Perhaps the best known large-scale work engaging with climate change of recent years, John Luther Adams’ colossal Become Ocean (2013) is scored for large orchestra divided into three spatially separate groups. Submerging the listener in vast, expansive textures, the piece invites us to consider the dark, beguiling possibility of future world covered in water:
‘And as the polar ice melts and sea level rises, we humans find ourselves facing the prospect that once again we may quite literally become ocean’, writes John Luther Adams.
This work looks at the perils and dangers caused by rising temperatures and sea levels around the globe. Combining vocal, electronic and orchestral layers with spoken word and field recordings, it travels around the world to Ghana, Mont Blanc and the North Pole to hear the stories of people whose lives have been affected by environmental changes, before jumping to an imagined future to look at what could happen if don’t (or do!) address these pressing issues now.
Making this piece has been the most challenging thing I’ve ever done as a musician, and it’s still a little surreal to think that it’s done and ready to be shared with the world. We had just over a month to get everything done: writing the music, making the orchestral parts (which needed to be finished just two weeks in), editing the remote recordings, recording the voices, producing the electronic parts and mixing it all in with the field recordings and spoken words.
On a few occasions I found myself working so late that I caught sunrise, and I know that our valiant mix engineer, Donald, had some pretty late evenings too. It was all worth it in the end, and I hope that the piece provides not just food for thought but the motivation to act and speak up about these devastating changes to our natural world.
Anohni: ‘4 DEGREES’
Anohni’s searingly political album Hopelessness from 2016 is a masterpiece I find myself constantly revisiting. In ‘4 Degrees’, various musical and poetic tropes from the world of dance music are flipped upside down as she seductively dares the natural world to collapse even further:
‘I wanna see fish go belly-up in the sea
All those lemurs and all those tiny creatures
I wanna see them burn, it’s only four degrees’
The devastating impact of those four degrees of temperature change is explored in depth in our Rising Sea Symphony, especially so in the third movement, which is set in the melting glaciers of Mont Blanc.
Cosmo Sheldrake: Wake Up Calls
Cosmo Sheldrake’s recent album is a hyper-cute collection of pieces created from field recordings of birdsong. Endangered species’ calls were electronically manipulated to create keyboard instruments, playing ‘alarm clock music’ that hopes to alert its audience to the dangers of dwindling wildlife populations across the UK. A re-imagination of Benjamin Britten’s ‘Cuckoo Song’ from Friday Afternoons serves as a centrepiece, incorporating the sound of a real cuckoo singing over the composer’s grave in Aldeburgh.
Rachel Portman: The Water Diviner’s Tale
When I was 14 I sang in the premiere of Rachel Portman’s eco-opera, The Water Diviner’s Tale, at the BBC Proms. A big group of young singers auditioned and were taken away for a couple of weeks to devise and rehearse the piece, which was then staged in the round at the Royal Albert Hall with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
I often bump into the musicians I became friends with back then in London now, and have just seen that Opera North are planning a production for school children in West Yorkshire next year. Lucky them!
Vampire Weekend: ‘How Long?’
Vampire Weekend is a consistently excellent band whose recent album, Father of the Bride, was sonically and lyrically much more straight-forward than their previous work. Its carefully curated simplicity of style brought a crisp, freshness to the songwriting, which often contrasts lyrical depth with a superficially bright, pop exterior. ‘How Long?’ entwines the poetry of a doomed relationship with a gloomy outlook on the future of our planet:
‘How long ’til we sink to the bottom of the sea?
How long, how long?
How long ’til we sink and it’s only you and me?
How long, how long?’
I wonder if songwriter Ezra Koenig had come across Thomas Hardy’s bleakly nihilistic poem, Before Life and After, set to music by Britten in his Winter Words cycle, which shares many themes and ends with the very same repeated questioning: how long, how long?
Words by Kieran Brunt. Listen to Rising Sea Symphony and the rest of the Between the Ears programme on BBC Radio 3 here.