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Science and Innovations

Musical Collaboration Explores Wildfire in Northern Arizona Forests

Melissa Sevigny

The Flagstaff Festival of Science begins today and this year the theme is “the science of change.” Two local artists have teamed up to create a musical experience about wildfire and climate change. Shawn Skabelund is a sculptor and Janice ChenJu Chiang is a pianist. Together they’ve planned a piano concert that takes place in a room transformed into a forest.

SEVIGNY: This doesn’t look very much like a concert hall; tell me what you’ve done with this space.  

SKABELUND: We are looking at hundreds of charred timbers which were hauled out of the Coconino National Forest from the slash burns that the Forest Service did, after they do a thinning.

And I have to ask, where does the audience go?  

SKABELUND: The audience gets to wander as Janice performs inside the installation.

CHIANG: I chose eight composers from five continents. It’s based on the idea of Love and Death; our love for the forests. The first part, which is Nature—the forest, the birds, the animals—all this image that you can hear from the music, and that’s what we love in the very beginning, and the second part is the Fire, which is our main focus. And then the last part is the sadness behind what occurred to our environment right now, our forests in the Southwest especially.  

So Shawn, your art installation, how does this also reflect that idea of wildfire and climate change?  

SKABELUND: It’s only recently, 1980s, forest managers and fire ecologists started realizing there was something missing in the forest. And that thing that was missing was fire. It’s because of the fire suppression our forests have basically become overgrown and unhealthy. And so fire ecologists and scientists are realizing how important fire is … It is the one critical ingredient that needs to be brought back into the forest.  

What do you think that art and music can contribute to a conversation that’s mostly been about science?   

CHIANG: I do think there’s a connection between science and music. You can’t always just focus on the rational or factual part of a subject, but you could also look at the other side, and I think they can complement each other.   

SKABELUND: I’m a firm believer that art has the power to transform and change society…. Not only do you start to change your feeling about science, about forest policy, about fire policy, it also changes your mind about what is art, and as an artist that’s my biggest mission is to open people’s eyes about what art can be.              

Performances of “Composition for Forests” will take place on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Wednesday during the Festival of Science. You can find information about tickets here (the event is free but space is limited) and a schedule for the Festival of Science here.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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