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Flussfisch: creative freshwater science communication through song

February 10, 2016

We’re always keen on creative science communication here on The Freshwater Blog.  So when we were sent a new song resulting from a collaboration between freshwater scientist Simone Langhans and Swiss band Knuts Koffer, we knew we had to share it.

Built over a minimal, jazzy groove, the song’s lyrics (in German, with an English translation at the bottom of the post) are based on the research that Langhans – a post-doc at Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries IGB in Berlin – has carried out on river restoration.

We spoke to her and primary songwriter Frédéric Zwicker to find out more about how this innovative collaboration came about.

***

What have you been working on recently, and where?

Simone:

After my PhD in river and floodplain ecology at Eawag (Switzerland), I was working for the Swiss Federal Office for the Environment for a couple of years where I got interested in the challenges which we face when managing freshwater ecosystems. I’m particularly interested in ecological quality assessment, in methods that facilitate multi-stakeholder management decisions, and in optimizing river restoration with systematical planning approaches which account for cost-effectiveness.

Besides Switzerland, I’ve been working in Italy, Australia, Germany, and New Zealand. In my newest project affiliated with the Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries in Berlin, I’m working with local Maori on New Zealand’s North Island to identify their cultural values related to their freshwater systems with the intention to learn about how cultural values can be used together with ecological values in freshwater management, also in Europe.

Frédéric:

I am basically working three jobs at the same time. Two and a half days a week I write for a construction magazine in order to not have to worry about my bills and have some structure in my otherwise often quite chaotic weeks. It’s pretty funny that a couple of months before Simone asked me to write the song I wrote an article on river-renaturation in northern Switzerland.

I also work as an author. I’ve been writing a satiric column for a newspaper for seven years, I perform poetry and my first novel is about to be released this year. So there’s journalism, literature and music. The fourth album of my band Knuts Koffer came out in November last year. At the moment we’re still touring with the current program but at the same time I’m working on new material and playing guitar and writing for other bands and projects.

What gave you the idea to communicate your scientific research through a song? 

Simone:

Frédéric and I met by chance this summer in my hometown Rapperswil-Jona in Switzerland in the local pub, where I had beers with an old friend which we have in common. We started talking about our jobs (besides being a musician and fiction writer Frédéric writes for a Swiss construction journal) and suddenly this idea popped up in my head.

I have been intrigued by the idea that art could help convey scientific knowledge to the public for a while now, actually since my last year’s work stay in New Zealand where I got inspired by discussing similar ideas with my friend and colleague Dr. Marc Schallenberg (from the University of Otago). However so far, I never had the opportunity to work with musicians, although music has been part of my whole life, and I played in a band myself when I was younger.

Frédéric:

When Simone wrote to me I was immediately very excited about her idea. I am often inspired by science when writing songs or columns. One example: I read about scientific research on how men find women most attractive when they ovulate. I knew that in Switzerland two-thirds of women take the pill for birth control. The pill prevents women from ovulating. So 60% of Swiss women are never as beautiful as they could be. I had to put that into a song.

Simone’s project, however, required a more serious touch. I loved the idea to use very technical and scientific vocabulary in the lyrics and still make them rhyme without losing rhythm.

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Simone Langhans. Image: technologiestiftung-berlin.de

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Knuts Koffer.  Image: clanx.ch

Tell us about the process of translating science into music and song lyrics.  How did the collaboration work out?  And how has the song been received?

Simone:

Since neither of us had ever worked on a project like this, we didn’t have a set workflow to follow. Instead we jumped right into it and decided on-the-go how to proceed from one step to the next.

In a question-answer type of way, I introduced Frédéric to the general background of my research and to the particular study the song should be about. We then discussed the messages of the song and how those could be structured in verses. In a next step, Frédéric wrote the lyrics, which we discussed again, and he also composed the music. I enjoyed the way we collaborated a lot – it felt very natural.

Most people I’ve talked to were excited about the idea right away, which encouraged me to go through with it, although it was risky to try something so new. I’m quite excited about the positive feedback we got so far. If there is a next time, we may try something in English to reach a larger, international audience.

Frédéric:

When Simone asked me to write the song I was very thrilled and agreed right away. Then, when she sent me the papers she had published, I had a bit of a shock. It would be very difficult to determine what was relevant and to turn several pages of scientific mumbo-jumbo (sorry, Simone) into a catchy song.

Then Simone and I sat down in my garden and she explained what her research was about. By the end of our first meeting we had drafted a content-plan for the different verses. After that it was just a matter of getting to work, writing the lyrics and adjusting them according to Simone’s inputs after a second meeting. I composed the music to reflect the tragedy of the status quo and the hope for a better future through Simone’s propositions.

The reactions were very positive. The construction magazine I work for is writing an article about the song. Quite a lot of people who know my band considered the song to be very funny. One friend even said it was her favourite song by my band. Of course I have mixed feelings about that…

What do you think the value of creative collaborations like this are?  What advice might you be able to give to other people looking to foster similar interdisciplinary projects?

Simone:

Science itself is a very creative process and, hence, working with creative people from different fields is in my opinion inspiring on different levels. I directly benefited from this collaboration by:

1) Practicing how to formulate my research that non-scientists can understand what I’m doing and why;

2) Producing something other than a piece of paper that may have the potential to convey scientific knowledge to an audience outside of academia, and;

3) By getting a lot of feedback on my work compared to when I solely publish my research in scientific journals.

Networking and mingling with people outside of our scientific comfort zone is probably the key to interdisciplinary collaborations.  I think we should also place more emphasis on them in project proposals to secure financial support for similar projects.

Frédéric:

We as a band (as well as Simone as a scientist) can present our work to a new audience which is always valuable. I think we can also both benefit from demonstrating how versatile we are. I’m definitely hoping for more similar commissions. I guess that for scientists proving that you’re able to think outside the box and have innovative ideas can be just as important as it is for musicians.

Of course it’s also financially interesting to diversify your offer and find new ways to earn some money, since the music industry and consumer-habits are not really making it easy to prosper as a musician. I definitely learned a lot working on this project. And last but not least it was great fun to do something out of the ordinary. So my advice to scientists with similar ideas is to contact me!

***

RIVERFISH
A collaboration between Simone Langhans and KNUTS KOFFER

Mmh, Havel and Spree are two poor ladies
They lead a monotonic life captured in daily grind
Boats on their backs, bridges, channels, agoraphobia
Our rivers are not doing well because humans have screwed up

Now we’re planning restorations, but here a warning
We lack catchment-based and cost-efficient planning

Mmmmh, let’s systematize restorations
The software programme Marxan will assist us
It analyses potential restoration sites and shows us
The combination of sites that reaches the ecological goals at the lowest cost

Ahoi ho ho, ahoi ho ho, ahoi ho ho, ahoi ho ho

Havel and Spree should be healthy again these days
That’s anyway what the Water Framework Directive has envisaged
But the typical river fish species will never spawn sufficiently again
Cause there are not enough potential restoration sites to reach natural fish populations

Even so this is sad, thanks to the planning software we have realised
That restoration planning and Marxan are going hand in hand
Coupling expert knowledge and fish monitoring data
Marxan optimizes what’s best for flora, fauna and people’s wallet

Riiiiiiiiiii…….

The Leibniz-Institute of Freshwater Ecology and Inland Fisheries will continue working on these issues in order to improve the health of our rivers

………ver

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