sister—fellow violinist Josie Davis ’14—involving Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.

“We asked people in our community to submit photos of the town watershed during all four seasons, and we performed the work while they could see the pictures,” says the native of Maine. “It’s that kind of multimedia production that gets people to think about music and the environment differently.”

In the spring of 2015, Davis plunged into an oceanic expedition with about 25 students from other colleges. Part of the Sea Education Association’s Oceans & Climate program for undergraduate students, the six-week voyage from New Zealand to Tahiti took place on a 134-foot boat. Her research focused on the effects of climate change on pteropods, or sea snails.

“They make their shells out of calcium carbonate,” Davis explains. “With ocean acidification, the acid eats away at their shells, so they can’t produce the calcium carbonate as easily. We measured the pH of the sea water and quantified the shell damage of the snails we collected.”

Sometimes, her maritime research was met with unexpected challenges. “I was looking under a microscope to count organisms when a big wave came and moved everything, so I had to start all over again,” she says. “It was also 3 a.m.”

Research at that hour wasn’t out of the ordinary, although the crew’s rotating shifts led to a displaced sense of time. “Schedule rotations lasted three days. Time sort of morphed—we didn’t measure it in days. You’d have a four-hour shift at night or a six-hour shift during the day. And then you’d get to sleep between shifts. You would take a lot of naps.”

And the work consisted of far more than scientific inquiries. “We had to clean everything you could imagine: walls, floors, sinks…it was disgusting,” she admits. “It’s amazing how dirty things could become. The kitchen was a big area of focus. The engine room had all sorts of nasty stuff. The labs also had a lot of chemicals you had to take care of.”

Practicing, then, became a luxury for the nautical musician. “I played as often as I could. Maybe a couple of times per week,” she recounts. “I wish I could have practiced more, but at least there were a number of musicians on the ship. I got to play a lot of fiddle music—we had guitars, ukuleles, drums, and several violins.”

Salty and humid air does not bode well for instruments, and so Davis knew not to bring along her own violin. The musicians could play only on good weather days, since they would wake sleeping crew members if they played below deck.

“There were some beautiful days where I played a lot of Bach. His music just seemed to fit,” she says. “I spent 10 days in Tahiti, where I was able to play more. It was so fun to play on the beach. I remember two kids hid behind a fence while watching me play, and they seemed like they had never seen a violin before. It made me realize how differently music affects people.”

For Davis, the time away from regular playing allowed her to consider her outlook on the violin.

“Taking a break was the best thing I could have done musically. It made me think long and hard about all of the other aspects of who I am, and that influences how I play in many subconscious ways.”

Likewise, her research also influenced the way she approaches music. “Climate change is a human problem, so I think we need to put it in a human context,” she says. “I’ve been thinking a lot about how the two overlap, and I’m excited to continue finding ways to combine the two.”

“Living on a boat,” she adds, “also made me appreciate playing on solid ground again, without wind.”

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