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The living shoreline at the Elizabeth River Project’s Ryan Resilience Lab is built to change.

The nonprofit’s new building on Colley Avenue is located in a vulnerable corridor along Knitting Mill Creek, projected to see about 5.5 feet of sea level rise in the coming decades.

As waters rise, the shoreline will slowly retreat inward. 

On Thursday night, a Norfolk composer debuted a symphony designed to imagine the sounds of that progression. 

“Over the course of the piece, it depicts musically the rising tide over the next 60 to 80 years,” said JJJJJerome Ellis, a musician and artist who spells his name to reflect his identity as a proud stutterer. His music often explores the intersection of nature, sound and time. 

“And as the water rises, then the composition of the plants will change.”

The 16-minute performance was part of a series of events the Elizabeth River Project is holding to celebrate its new headquarters. The building is meant as a “living laboratory” to demonstrate how to live with, not fight, water. 

Ellis developed the piece with his wife, Luísa Black Ellis, an ecologist who serves as the nonprofit’s resilience manager. The pair wrote most of it in one afternoon, he said.  

They assigned an instrument to each of the plants and elements of the shoreline – the French horn, trombone and woodwinds represent a few species of saltmarsh cordgrasses, for instance, while the double bass is the rising water. 

“So when listening to the music, it’s like you were hearing the landscape in a way,” Ellis said.

A few dozen attendees gathered in a small room at the resilience lab for the symphony, which was performed by eight musicians from the Virginia Symphony Orchestra as well as Ellis on the saxophone.  

Black Ellis sat next to him, softly adding verbal context to the piece, such as Indigenous peoples' connection to and history with the Elizabeth River, and the sea level rise expected to happen over the course of the century. 

Ellis described his piece as meditative, slow, gradual and harmonious, to reflect the pace of change in real life.

“The changes happen slowly, and subtly.”

The couple hope the piece inspires listeners to get involved with stewardship of the local ecosystem and start thinking about adapting to sea level rise.