I’m lucky to be invited to talk to a wide range of groups interested in everthing from classical music to politics, climate activism to instrument design.
Groups I’ve given talks for include:
Clore Governance Now conference
Stroud Cloud Cafe
Art in the Athropocene
Chetham’s School of Music
Art in the Anthropocene
First of all, thanks to the team for inviting me here – Emily, Stuart and Sarah. This talk focuses on my work ’12 Years’ which you can watch on my youtube channel.
In the summer of 2018, I read an article about Survival Condo. These were luxury bunkers which could be purchased for over a million dollars, sited in ex-missile silos, in the middle of the American desert. As a solution for the apocalypse, I simply couldn’t get my head around this. Quite literally, sticking one’s head in the sand whilst everyone left above ground tries to survive and work it out. Stepping out and down, removing oneself, seemed like the exact opposite of what was needed.
The question ‘who are these people, buying these bunkers?’ wouldn’t leave my head and I began to write a novel about them, to find out who they were, what motivated them, why they thought it was a good idea.
Then in Autumn 2018 everything began to change. We started reading headlines about studies of insects dying out, of 1 in 10 wildlife species in the UK going extinct. We were suddenly given an ultimatum from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a deadline: 12 years to save the planet, to halve emissions to keep global warming within the scale of what seemed survivable. Soon after, a girl called Greta appeared on her parliament steps and Extinction Rebellion burst onto the bridges of London, demanding greater focus in telling the truth about the situation and greater urgency in taking action to stop the alarming trend. Meanwhile, we saw the terrifying wildfires in California, where the town of Paradise burnt to the ground.
I’ve always been on protests when I believed in them and felt strongly, I sign petitions, I have worked in my local community to open conversations and create change. But the IPCC report made me decide I needed to do more. And my thought process was simple: I get paid to give piano recitals and I want to do more about climate change. So, I decided to put them together. I didn’t know at that point what that looked or sounded like.
The following March I’d been booked to take my Inside-Out Piano to Galway in Ireland – a piano which I designed myself, which turns the grand piano into a vertical instrument, strings coming up from the keys. I made the piano to play on the strings directly, to play amazing sounds in a way which was much more comfortable than leaning into a grand piano. From Autumn 2018 to March 2019 was 4 months: making ’12 Years’ would be rapid and intense!
I knew that it had to be a music and text piece, as I really wanted the family buying the bunker to be in it. Over time, as I’d started writing the book, they’d become Fran & Aidan, a fairly wealthy couple living in the South East of England but with Aidan having come from America and likely having a parent living in Paradise, California. In my imagination, they gained two children, Luke and Lydia and Fran gained a sister, Lara, who became an Extinction Rebellion protestor.
I gathered around me a cluster of mentors to help make the piece – Nic Mills, a film director and writer, to help with the script, Inika Taylor, a MET Office climate scientist, to help me understand the overall science of the situation and Emma Edwards, a comedy actress, to ensure that the piece had humour in its characters.
12 Years is a one-hour show with 12 tracks and each track had a different focus. It begins where I began, with the alarm of reading that we had 12 years to turn things around and goes quickly into a track of the terrifying headlines that I was reading all the time, with snippets from an interview with David Wallace-Wells, the author of The Uninhabitable Earth. This is quickly balanced in the next track by the positive headlines which were encouraging us to use vegan toothpaste in recyclable tubes and ‘the Australian farmer with 200 million trees to his name’. And then we have our first phone call.
As I began to make the piece, I simply spoke as Lara into my microphone. I was babbling away one day when I took a break, couldn’t think what to say for a moment and suddenly I realised that what would be way more effective was if we could just hear one side of a phone call. And instead of hearing the protestor’s voice, telling Fran the facts, maybe lecturing her on her lifestyle choices, we could just, instead, hear Fran. She’d be grappling with just living her life, not having time to immerse herself in all this alarming information, trying to look after her kids and family and career, being busy, being successful. I realised I’d set up a dichotomy between two people who could speak openly and directly to each other and if I let you hear one of them, whilst imagining what the other one says, that I was activating you, the audience member. I was involving the listener and making you figure out where you might stand on this spectrum. The best advice I had throughout the project was from Nic Mills – she said “activate the audience, raise questions, don’t give them the answers”.
Note before playing: this performance was the last version, so 12 years has become 10 years.
PLAY EXTRACT 1 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKQe2O3mVu4&t=49s
[7’20” to 8’26”] (sharp cut off after “peaceful”)
After that movement we then travel to COP 24 in Katowice, where we hear Chinese climate scientist Binbin Wang presenting in a Climate Outreach panel.
She’s talking about raising awareness of climate change in China and says “although many people have experienced climate change and support what the government want to do, the main challenge is.. not so many people really want to take some action”.
For me, the process of making the show was constantly about trying to strip back to these pithy statements. To find the essence of the debate. To explore the emotions which arise from it. To contemplate such a massive existential threat is in one way completely impossible, its size goes beyond us. We’re helpless in the face of it. When I first really took on board the news, I can honestly say I felt desperate sadness about the future outlook for my children. My son would turn 18 in the deadline year the IPCC had set and it seemed pretty obvious to me that his present for reaching adulthood could simply be: very bad news.
But being a natural optimist and believing firmly that there’s simply no point doing nothing or being sad the whole time, I was spurred on to explore what might motivate us all to do better, to achieve the impossible, to turn the tanker around. All through this period I was walking my kids to school in our very friendly, close-knit neighbourhood and I’d be chatting to the other parents and they’d mention their plans to go to Spain in the half term holidays. I’d have a split second where I could say “that’s nice” but I would push myself on to disclose that I’d decided to give up flying. This raising of the conversation felt important but also, looking back, sounds like I could have ruined someone’s day! But I think this is kind of the point. That changing the world is not going to be like carrying on. And therefore we do have to contemplate what the greater aim is. I gathered this image in my head of a parent packing a suitcase for the Spanish holiday and ensuring they had the right suncream for their child and in that moment completely missing the way bigger safety issue of climate change, emissions and unsustainable holidays. In any conversation with friends it feels hard to challenge. In making the piece ‘12 years’, I had to judge how hard to challenge the audience and how much to leave room for the listener to decide for themselves what the outcome would be, in their own lives and the people or community around them. I hope to get it right, by couching the biggest issues with humanity, humour and humility too – by saying “I am trying this” and asking “should you?”.
To get back to the piece, here I have to explain the genesis of it. 12 Years became 10 years as I got ready to tour it in the UK over 2020, and then ‘10 Years’ became ‘10 Years but now we’re in a pandemic in lockdown’! I wrote the piece three times in all. The first re-write was really interesting because awareness was raising. Nic said to me one day “Fran has definitely bought herself some beeswax wraps by now” which I thought was hilarious. Fran had changed after a year of Extinction Rebellion protesting raising the issue in the public consciousness. Another huge shift was that the wildfires had moved from California to Australia. I had to insert headlines about Kangaroo Island. New glaciers were breaking off Antartica, deadly storms were coming to knock even the crazy Polar Vortex off its spot in the headlines track. I began to realise that although the locations and the names of the storms were changing, the news was becoming a fairly consistent cycle of increasing ferocity.
So, after the track with the COP panel, we hear that Fran has recently come back from her holiday in the Maldives, having snuck out of the country between lockdowns and only constricted by the wearing of their masks on the journey. I loved playing this piece, it imagines vast horizons of ocean, gorgeous beaches. I want to say “I understand! The world is incredible!” and in many ways, this track and what Lara says in it (which you don’t hear) is about the things that the protestor or the activist are giving up. The conversation doesn’t end well, with Fran telling her sister to stop lecturing her about sea level rise and rainforest insect deaths.
[14” – 15”]
The following track is probably my favourite of all. It’s my Laurie Anderson moment, where I pitched down my voice to become Aidan. And he is not worried. He wants Fran to stop worrying and he tells her he’s going to buy the Survival Condo and everything will be fine.
[20’49” – 22’09”]
Compositionally, this track became more and more sparse as I developed it. The soothing tones of Aidan are offset by the muted bass strings creating a kind of electronic-sounding undermining of what he’s saying. Aidan ends by saying “Focus on what’s important, focus on the now” and then I immediately throw the piece right into the middle of the Paradise wildfire.
Online I found two survivors who had recorded themselves on their phone whilst escaping in their car. The hysteria in the mother’s voice is terrifying.
[22’13 – 23’53] **check time**
This track was by far the most complicated to put together. The layers of rhythms, getting volume without distortion, getting the emotional narrative right. The ladies were interviewed afterwards and their recollections bring such a depth to the emotional experience, I needed to weave both the sadness afterwards and the desperation of the situation as it unfolded.
[24’40 – 27’10]. **check time**
It felt vital to me that at the heart of ’12 Years’ was this fear, this sense of disaster being right here, right now.
What I find very interesting now is that, having lived through the pandemic and year of lockdown, it is almost the reverse – that I feel audiences don’t need to be put in touch with fear but something altogether more hopeful, something with forward momentum. At the time I premiered the piece though, this track was I think what unlocked most audience members: the piece had to get this intense to work.
After the wildfire, we go straight to a melting glacier and here I give the audience 9 minutes of no text and very spacious, atmospheric music. This is really the listener’s time to just reflect on everything they’ve heard so far, to go into their own reverie.
[30’20” – 31’21”]
In the next track, we finally hear Lara speaking. A lot of what she says was inspired by a skype call I’d had with Atlanta, where she said “of course I’d love to fly to Japan to see my friend and go to the pub and have a beef roast!”. It gave me this sudden insight into protestors or campaigners, activists not actually being holier than thou. I wanted to capture that so Lara tells Fran that of course she’d rather be on a sunbed on holiday than facing a court conviction for a protest. We’re getting into what drives people, which things they are willing to give up. In this track, Fran admits “it’s always been too far away, too far in the future” but now she is starting to get it, to understand what part she might play and in another of my favourite passages, my hand slides up the harmonics on a repeating chord, until eventually I hope to symbolise Fran putting up her hand to join in the fight.
In the penultimate track we hear Greta in three different speeches, noticing her voice getting more intense each time. I play harmonium here – the steadiness of that sound seemed to give Greta’s words most space.
[44’ – 45’]
The last track is called “I find it hard to be hopeful but”. I made this piece on a day when I really couldn’t face things, I felt really stifled and overwhelmed by the news. I just started with an open fifth, just trying to make myself play, repeating the notes, searching. By the end I am hammering out probably over 40 repeated F major chords and I imagine this as sending out as big a wave as possible to the audience of my encouragement, for us all to face up to the crisis and find a new way forward.
So, that’s a walk-through the piece.
For me, the music was only ever half of the project, though. After the concert, I wanted people to stay and talk – I wanted my work to open the audience up to then create some action. I was fixed to Greta’s idea that there’s no point being hopeful but rather we should take action and then “hope is everywhere”. So I asked Atlanta Cook to help me design the programme notes. We asked people to “Please Turn Over” after the concert and there we listed actions that people could take. They ranged from easy wins, like turning off lights, buying responsibly caught fish, changing your energy company. And then I added a list of more extreme ideas – giving up flying, practising what I call ‘retraction’. The idea was to give people almost like a checklist that they could take home and stick on their fridge and then, if they felt they could try one of the actions, they would simply tick it off.
I realise now that I was naïve in my focus on individual actions but at the same time I do think I can sit both sides of the argument – one side which says individual actions make no difference and one that says they do. To my mind, it’s about communication. If I tell that parent that I’ve given up flying so we won’t be taking our kids to Spain in half term then on some level that will register (or they’ll stop speaking to me!). It’s about example. I firmly believe that we cannot go on at this level of living, at the very least not immediately. I do believe we need a sudden drop off of use, so that we can learn how to energise our lives in a renewable and properly sustainable way. We do need system change.
And I talked about this with many of the UK’s top climate scientists. So, my other idea for the tour was now I wanted an expert with me for this post-concert discussion! I wanted someone with the authority to answer questions and to put us straight. It was such a good experience to do that because it felt like, rather than me masquerading as an expert, I could defer to their much greater knowledge. More than that, they also had a fantastic array of perspectives and what I noticed was most striking was how many of them were actually social scientists who happened to have an enormous involvement in climate change-related activity, for example, Professor Julia Steinberger, Dr Sarah Mander and Dr Alix Dietzel. Professor Rich Pancost brought a geological perspective whilst Rupert Read has been an active protestor and spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion, whilst also being a Prof of Philosophy. Prof Richard Betts MBE is writing the risk assessment for climate change for the UK. When I asked him what he would say on a 1 minute primetime TV ad for climate change, he said (to paraphrase) ‘we need total system change and it’s not too late, we can do this but we must act urgently’.
I interviewed all of the climate scientists and campaigners for my podcast #themusicalactivist, which you can listen to on Podbean.
The post-show Q and As were also an opportunity for audience members to share how they felt. One man said it was the first time he’d *felt* climate change. Others said that the sisters felt relatable and they found the one-sided phone call really got them imagining what Lara was saying. They found Fran funny and liked her and that made it more interesting. Many people were extremely moved and then we could go on to talk about eg bike lanes in their city, or some such. The climate scientists could tell the venue programmers that they really valued them. There was a circularity of art and science which really felt rewarding and nurturing for everyone involved.
So, what next? I am now making a show for a co-commission between the Arctic Arts festival in the very north of Norway and Cheltenham Music Festival, with cellist Maja Bugge. In a Snape Maltings residency we stumbled across the idea of doing a concert as a climate meeting, where we have 45 minutes to solve the problem. It was chaotic because we made the show in 4 days and this ‘schtick’ seemed to really work with the issue: all of us are overwhelmed, all of us feel the urgency, none of us know exactly the right thing to do but many of us just want to do something. We’re taking that idea and the new show is about how we adapt during the pandemic – we are live improvising using an internet-based piece of software and filming and recording ourselves in our own homes, to make split screen ‘duos’. We will splice in zoom chats of us trying to get to grips with all the tech and also discussions with two scientists, one based in the north of Norway and one in my hometown of Newcastle as they talk about the birds Kittiwakes and how they have moved into towns recently, to escape the increasingly wild weather and warming oceans. As an indicator species they tell us much about the more sinister part of the climate story but we are trying to raise issues of adaptation lightly, letting the audience again do the work of stitching together the stories of us, the pandemic, the birds, the changing world. Hopefully it will all work!
And this year ends with the next COP, held of course in Glasgow. There has been a huge focus on COP-related commissions, people discussing artistic actions that can happen. But one experienced activist said to me that actually, there are many people who go to COP who are already underrepresented and maybe instead of crowding Glasgow, one idea could be to amplify their stories. I find it hard to take my piano outdoors (I did have a Covid gig with Maja on Marsden Moor last year but that’s another story!) so I may try and do an ‘at home’ art piece for COP. And finally, I have become a farmer! We have a 14-acre patch where I will be trying my best to do mini re-wilding, linking up to our local chalky grassland nature reserves, manging our wood for increased biodiversity and habitat and growing food for the local community. So I am walking the walk more fully and loving it, though I do need to make my puny piano playing arms stronger!
Many thanks for listening to the talk and I look forward to taking your questions.
- Link to the whole show online https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKQe2O3mVu4&t=49s
- Programme notes https://www.sounduk.net/media/event/PROGRAMME_final_2020_with_logos.pdf
- Background info on making the show
- #themusicalactivist podcast https://themusicalactivist.podbean.com/