In January 2016 an article in the journal Science argued that human activity has so significantly effected the climatic, biological and geochemical signatures in sediments and ice cores since the mid-20th century that the period should be considered a new geological epoch “functionally and stratigraphically distinct” from the Holocene (which started at the end of the last ice age about 12,000 years ago), called the Anthropocene. The word has been around since the 1970s but has gained traction in recent years as the climate crisis has become increasingly pressing. How should composers respond to such an enormity? Is it meaningful or even possible to make music about the Anthropocene? Can music plausibly evoke what philosopher and ecological theorist Timothy Morton calls a ‘hyperobject’ (phenomena so large that they can only be known partially and through their effects)? Perhaps medieval composers have the answer, grappling, as they were, to convey something of the original hyperobject, God, by overwhelming the senses and boggling the mind. Jennifer Walshe’s recent opera exploring deep geological time, TIME TIME TIME went for this aesthetic. TIME TIME TIME is a collision of the personal and the geological, the absurd and the tragic, with text made in collaboration with Morton: an actor, spatialised improvising performers, video and someone meditating on the stage throughout; each member of the audience was handed the tiny, 140 million year old fossilised remains of a cephalopod on the way in. Liza Lim’s Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus treads similar ground. The first movement is called Anthropogenic debris and quotes from Timothy Morton crop up in the sleeve notes of the CD and in Lim’s programme note about the piece on her website. But in the piece it’s down to the more traditional forces of Klangforum Wien to communicate our new geological reality.
Lim’s written notes for the piece talk about gyres of plastic trash circling the globe in the oceans and albatrosses choking on rubbish. She imagines the fish-life of the imperiled Australian coral reef singing a dawn chorus. Transcriptions of the extinct bird the Kauai O’o and “spectral echoes” of Janàček piano music also leak into the piece. The effect is often gloriously rich. The piece starts with calling, howling, sighing brass and wind gestures and grinding, scratching, rattling percussion. Her writing for wind and brass has a particularly vocal quality that is almost jazzy; it reminded me of Mingus a number of times. In the percussion section she makes great use of the Waldteufel (sometimes known evocatively in English as the Frog Buzzer), an instrument made up of a small drum with a wire through the skin attached to a wooden stick that can be twisted and pulled to make croaks of different pitches. Extinction Events is almost a Waldteufel concerto, the instrument creating a range of unsettling animal-like sounds throughout the piece. At times it is like being abandoned in a sinister jungle, Lim layering intimate rustling sounds of plastic sheets and Waldteufel with distant sounding calls in the winds to create a sense of scale and depth.
At the start of the final movement, Dawn Chorus, Lim layers buzzing, whirring, cracking and moaning effects to make a soundscape that evokes wind, flies circling the corpse of an animal, electrical buzzing and a kind of explosive alien laughter. Lim’s peerlessly original percussion writing builds unnerving and strange textures that hover between legibility and abstraction. It’s followed by horn drones up the harmonic series reminiscent of the opening of Rheingold or Also Sprach Zarathustra, presumably representing the ‘dawn’ part of the movement. I wanted to stay in the strangeness of the opening. Lim’s use of more conventional material and instrumental writing is less exciting. In the middle of the first movement, a solo violin duets with the Waldteufel. The violin writing seems fussy and aetheticised with its trills and late-Modernist pitch choices, compared with the pre-historic croak of the Waldteufel. Lim seems concerned to balance different musical and cultural elements in her pieces: the western classical canon and Australian Aboriginal influences; pitch and noise; precision and abandon. A number of times in the piece pulses come from nothing and crescendo to a brief climax before immediately dying away. It gives the impression that each musical gesture is a stately calligraphic figure on a blank canvas. But it’s frustrating: each time the music promises to tip over into something more frenzied, Lim pulls us back from the brink and repeatedly returning to silence makes it feel like we never get anywhere.
There’s one school of thought that says the right response to the climate crisis for the arts in general is to make less art: fly less, work locally, in low impact ways. That the Anthropocene doesn’t need big pieces made about it by composers flying from Australia to Vienna, but changes in behaviour. That developing new ways of working supersedes aesthetic considerations and a work’s meaning and content. Content does matter though, and there’s something missing in Lim’s work. The best piece of art about the Anthropocene and climate crisis I’ve come across also features an extinct bird: rather than the Kauai O’o, the Great Auk. Jessie Greengrass’s short story An Account of the Decline of the Great Auk, According to One Who Saw It consists of a disembodied, matter-of-fact, fable-like first person account of sailors systematically destroying the Great Auk population over many years at some point in the 18th or 19th centuries. “We blamed the birds for what we did to them. There was something in their passivity that enraged us. We hated how they didn’t run away…This was why we killed so many more than we needed…this and the way the numbers deceived us, making us think there could be no end to it but we could go on and on for ever.” Greengrass shows us why the bird was killed (for food and material gain, by mistake, for fun etc.) and what it feels like to destroy something, acknowledging that destruction is a pervasive force in human nature, one that is enmeshed with capitalism and colonialism. Greengrass shows us who it was who killed the last Great Auk, centering what is missing in many artistic accounts of the Anthropocene — including Lim’s — the anthro part. People are doing this damage, economic and political systems are doing this damage, you and I are doing this damage. Depersonalising human activities and focusing on just the effects of the Anthropocene depoliticises it. Who killed the last Kauai O’o? What did it feel like?
Initially published in Positionen.