Monday, September 23, 2019

Post carbon music


Classical music voices were notably absent from recent worldwide protests about climate change. Which is puzzling considering classical music's dogged belief in its own ability to change the world. But is not puzzling when the BBC Proms devotes a concert to the devastation of nature complete with a recorded contribution from Greta Thunberg just days before flying in the lacklustre Shanghai Symphony Orchestra for a single concert. (If any more evidence is needed of classical music's single-issue fanaticism, EU flags were in abundance at the Proms Last Night, but free Tibet flags were notably absent when the Shanghai stooges played).

Thankfully at least one classical musician can see the wood from the fast-disappearing trees. That is Richard Heinberg in the photo. He is an accomplished violinist, but is best known for his extensive writings on energy, economic, and ecological issues, including oil depletion. In 2017 Richard performed Paganini's Sonata Concertata For Guitar and Violin at the New England Conservatory and spoke about what the future hold mean for today's young musicians and artists. The performance and his address are available as a video and a full transcription of his talk is also available. In my opinion Richard Heinberg's views on post carbon music are a 'must read' in the complete version. But in deference to our shortening attention spans I have extracted some money quotes below.

We use some of our fossil fuels to make electricity, an extremely versatile energy carrier that, among many other things, enabled music to be amplified, recorded, and reproduced on an assortment of media. In short, fossil fuels increased our power over the world around us, and the power of some of us over others. But our increasing reliance on fossil fuels was in two respects a bargain with the devil. First, extracting, transporting, and burning these fuels polluted air and water, and caused a subtle but gradually accelerating change in the chemistry of the planetary atmosphere and the world’s oceans. Second, fossil fuels are finite, nonrenewable, and depleting resources that we exploit using the low-hanging fruit principle. That means that as we extract and burn them, each new increment entails higher monetary and energy costs, as well as greater environmental risk....

The next years and decades will be filled with challenges of all kinds—foreseeable and unforeseeable. It will be a turbulent time and may not provide a stable platform for a tranquil, uninterrupted career in a symphony orchestra or even a touring rock band. It’s hard enough to be a successful musician in the world as it is, but someone’s about to move the goalposts, deflate the football, and rewrite the rules of the game. That doesn’t mean that making music isn’t worth the effort. It just means it will be important to avoid tunnel vision, and to pay attention to what’s happening in society as a whole so as to be able to adapt quickly and be in position to take advantage of opportunities....

Musicians tend to assume that the works of Bach, Mozart, Ellington, and other great composers constitute a common heritage that will last for the ages. It’s sobering to reflect on how much was lost of ancient Egyptian, Greek, and Roman culture when those civilizations fell. Sheet music printed on acid-laced paper will disintegrate over time; so will magnetic tape, CDs, and computer hard drives. Music cannot survive if it isn’t continually refreshed in live performance. If we really love this music, it’s up to us to carry it forward—to play it and to teach the needed and satisfying skills of music performance to younger generations....

How do [my] activities—writing about our environmental crisis and playing music—fit together? And more deeply, what role might music and the arts generally play as part of our human response to climate change and ecological overshoot? In the 1997 film 'Titanic', Wallace Hartley, the violinist and leader of the band on the ill-fated ship, turns to his band mates as the water rises around him and says: “Gentlemen, it has been a privilege playing with you tonight.” Is the only contribution we musicians can make at this moment in history to bravely go down with the ship, lifting the spirits of other passengers? I think we can do quite a bit better.
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