Dignity and militancy: Si el clima fuera un banco

liam_on_bike On Friday, Alex Raineri will be premiering my new piece Si el clima fuera un banco for solo piano and fixed media at the Kupka’s Piano concert ‘Outer Sounds’.

The initial inspiration for the piece was as simple as it is impossible: how to put new music in relation to climate change as a scientific, social, and political problem?

While there is a lot of ecological, site-specific, interactive, art being made today, and I think this is a fine thing, I was interested in confronting what seemed to be completely heteronymous worlds: a virtuosic, notated solo piano work, popular political songs from across the last century and a half, conservationism and evolutionary science, and social and political analyses of our climate crisis.

The idea is that through assembling these various strata, complex and dissonant relationships will form, sometimes overwhelming the listener in their density, sometimes opening into enigmatic clarity.

What I was explicitly not interested in doing was writing a piece that is supposed to ‘raise awareness’ of climate change. I had no interest in choosing texts that outline the severity of the situation, the social and environmental costs, horror stories meant to humanise the issue and make us feel bad about our life choices. There’s enough of that out there already. Instead, I wanted to create an experience that in a sense condensed the complexity of the social-environmental relations we find ourselves in today, but also pointed generally to a political way out.

Of course I understand that my music will have limited political effect, but it is my belief that the solution to the climate crisis will come from the political sphere, from popular mobilisation and organisation, and not from art. Without denying art’s potential for political engagement, to my mind art’s primary challenge in this arena is simply to not get left behind: to interrogate what the climate crisis and its social implications means for art’s own presuppositions. There of course will be many ways of doing this.

if-the-climate-were-a-bankSi el clima takes excerpts from texts by John Bellamy Foster, Aldo Leopold and Stephen Jay Gould. At the centre of the textual element is Hugo Chavez’s still-astonishing speech at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit in which he made the statement: “If the climate were a bank, they would have saved it already,” from which the piece takes its title. While I was composing this work, I was also reading Naomi Klein’s fantastic book This Changes Everything, which, in a sense, is the real subtext of the work.

On a basic musical level, I tried to structure the work as a complex, meandering, but nonetheless inexorable movement towards a precipice. A kind of ‘tragedy of progress’ in musical form. The piece ends with a suspended moment, our moment, the moment of the decision, where options are open and things aren’t yet determined.

In general, in this piece and others, I’m aiming for a music that expresses both a sense of dignity, and one of militancy. The dignity comes from the refinement and complexity of the contrapuntal discourse – its resistance to reified musical language; the militancy comes from the ‘stickin’-to-it-ness’ of the lines, the driving nature of a lot of the material, the intentionally crude elements, the unadorned, unaestheticised texts, musical quotations, and so on.

To my mind the one can’t exist without the other: too great an emphasis on dignity turns the music into a paranoid negativity, always avoiding what might be a ‘naïve’ or ‘crude’ idea. Such an approach tends to collapse in on itself, leaving neither complexity nor dignity. On the other hand, too great an emphasis on militancy makes it brutish, unthinking, and, in a sense, easily ‘domesticated’. The idea is to find the point where the two intersect and reinforce each other. This is my idea of counterpoint.

I have to thank Alex in advance for all the tremendous effort he put into the piece. There has been a lot of back and forth between us about the piece since January (cross-continental collaboration: Brisbane-Brussels), with Alex often playing a direct role in suggesting compositional alternatives, etc, and I’m curious to see the result of this combined labour. I also have to thank here the three speakers Andrew Last, Jess Moore, and Nat Evans, whose unaffected and personal speaking styles nicely compliment the powerful oration of Hugo Chavez.

'Outer Sounds' takes place on Friday 19 June at the Judith Wright Centre in Brisbane. Check out the facebook event here. Book tickets here.