It’s hard to talk about climate change. Is writing music about it any easier?

22 September 2017

This article originally appeared on Sound and Music’s The Sampler blog.

It’s hard to talk about climate change. It’s an ongoing worldwide emergency happening in slow motion. It can often feel too abstract to contemplate, particularly here in the UK which has so far escaped the most extreme consequences of changing climate. With a news cycle dominated by the more immediate concerns of Trump and Brexit, it’s easy for enduring issues to simply become noise. When climate change is reported upon, it’s usually in relation to a terrifying disaster or dire prediction about decades down the line, or presented as unrelatable, intangible data (I mean, what does a tonne of carbon even feel like?).

I’m one of those composers that likes to write about stuff – total abstraction has never been particularly interesting to me. After writing pieces about specific places and our (built) environment, the progression to thinking about how issues of sustainability could be represented in my music felt like a natural development of my practice. My most recent piece, performed this week by Red Note Ensemble at the Lammermuir Festival, is a consequence of this change of thinking.

My initial ideas for the piece formed after reading press reports in April about the disappearance of Slims River in the Yukon, Canada, through “river piracy”. River piracy is when the water destined for one watercourse is naturally diverted into another, a process which usually occurs over long geological epochs – thousands of years. However, the once-mighty Slims River disappeared in just four days in Spring 2016, a geological blink-of-an-eye. The glacier that fed the river had receded and suddenly its meltwater could only flow into the neighbouring Alsek River, leaving the Slims to run dry. This act of river piracy is the first to be attributed to man-made climate change – scientists studying the phenomenon calculate that it is 99.5% certain that anthropogenic global warming is to blame for the river’s disappearance. The landscape that formerly hosted the river is being transformed beyond recognition as clouds of dust from the dried riverbed are whipped into the air by the wind.

Events like this are dramatic enough to make the news cycle, but creating artistic depictions of the worst effects of changing climate – rising sea levels, intensified hurricanes and the like – is problematic: whilst these depictions can be potentially spectacular, apocalypse-porn can only make our actions seem insignificant when compared to the environmental forces involved. This approach also doesn’t necessarily help us understand the nature of slow change that affects our world. Therefore, rather than depicting the sudden death of the Slims in my piece, I wanted to write about how we come to understand rivers (and, by extension, the rest of the world around us) and long-term change.

Limnology is the scientific study of inland bodies of water, and the key to writing this piece (titled Limnology (Slims River)) was my discovery that scientists use sound to take key measurements of flowing water. By using Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler (ADCP) devices, scientists can measure the speed and direction of currents, the distribution of sediment, and other aspects: ADCPs emit bursts of sound, which are too high for humans to hear, and then “listen” to the echoes. Due to Doppler shift (the same effect that makes a police car’s wailing siren seem to drop in pitch as it speeds past us), by comparing the pitch of the emitted sounds with their reflections, data about the water can be collected. I do not use genuine data in this piece, instead small drops in pitch become the musical building blocks of the work. Therefore, rather than being a traditional sonic portrait of a river, I see this piece as a celebration of creating knowledge, empiricism, and scientific endeavour. At a time when the US government is removing climate data from its websites and defunding the study of this climate change “hoax”, I feel this celebration is timely.

As musicians, it is unlikely that we can contribute to emerging climate science or develop new sustainable technologies. However, the move towards a sustainable future requires more than this – there also needs to be a significant cultural shift, and “culture” is what we do. Arguably, all art contributes to the grand narratives we tell about ourselves, a constructed reading of our society. No one single piece of music will ever likely be responsible for a significant change in public perception, but when creating art about sustainability we’re not igniting the spark of change, we’re helping to lay the bonfire.

Categories: Musings, Red Note, Sound and Music, Works

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Music’s role in making a better world

20 September 2017

Creative Carbon Scotland

As September’s Guest Editor of Sound and Music’s The Sampler blog, I commissioned this piece from Gemma Lawrence and Mike Elm of Creative Carbon Scotland, who explore the role that music and the music industry can play in addressing climate change, not only in how it works but what it does.

“Look at mother nature on the run, in the 1970s” so sung Neil Young in the title track of his double platinum selling album “After the Goldrush”. If Mr Young thought the situation was in a perilous state in the 1970s then the intervening years have hardly seen a turnaround. It has been estimated by the WWF that wildlife globally has declined by 50% since the 1970s. The causes for these declines are various and complicated but they have been driven by habitat loss and degradation, hunting and fishing, pollution, disease, invasive species, and – Creative Carbon Scotland’s pet ‘wicked problem’ – climate change. With this in mind it’s not about who needs to fix this problem, it’s about how we can all play our part and musicians and the music industry are no exception.

The challenges associated with sustainability and climate change are widely recognised as wicked problems: they are multi-faceted, encompassing a vast range of factors and stretching across global and generational boundaries. In short, they do not come without compromise and difficult decisions. This requires us to think outside of current paradigms, and find new means of understanding and changing the world, towards more just, sustainable societies.

The arts and culture have an essential role in achieving the transformational change to a sustainable future. Music, and the cultural sector more widely, relate to sustainability in two key ways through: what they do and how they do it.

The how, in the main, is the easy part to understand and – with some creativity – to take action towards sustainability. Take music festivals for instance, they can (and in some cases do) take action to improve their environmental sustainability through considering how they power themselves, whether they select local sustainable food providers, where the beer comes from, how they avoid creating waste and – and from a climate change point of view this is key – how everyone and everything gets there.

The less visible impacts of transport – of audiences, artists, crew and equipment – for a music festival is responsible for the lion’s share of its carbon footprint, on average some 80% of a festival’s carbon emissions are from audience travel. The ‘Fields of Green’ research project, which Creative Carbon Scotland were part of, looked at how music festivals and their audiences can and do tackle their carbon footprint as well exploring the (un)sustainability of music touring practices through songwriting and maps visualising festival touring patterns.

The how of course extends to all aspects of the music industry from how artists travel, how music venues run themselves, to the instruments and technologies we use to create and ‘consume’ music. Each of these has an associated carbon cost, and a range of more or less sustainable options. But is this where the primary role for the music industry in affecting the transition to sustainability lies?

When it comes to the music industry and the move towards sustainability, it’s really in the ‘what’. The carbon emissions of the UK music industry have been estimated at roughly 540,000 tonnes, this was back in 2010 and was equal to about 1/1000th of the UK’s carbon footprint at the time. Music can and does speak to people. Everyone from politicians, CEOs, school kids, town planners, accountants and designers, all listen to music. Equally, climate change affects all of us. Herein lies music’s strongest potential.

Tackling climate change is about politics, technology, finance but mostly it’s about people. There is a unique role for music in connecting with people on an emotional level, communicating complex ideas, its ability to reach wide and diverse audiences and opening up alternative spaces for dialogue and conversations to happen.

This last point, about conversations is one from personal experience. The somewhat on the nose ‘4 degrees’ by ANOHNI, released on the eve of the United Nations Climate Change conference that led to the landmark Paris Agreement, was a catalyst for conversations with people that rarely think or talk about the topic of climate change and the realities of something as benign sounding as a 4 degree temperature rise. This helped to build new understandings of how we perceive our roles in addressing the challenges it poses. Music not only speaks to individuals, it also shapes society.

At Creative Carbon Scotland, we see a vital role for music, and indeed all art forms, to be actively involved contributing to this cultural shift – shaping of the discussions and decisions which will impact upon the environmental sustainability of societies, now and into the future. As Jaques Attali said, “music is prophecy… It makes audible the new world that will gradually become visible”.

Useful links for finding out how you can be involved and inspiration:

Categories: Musings, Sound and Music

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A September playlist

20 September 2017

Sound and Music

As this month’s Guest Editor at Sound and Music’s The Sampler blog, I was asked to make a playlist of some sounds I’ve been listening to recently. So, here it is!: https://soundcloud.com/thmsbtlr/sets/sam-september-playlist

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Sampler Picks: September 2017

14 September 2017

This month, I’m Guest Editor of Sound and Music’s The Sampler blog. Here are my top picks for live events in September.

1. ONE

One Date: 15th September, 7:30pm
Venue: Seven Arts, Leeds

This is an intriguing series of concerts: Jacob Thompson-Bell has curated a programme that promises to somehow respond to the architecture and atmosphere of each performance location. Apparently the work can be “noisy, rough, serious, refined, gentle, playful”, so Jacob is clearly expecting a mixed crowd. A blend of improvised and prepared work, the performances use a new improvisation book by Claudia Molitor, keyboard works by Thompson-Bell himself, and musical sketches by Dan Kidane, Michael Betteridge and Ben Gaunt (who also plays piano here). Read More

2. TOM PHILLIPS Irma: an opera

IrmaDate: 16th September, 7:30pm
Venue: South London Gallery, Peckham Road, London

In 1966, Tom Philips began making art based on a forgotten Victorian novel that he bought from a second-hand bookshop. Through a process of cutting, obscuring and decorating the text, Philips created A Humument, a life-long project with many iterations. Irma is his “new” opera (it was begun in 1969), which shares source material with A Humument, and is described by its creator as “a recipe book for a stage event; with all the ingredients of traditional opera, dance episodes, drinking chorus, mad scene, erotic enactment, and the many variations on love and death”. Read More

3. It’s all True

It's all TrueDate: 21st September, 7.30pm
Venue: Cafe Oto, Ashwin St, London

For another take on collage and intertextuality (ahem…), take It’s all True performed by Object Collection: composer Travis Just and writer/director Kara Feely have created an opera based on obsessively reproducing the sonic detritus of gigs by post-hardcore band Fugazi: squealing feedback, inter-song ramblings and sporadic drum outbursts scored for four voices, four electric guitars/basses and two drummers. Read More

4. System Restart: A new generation of women composers

System Restart Date: 8th October, 7.30pm
Venue: Kings Place, London

There’s so much to love about this programme by Icebreaker – it contains so many interesting compositional voices and wonderful sounds. The programme features new music by Jobina Tinnemans, Kerry Andrew, Elizabeth Kelly, Linda Buckley and Anna Meredith, and offers an opportunity to hear Kate Moore’s excellent Mathijs Vermeulenprijs-winning The Dam, based on the “not quite polyrhythmic” sounds of a choir of cicadas, crickets, frogs, and birds at a waterhole in the bush. Read More

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Sampler Picks: 1 – 15 April 2016

1 April 2016

For the current issue of The Sampler, Sound and Music asked me to select four exciting new music events taking place in the next fortnight.

1. Sound Thought Festival 2016

Sound Thought Date: Friday 01 April
Venue: Centre for Contemporary Arts, Glasgow

If you’re quick, you can catch the last day of Sound Thought, an annual festival of sonic arts in Glasgow. A mixture of talks, installations and performances, Sound Thought showcases the work of early career composers, sound artists and researchers and is well worth checking out. Read More

2. The Devil Inside – Stuart MacRae

Stuart MacRaeDate: Sunday 03 April, 7.30pm
Venue: Clwyd Theatr Cymru, Mold

My favourite Stuart MacRae (pictured) opera to date, The Devil Inside‘s mix of the modern day and the supernatural could have been a bit awkward – but it works beautifully, with a great score, cast and libretto by Louise Welsh. Read More

3. Bel Canto – Cassandra Miller

Cassandra MillerDate: Sunday 03 April, 6.00pm
Venue: The Coronet Theatre, London

Cassandra Miller (pictured) made a big splash at last year’s Tectonics festival in Glasgow. Here, her piece Bel Canto is programmed as part of London Sinfonietta’s Mix, with music by Martin Smolka, Christian Marlay and Fausto Romitelli. Read More

4. Namvula

Namvula Date: Wednesday 06 April, 7.30pm
Venue: Sands Films, London

“Fusion” and “boundary-crossing” are terms we hear quite a lot but, in my humble opinion, Namvula is the real deal. Despite her diverse influences, the music feels honest, instinctive, original and highly personal. Read More

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