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’12 Years’

“Her shoulders shrug as she tightens her muscles and launches powerfully into the opening chords of Twelve Years, a piece about how humanity has just over a decade to save the planet from climate change. She hammers out the minimalist chords at rapid-fire pace, turning her head from side to side and repeating ‘Twelve years!?’ in disbelief, before the chords start to falter and fade out. She turns to the microphone and says ‘Twelve years… to save a planet?’ And then corrects herself: ‘This was written last year so… it’s actually eleven.’

See Review below.
Sarah’s piano covered in leaves

This is my response to the IPCC Special Report, 2018, where we were told that we had 12 years to radically change our behaviour to save the planet. My 12 tracks divide into reality – actual headlines and real people like Greta Thunberg and David Wallace-Wells talking about climate breakdown – and fiction – where 3 characters talk to each other on the phone about their lives. There also a couple of wordless tracks, one of a glacier melting and one about hope in the face of such huge news. I wanted to make a recital to give an audience time and space to think about the issue and to leave the room with a sense of what could be done, a trajectory of hope.

“Amazing. Stoked the fire for change.”
“Instead of just thinking about or reading about climate change I actually
felt it.”  

“Captivating material, brilliantly and cleverly composed and performed and thought out.”
“I’m much closer to the issue now. Maybe so close that I’m actually
in the issue.”  “I thought the hopeful ending was great – helped to propel us to DO SOMETHING!”
“OMG Amazing. I honestly didn’t know what I was in for. What a beautiful treat. I felt alive, moved and more aware of things I can do.”
“Beautiful & terrifying.”
“Very powerful and thought-provoking.”

Audience comments from the first performances at City University, London and in Galway, Ireland in March 2019.

“This should be prescribed viewing/watching/listening for anyone even remotely concerned with the welfare of our planet.”

Ciaran Ryan, General Manager, Galway Jazz Festival

“We booked Sarah based on her work with the Inside-Out Piano, not knowing exactly what the programme was going to comprise. ’12 Years’ was much much more than we were expecting – a necessary, vital, uncomfortable but hopeful response from an artist to Climate Breakdown. The performance neither assumed any great expertise of the audience nor patronised them, instead presenting issues with an openess and honesty that brought the audience with her. 

The evening finished with a Q and A for which nearly all the audience remained, and it was clear the performance had immediately affected people and how they felt about the issues. The results of an audience survey taken at the end of the night only reinforced these observations.”

A piano recital about climate change from Sarah Nicolls on Vimeo.

References for the text recordings here

MEDIA
Journal of Music interview click here
BBC Radio 3 Music Matters click here
REVIEW – Journal of Music by James Fleming (read below or click here)

The grey walls of the Mick Lally Theatre tower over Sarah Nicolls and her instrument. She sits at her ‘inside-out piano’, fingers resting on the ivories, head bowed and face set. At Nicolls’ request,  Pierre Malbos of Brunel University had taken a piano and turned its body upwards by ninety degrees, creating her unique instrument. This design means that she can reach into its innards and strum its guts, plucking harmonics from the steel strings that shine in the spotlight like 88 needle-thin skyscrapers. 

Her shoulders shrug as she tightens her muscles and launches powerfully into the opening chords of Twelve Years, a piece about how humanity has just over a decade to save the planet from climate change. She hammers out the minimalist chords at rapid-fire pace, turning her head from side to side and repeating ‘Twelve years!?’ in disbelief, before the chords start to falter and fade out. She turns to the microphone and says ‘Twelve years… to save a planet?’ And then corrects herself: ‘This was written last year so… it’s actually eleven.’

Twelve movements
The concert mixes spoken word, music and invention over twelve movements. Pre-recorded news headlines play over a PA system during the piece’s second movement, titled ‘GOOD NEWS PLEASE!’ It highlights the planet’s grim prospects as Nicolls pounds out one note with both hands, a technique she would return to throughout the performance. It is as if she is italicising her message with her simple, aggressive music. When Nicolls’ pre-recorded voice intones ‘Typhoon Yutu slams into Northern Philippines killing a child’, she hits loud, tolling chords, driving the point home deep into the consciousness.

She injects her music and her inside-out piano with life; she stands up and runs a rubber ball down the piano’s strings as phone conversations play on the PA between two fictional sisters, Fran and Lara, during movement four. Lara is campaigning to combat climate change. Fran is not. Nicolls, who plays both women, underlines the tone of the conversation using everything from dramatic bangs to resigned chords to emphasise her points. 

Hard to be hopeful
Nicolls smacks the vertical strings with the flat of her palms and scrapes them with her fingernails during ‘AIDAN REASSURING’ – movement seven where Fran’s husband attempts to reassure her. She moves towards the piece’s close with grace, stepping through the chord progressions. Then the music intensifies and she starts singing in a pure angelic voice over the repeated chords of ‘I FIND IT HARD TO BE HOPEFUL BUT’. She plays an eight-note pattern, hunched over the keyboard with her fringe hanging over her eyes. Then the final chords fade away and Sarah Nicolls’ Twelve Years bows out. 

Other artists might have cloaked their meaning with metaphors. Nicolls’ direct mission, however, is to spread understanding of the danger facing our world. I found there was nothing oblique or vague about Twelve Years, but, like fine prose, it made its point and made it well, with eloquence, taste, poignancy and power. This is hard and vital music. It was not written for beauty, nor was it written for entertainment. It was written to shock. 

Podcast ‘The Musical Activist’: me in conversation with IPCC Lead Author Professor Julia Steinberger. There are loads of great references here.

Thanks for your interest and please tell me what you think of it all. If you want to chat, Twitter is my all-time favourite medium: find me here. My facebook page is here.

I had some amazing mentors for this project, so a huge thanks to all of them.

Writer/director Nic Mills has been passionate about story since childhood. Having worked across many narrative forms she is drawn to projects that provoke thought and inspire change. A graduate of the National Film and Television School her award winning shorts have travelled the world at major festivals. She’s an alumni of the acclaimed Binger Film Lab, the Torino Film Lab, Guiding Lights and Sheffield Documentary Festival’s Devise to Deliver. Nicola is currently developing a gender-bending thriller for TV, a music biopic feature film and is the story writer on Kylie Minogue’s up-coming UK tour. Nic has helped me pull together the entire structure, helped with details of script and character and also commented on how the music and text interplay.

Inika Taylor is a MET Office Climate Scientist and part of an impressive team. The Climate Impacts Modelling (CIM) group are a team of scientists who work with and develop integrated models for assessing climate change impacts. The team focuses on climate change and agriculture, water resources and health and are part of the Earth System and Mitigation Science Team. Inika and I have found a strong, common passion about communicating climate science, both more urgently but also more artfully, so as to reach the broadest and largest possible audience. The MET Office want to actively support this work and have allowed Inika to consult for me directly. Inika has taught me about the enormity of Climate Change.

A and E Comedy are helping me discover extra opportunities for humour and character development. Their show ‘Enter the Dragons’ is a “frank, funny and fearless look at the subject of female ageing, examining the concerns and societal pressures that surround women as they pass fifty.” They won Best of Brighton Fringe 2017 and Guardian Best Show of Edinburgh Fringe in 2018. Broadway Baby said “They marry hilarity and sincerity with such remarkable precision, it had the audience in both fits of laughter and heartfelt tears.” I found it moving and hilarious, an intelligent and skilled call to arms.

Atlanta Cook has recently launched and funded the Beacon Hub Brighton ecoeducation & visitor centre. She is an Honorary Life Member of Surfers Against Sewage and a Marine Conservations Society ‘Sea Champion’. She has an exemplary track record of successful campaigns and over 25 years experience of campaigning for environmental and community projects. She frequently gives talks on becoming plastic-free. She has been helping me to formulate the language that might compel audiences to act. This isn’t straightforward campaigning, as it is embedded within a fictional story in an arts context, but Atlanta has given me the tools to try using impactful language within this context. She has also shared her own perspective, which has been deeply valuable: how do campaigners actually feel?