Through new works and innovative multidisciplinary programs, these artists are fostering creative dialogue around our threatened environment—and how we might save it.
Like many wake-up calls, Ben Kono's was first articulated by a child. When his then-three-year-old daughter asked him what a glacier was, he tried to show her recent images of Glacier National Park in northern Montana. What he found troubled him. The park’s namesakes, once numbering well over a hundred, had dwindled to fewer than thirty. His daughter might never have the chance to hike among its icy expanses, if trends continued.
The discovery spurred Kono, a jazz composer and woodwind specialist, to begin a deep investigation into his own emotional response to our changing environment. The resulting suite, entitled Don't Blink, is set for release in spring 2017. “Angst and awe went into this project,” Kono says. “I took the pieces and wove them into environmentally instructive art, and then I was drawn into activism.”
For many jazz and chamber musicians, music is the most natural—and effective—means of addressing environmental destruction. Musicians are equipped with the ability to make people stop and feel—and a change of heart often precedes a change of mind. Of course, they go about it in different ways: some decline the term “activist” while others embrace it. Some weave their music and politics together while they compose, and others eschew any political element to the music they play, choosing to focus on environmental issues as sources of inspiration.
These disparate approaches and attitudes work toward a mutual goal: creating emotionally resonant music inspired from a place of deep connection to the painful reality of environmental destruction. Simply living on the earth and noticing what's happening was enough to get these artists started. Indeed, musicians are more prepared to move into activist territory than they might think. “If you're going to forge a life in the arts,” says Fry Street Quartet member and violist Brad Ottesen, “you're already an activist. It's a path you have to fight for.” His fellow ensemble member, violinist Rebecca McFaul agrees: “Musicians understand the ecosystem of the arts. You realize how issues are interconnected.”
Music has always been part of the equation when social change is afoot. Mining beauty from the anxiety of 21st century environmental problems offers musicians and composers a rich source of inspiration—and a chance to connect with audience members around a shared set of fears, hopes, and goals.
PROJECTS AND APPROACHES
Marie Incontrera, a composer and bandleader of the Green Monster Big Band and the Eco-Music Band, has called eco-music a “philosophy and a lifestyle,” echoing the values of her late mentor Fred Ho. “Eco-music started as a band name. Fred came up with it because he was an eco-socialist, meaning he sought to eliminate the alienation between humans and nature,” says the New York City-based artist. Addressing that alienation—people's lost ability to identify with the natural world—provides Incontrera with a compositional and political foundation, supporting music that’s often a call to action. “Seven Generations,” her piece for trombone and big band, is a response to the concept that life should be lived with consideration for seven generations ahead and respect for seven generations behind. “That was where eco-music started for me,” she says.
Fry Street's McFaul credits the ensemble's home base of Logan, UT, with a sense of community that invites discussions about the environment. “You can't help but be touched by your surroundings here,” she says. It doesn't hurt that a university town is used to innovative presentations of challenging information. Fry Street's partnership with physicist Dr. Robert Davies resulted in “Crossroads: Rising Tide,” a multi-media event combining music, imagery, and poetic lecture to illustrate the planet's biosphere—the interconnected system that supports all life on Earth. “It’s an exploration of the rules of nature,” says McFaul. “It’s juxtaposed with economic rules. You can see how those don’t line up.”
Rather than educate like Fry Street, or agitate like the Eco-Music Big Band, The City of Tomorrow, a woodwind quintet based in Memphis, Tennessee, acts as a mirror, reflecting on the malaise of contemporary humanity. The group is inspired by contemporary problems like information overload and environmental degradation. “The Apocalyptic Sublime,” one of the ensemble’s current projects, is a multi-album series investigating the evolving relationships among humanity, nature, and machines. “Humanism is a way for us to reach an audience,” says flutist Elise Blatchford. She suggests the term as an alternative to “activism,” describing the ensemble's approach as more of an emotional lens than a call to arms.
For Kono, his daughter's curiosity triggered a new avenue of research that led him to activism. Since then, he's experienced what he calls an educational flow between himself and the audience. “As we concertized the music, people would ask more questions and I would need more answers,” he says.
Don't Blink grew from a very real sense of anxiety, similar to the feeling of alienation Incontrera describes as the root problem addressed by eco-socialism. While her politically active message, like Fry Street’s scientific one, isn't necessarily shared by groups like City of Tomorrow or composers like Kono, the idea of environmental alienation elegantly underscores their mutual pursuit. It’s a simple explanation for why musicians are moved to create this kind of work in the first place, and evidence that anyone who’s receptive to the world we live in can make it too.
CLARITY THROUGH ABSTRACTION
Surprisingly, an abstract art like music doesn’t further obfuscate the complexities of environmental destruction. It actually helps to illuminate them. Each artist’s commitment to the backbone of their process—making good and meaningful music that speaks to people on an emotional level—acts like a flashlight, guiding the audience through difficult subject matter.
City of Tomorrow has put extra thought and effort into creating a dramatic arc for some of their performances. “We’ve experimented with melding pieces together, with lighting and creating shapes on the floor with tape,” says Blatchford. The sense of a story draws the audience closer.
Sometimes the types of instruments featured offer key information to the audience as well. City of Tomorrow has used conch shells, which Blatchford describes as creating a mournful sound that inevitably resonates with a sense of environmental peril. Incontrera has used indigenous instruments in her compositions, which audience members might connect to a culture of respect for the earth—or a culture of the dispossessed, both relevant to people living in an age of climate change.
For Fry Street, shaping abstract music and a literal lecture into coherence was a lengthy process. “We had to blend the elements,” says Ottesen. McFaul believes the abstraction of music is actually a gift to the audience, especially when it’s being used to illustrate complex or touchy ideas. “Our performance respects people’s space,” she says. “People can take it on whatever level they’re ready for and it pushes them further.”
Kono believes that receiving information through music’s emotional frequency might even make a deeper and longer-lasting impression than simply being presented with a list of facts—no matter how unsettling they might be. “When you hear a piece of music that moves you, the feeling stays and you have to come to terms with it,” he says. “It makes you want to figure out what did that to you.”
REACTIONS AND RESPONSES
Still, merging art and activism can raise legitimate questions about purpose and impact. Environmental themes can lend a sense of gravity to a new work, but if you're not chaining yourself to the proverbial redwood tree, are you really making a difference? In the face of extreme and dire consequences, thematic programming can feel inadequate, even irrelevant.
But not everyone is meant to stand on the front lines of change. And as more and more artists are discovering, there are many ways to make a difference. Organizations like Virginia- and Washington, D.C.-based EcoSono sponsor “sonic geography” programs around the world, helping artists listen in to, and create from, the natural landscape. The Friction Quartet’s “Eco-Chamber” program—described as a “call to arms”—brings together four works with environmentalist overtones, including two new commissions.
For artists like Kono and groups like City of Tomorrow, activism in music is an extension of their emotional research—the same research they would use to write or perform anything else. It just so happens that the environment is foremost in their minds. “Emotions lead us toward things that are scary, or toward things that need to change,” says Blatchford.
For Incontrera, and the artists of Fry Street, music is meant to inspire action outside the concert hall. Their messages take a more traditional and forthright approach to activism, detailing problems and calling for solutions. But their concepts of audience-impact remain essentially emotional in nature. It’s an angle that helps set artist/activists apart from non-artists As Ottesen points out, musicians are constantly required to explain why they matter and why their art matters, appealing to people’s sense of beauty and value. It’s not such a stretch to use your words or your sounds to suggest that other issues matter too. “Images and music make people confront facts in a visceral way,” says McFaul. “It brings up discomfort. But our hope is to change people’s mindset enough that they take action.”
Of course, a major practical question looms over this kind of work: How will audiences—often already in decline—react?
“Every group is concerned about their popularity,” says Blatchford. “We live and die by that kind of thing. But I think people are drawn to City of Tomorrow for a variety of reasons, first of all because an all-woodwind ensemble is unusual.” Kono has also found that audiences come for his music rather than his message. “The message behind the music hasn't had an impact on attracting an audience,” he says. “But once people hear the message, they want more information. And if they don’t like the message, I can always try to change their mind.”
“It's tricky to walk the line of explicitness,” says McFaul. “You don't want to use the art form to preach. You want to open peoples’ eyes in a way they're ready for and bring people on a journey with you. Otherwise it smacks of patronization.” She acknowledges that while Fry Street has built trust with its core audience, it has felt less safe to perform for wider crowds. “It makes you mindful of what you're going to ask of your audience,” she notes. “I think having a core audience gave us a lot of support to branch out and try something new.”
Incontrera, on the other hand, has been dismissed for her music, her politics, and the combination of the two. To help navigate the tension between her political message and her audience’s comfort levels, she reminds herself that people don’t pay to be yelled at. “My role isn’t to hurt people,” she says. “It’s to give them something to hold onto.” She points out that sometimes other politically-minded musicians can be the harshest critics: “I’ve had healthy arguments with people because we sometimes criticize each other’s work based on the integrity of the politics as well as the art. But our discipline has to be two-fold in that way.”
For Ottesen, musical risk is an important element of Fry Street’s overall message. “If scientists are taking risks for their research,” he says, “maybe we can take a risk onstage as well.”
A VISION OF CHANGE
Eco-music, environmentally instructive art, a mirror—whatever its name, it gives a sense of purpose to artists and awakens new emotions in audience members. But when those artists are interested in seeing real, concrete changes spurred by their work, it can be hard to gauge the impact.
A quantifiable result isn’t necessarily the point, though. Even if music could help inspire policy change—and sometimes it does—the real impact is on the audience’s imagination. Moreover, attending a concert is a kind of psychic relief from the never-ending onslaught of terrible global news. Giving people space to breathe is also giving them space to think more creatively about how things could be. “Music encourages a complex way of looking at the world,” says Ottesen. “It encourages intelligence and empathy in both the performer and the audience. Encountering music can open your mind to new ways of thinking.”
Maybe in the future, when humanity faces even more drastic environmental changes, there won’t be time for abstraction, or even time for music at all. But for now, it provides a nearly ideal outlet to move people’s hearts and open their minds. “I’ve had many people tell me that art and politics shouldn’t go together,” says Incontrera. “And my answer to that is, when I create music that’s not about anything, it’s not any good. My best work happens when I have a vision of change.”
Nicole Loeffler-Gladstone is a writer, choreographer and curator living in Brooklyn.