19 March 2014
Extinct Birds and contemporary music as activism: an invitation
© Dan Oara
It's an enduring debate: whether music can and should exist as a vehicle for ideas and ideologies, and whether or not artists have a responsibility to utilise their influence in the battle for hearts and minds. It's an issue I have come to have an opinion on only very recently, with my latest commission Extinct Birds from London-based Ensemble Matisse, which responds to impending ecological collapse by juxtaposing human song with live recordings of the songs of other species whose destruction we have caused.
The concept arose from my desire to finally unite the two halves of my life - in addition to my composing career, I worked for an environmental law NGO (non-governmental organisation) for many years. I undertook campaign training last year, and learned something that struck me: volumes of psychological studies show that between 90 to 95% of human decisions are unconsciously and emotionally decided1 . We overestimate the rationality of the human being over and over again. Could it be possible to have more impact through music, even if in the contemporary classical genre?
For some people, art, when at its most significant, is as an 'early warning system'2 for society. Historically, due both to their outsider status and their ability to imagine better worlds, avant garde artists have often aligned themselves with creative radicalism. By creative radicalism I mean alignment with an activist or political message or ideology, not merely aesthetic revolution. 'Modern' artists and composers of any era often mingled with the intelligentsia and helped set fire to new ideas, for better or worse.
But where is that activity in the contemporary music world today? Examples do exist, and commentators such as Australian composer Leah Barclay trace a growing body of international work to combine technology, sound art and environmental field recordings to increase environmental awareness. Her own work makes fascinating use of environmental field recordings to raise awareness through electro-acoustic installations.
There are also some other notable examples in the Australian contemporary music scene. Composer Colin Bright springs to mind with overtly political works exploring environmental activist themes, such as with his recent trio Climate Change, or the more famous The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior. Martin Wesley-Smith has produced powerful activist works, some of them on environmental issues, including Who Killed Cock Robin? written in 1979 before the Australian ban of DDT in 1987. This chemical was highly toxic for birds, humans and other species. On the broader criterion of political activism, there are a handful of other names to be added. Robert Davidson's fascination with the relationship between language and music often takes on highly political manifestations. I remember the powerful experience of hearing his We apologise for the first time - performed by The Australian Voices, this creation took a tiny fragment of the text of Kevin's Rudd's apology to the stolen generations speech and manipulated the time to augment the gravity and significance of this apology. I have no doubt it lodged in my consciousness far more deeply than watching Kevin Rudd's speech - as momentous as that was.
Nevertheless, my own sense is that there are still far fewer examples of artistic activism (let alone environmentalism) in contemporary music than there are in film, painting, or indeed than there are in more popular music forms such as folk and rock. Why is this so? Is it an identity thing? Does it imply that the contemporary music community is overly siloed or conservative? I'm not sure. But I am sure that the environmental movement, and broader social protest movements, needs the help of artists of all persuasions more than ever before.
Many of us are wary about political or activist art, sensing the risks both for our career (being boxed in or type cast) and for art itself - at one end of the spectrum, agit-art (or further still, propaganda art) could be seen as anti-art. We also remember examples of composers who got it wrong - we recall the famous image of Beethoven furiously scrawling out the dedication to Napoleon of the 3rd symphony. In more recent times, the West consciously preserved 'pure music' in the art music world, just as the Soviet bloc (at times by brutal coercion) fostered music with a political point of view. But does it change things when we realise that we as composers are needed?
Music is the original magic, it can transcend politics, and for centuries there have been people who wanted to protect it from politics or issues of the day. Equally, the global environmental crisis should transcend party lines. But the destruction of life supporting systems continues, against all good advice, and often in the name of economic objectives that can bring little or no further happiness to the developed world. Perhaps it is only music that can wake us from our numb delusion that we can carry on the same way, and help us hear the curses of the unborn generations.
The Earth is in an era of mass extinction, we have at most 10 years to ensure global greenhouse gas pollution peaks and falls to avert dangerous climate change, and we have flung headlong into this century without a credible plan for how to avoid destroying the life supporting systems of the Earth. So I think we do have a responsibility as composers, but I recognise that that should never be a creative straitjacket, should never veer towards opportunism, and it will amount to little unless the artist is sincere in both his or her feeling of the message and its artistic communication.
If I reflect honestly on my own creative practice, I have been mainly interested in 'arts for arts sake' until quite recently. For me it was a refuge from real world issues which I often found deeply upsetting. To be more honest still, I have to admit that my work has not been ground breakingly 'new', I tend to value sincerity and depth of expression above novelty, and while I'm very interested in new contemporary sounds and structures for the sake of searching for a wider sonic vocabulary, my music is generally acoustic, at the more accessible end of the contemporary classical spectrum, and often returns to narrative structures. Perhaps this is because I'm still fairly young and my compositional voice is still evolving. But what if it is because my other insight as an environmental expert has meant that I don't have faith in the progress narrative of our society?? All listening is influenced by issues and zeitgeist of the times, and the personal values and musical DNA of the listener. And it is the same for the process of composing and dreaming up new music.
Unlike anything I had worked on before, Extinct Birds presented me with some new challenges and helped free up the creative process. The first challenge was the starting point - the music of other species. The tragic thing was that it was not hard to find recordings of extinct and endangered song birds, because so many are gone or declining. Beginning by absorbing bird song helped me let go of the piles of musical structures and contemporary tricks and idioms under my fingers and in my mind, and explore new melodic patterns. (I also gave myself a rule not to listen to any Messiaen during the months I was writing!)
I had to slow down the recordings up to 30 times to hear the pitch intervals of various species of warblers, nightingales and others. I learned that birds have regional dialects, often improvise on their own songs, and sing faster in cities than when in their natural habitat. I saw that music and aesthetics do not belong to humans alone but are organising principles of nature. I endeavoured to represent this symbolically by the sharing of the same and similar melodic fragments between musicians and the birds. In short, I realised how much music there was before humans and was deeply humbled and moved.
The second challenge was how to find a way for the message to be both completely clear and personal. Music being the most abstract, and most mysterious, of the arts, the only way for me to resolve this was by writing the lyric/poetic text myself and introducing voice in the final movement, the 'apology to the birds,' for baritone, sung in Zulu and English. Even the first three movements, which are instrumental, (scored for clarinet, violin, cello, piano and ethnic percussion) have a strong sense of narrative, which was the inevitable consequence of feeling like I had 'so much to say!'
The difficulty is always in finding ways to maximise impact - how to make it a bit more than just awareness-raising? This is an ongoing challenge, but linking with guest talks from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and including a basic 'what you can do' section in the printed programme for the audience, felt like a tiny start.
While we still faced the usual difficulties of filling concert halls with contemporary music, I noticed that the audiences we are reaching with Extinct Birds are almost unanimously excited and moved. At times the birdsong I had layered or enhanced filled the concert hall on its own, at times it interacted with the instrumentalists, and, more of the time, it provided thematic launching point for the music. There seems to be something about the incorporation of recorded bird song, and also a clear message, that helped break down the usual resistance to contemporary classical music.
I have been reflecting on this, and on the image of the contemporary art world in popular culture. While we've definitely made progress in Australia and overseas, the popular perception remains that contemporary music is elitist, overly intellectual or meaningless. I dare to suggest that a new openness to activist music in the contemporary music world (and broader art world) could help break down resistance to contemporary music and improve its perception of being 'relevant.' Furthermore, I'm sure the time will come when issues of ecological collapse (and the deeply related problems for human rights) may beckon an aesthetic revolution, or at least cycle, once again. I'm sure we will eventually see a new movement in the arts that explores new ways of celebrating natural forms, including the vanishing music of the Earth, as a reaction to growing consciousness of just how much will be lost.
Extinct Birds has just finished its first mini-tour in the UK, where it also sparked the initiation of a new annual arts-environment festival in the suburb of Camden, London. But I hope to bring it back to Australia sometime soon. I would be very interested to hear from anyone interested to explore broader ways to unlock the potential of music and the arts as a force for environmental change. In the meantime I'm now setting to work on a new creation, for soprano harp and flute, intended to be performed with movie projection of footage from hurricane Sandy, where the US president publically linked freak weather with human induced climate change.
I guess it's like this: we still and will always need 'pure' music, either as a refuge from the world, or as music that enriches us simply by existing and eliciting its mysterious effects. But now, perhaps more than ever before, we also need composers and artists to stand up for issues that threaten life and well being, and if they feel it, to have the courage to call for system change. The environmental movement and the broader social protest movements of Occupy and others are deeply connected, and both sets of issues will only intensify from here on. From a more narrow perspective, history is clear that the arts flourish only where societies flourish within their environments. There is no music on a dead planet. Time to get involved.
2 'Art at its most significant is a Distant Early Warning System that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.' Marshall McLuhan in Understanding the Media: The Extensions of Man (1964).
Holyoake - AMC profile
'Insight: Sonic Ecologies - stretching beyond notes on the page' - an article on Resonate by Leah Barclay (30 January 2014)
'Martin Wesley-Smith's Who Killed Cock Robin? - a reflection by the composer' - an article on Resonate by Martin Wesley-Smith
'Activism, New Music and a Strong Stomach to Deal With It' - an article on Resonate by Danielle Carey (17 August 2007)
© Australian Music Centre (2014) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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