A Composer's Guide to Cataclysm

Clockwise from top left: Sebastian Adams, Éna Brennan, Natalia Beylis, Robert Coleman, Nick Roth, Gráinne Mulvey, Ian Wilson, Judith Ring, Karen Power and Jennifer Walshe.

A Composer's Guide to Cataclysm

RTÉ Lyric FM recently broadcast a two-part documentary on Irish composers and climate change, presented and produced by Jonathan Grimes of the Contemporary Music Centre. James Camien McGuiggan reviews.

In the two-part radio documentary We Only Want the Earth, broadcast on RTÉ Lyric FM on 17 and 24 March, the Contemporary Music Centre’s Jonathan Grimes takes us on a cycle tour to the homes of ten Irish composers (Judith Ring, Natalia Beylis, Robert Coleman, Karen Power, Gráinne Mulvey, Ian Wilson, Nick Roth, Éna Brennan, Jennifer Walshe and Sebastian Adams), as well as musicologist Stephen Graham. Grimes’ questions to his contributors: How are composers responding to a world whose climate is undergoing cataclysmic change? Can music help us confront the climate change crisis?

Most of the documentary was given to composers dwelling upon how they could use their music to persuade people to think differently, whether by opening hearts to the beauty of nature or by viscerally depicting the impact of climate change. Natalia Beylis talked about her work Lost–for Annie, which represents the silence that follows habitat destruction. Nick Roth talks about his childhood in a wood that has since been felled; his work Woodland Heights represents the increase of biodiversity over time in a forest. We join Robert Coleman leading a deep-listening nature walk in which he hopes that a better understanding of, say, birds and how they live will make us kinder ecological stewards.

There was a lot of self-doubt here about whether composers’ efforts in this regard actually bear fruit, and some composers took a more sceptical line. Ian Wilson and Gráinne Mulvey both incorporate nature into their work, but they use it more as compositional material than with any hope of proselytisation – Mulvey talks of ‘mining’ sounds for musical interest; Wilson (who has composed in such a vein himself) worries that this kind of thing can seem ‘didactic’ and clearly considers the idea that contemporary music can be politically effective unspeakably improbable.

Grimes does not remain neutral here. To counter Wilson’s scepticism, he enlists Hannah Daly, a climate scientist and advisor to the documentary, who claims that the obstacles between us and a sustainable relationship with the earth are political and societal rather than technological. That is, we don’t need better batteries – the ones we have are good enough – what we need is to envision a sustainable future attractive enough to make sacrifices for. And this is a task for the arts if anything is. I find the elision in that thought between ‘the arts’ and ‘contemporary classical music’ suspect. Stephen Graham (who often made the sharpest contributions) took what seemed to me a fair and moderate line: composers’ impact is roughly commensurate with their cultural capital more generally.

However, this aspect of how contemporary classical music can face up to climate change pales in comparison to the other aspect, touched on only passim: the material climate impact of contemporary music. Graham was the first to make this point, recounting the absurd carbon footprint of orchestral touring: a hundred and more musicians flying back and forth between cities that have their own orchestras. Contemporary music doesn’t typically have the budget to be guilty of heating the planet at this scale, but cosmopolitanism is at its heart, so it is probably still one of the highest-emitting forms of music around, at least per audience member. For Jennifer Walshe, this cosmopolitanism is not just how contemporary music happens to be, a social norm that we should just buck, but essential to what this music is up to: ‘if we [musicians] don’t get to travel, we don’t get to do music in the way that music is best done, which is that people are exposed to different types of music by different people, live in performance.’ This leaves her feeling conflicted and confused, and she connects this to her line ‘we all knew and yet we did nothing about it’ from her song cycle Minor Characters (2023; co-written with Matthew Shlomowitz).

Walshe explicitly refrains from criticising anyone from her glass house, but the absence of any mention of the climate impact in the discussion of Éna Brennan’s upcoming opera Hold Your Breath, co-written with artists in two other countries and commissioned by a fourth, was nevertheless gaping. Similarly, Karen Power spoke eloquently about her field trips to Antarctica, but Grimes did not ask her what it cost her to get there. (My criticism here is not of Brennan or Power, who may well have been perfectly assiduous with their carbon calculations.)

Walshe’s frank articulation of a confusion and terror we all probably share is welcome, but here should not be where we settle. Kirkos Ensemble, with their 2023 work Beginner’s Guide to Slow Travel, take seriously the criticism that contemporary music needs to rethink its relationship with international travel. This piece was co-commissioned by festivals in England, Ireland and the north of Scotland, which immediately invited a substantial carbon cost. Embodying the work’s climate-change themes into its production, Kirkos travelled to the festivals by boat and train rather than by plane, incorporating the much longer journeys into the performances. Kirkos’ Sebastian Adams talked eloquently about why this is no quick fix. To mention one impediment, for a performing musician, ‘a day where you’re not travelling is potentially a lost day of income.’ Beginner’s Guide to Slow Travel is not a gimmick but an attempt to start a conversation about who pays for those lost days of income.

The segment about Beginner’s Guide to Slow Travel was the most exciting and important of the documentary. Beylis’, Coleman’s, and Roth’s love of nature is, in a sense, timeless: they could have spoken those words at any time since climate change entered the popular consciousness, or even since humans have been shaping land for agriculture and industry. Ring’s, Wilson’s and Power’s attempts to instil a sense of the urgency of climate change are somewhat more timely, but that is well-trodden ground by now, certainly among contemporary music’s well-educated and pious audiences. Only with Kirkos does this awareness of the encroaching cataclysm cross over into action.

We Only Want the Earth, in its gentle interviewing of its contributors, lacks the urgency of Beginner’s Guide to Slow Travel, which is discussed as a curiosity rather than an immanent critique. If the documentary’s topic was something general – ‘the place of politics in music,’ perhaps – this relaxed approach would be appropriate. One might take it for granted that no immediate political end could be achieved through such a documentary and that its purpose therefore must be just to canvas composers. But climate change is something where we’re still looking for concrete answers and are still open to dramatically changing how we go about our lives. From this point of view, We Only Want the Earth is a missed opportunity. Graham’s and Walshe’s points about the carbon cost of contemporary classical music’s cosmopolitanism suggest something more it can do to alleviate climate change than offer bromides, and Kirkos’ Beginner’s Guide to Slow Travel gives these points a practical expression. Had Grimes pursued these seams of criticism, something more befitting the impending cataclysm than his cordial cycle tour might have resulted.

Listen to We Only Want the Earth below. For more, visit www.cmc.ie/amplify/weonlywanttheearth.

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Published on 6 June 2024

James Camien McGuiggan studied music in Maynooth University and has a PhD in the philosophy of art from the University of Southampton. He is currently an independent scholar.

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