more than human songs

[Image credit: Riot Ensemble, ‘the arrival of the plastic’, Kings Place London, 14 Feb 2020]

I’m very privileged to have several ‘in the flesh’ performances of my music coming up. My large 40-minute work Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus (2018) will be performed by the group that premiered and recorded it, Ensemble Klangforum Wien, with Sophie Schafleitner as solo violinist, conducted by Johannes Kalitzke on 20th September at Klangspuren Festival in Innsbruck together with a new work by Clara Iannotta. Then on 2nd October, members of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Peter Rundel will also present the work as part of the Musica Viva concert series in Munich together with works by Yann Robin and Morton Feldman.

Continuing the theme of perspectives on the ‘more than human’ is the premiere on 30th September of a freshly made piece, Microbiome (2020) for bass clarinet written for Carl Rosman which gets a first airing together with my violin solo The Su Song Star Map (2016) played by Sarah Saviet (part of an ELISION event) at a socially-distanced, covid-prepared space, km28 in Berlin.

Vera Hefele asked me some questions on behalf of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra:

  1. Your piece ‘Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus’ deals with the human impact on the environment, or more specifically, the plastic pollution circulating in our oceans. How did you get involved with environmental topics? 

I think it’s the other way around—’environmental topics’ got involved with me. In the last years we’ve become so much more aware of how entangled we humans are with climate crisis; how our plastic bags and rubbish washes up on remote beaches and end up in the stomachs of whales; how the actions of everyday life are interacting with all kinds of extreme weather, with glaciers melting, with the life situation of humans, animals, plants and so on both near and far. I remember an Australian childhood of driving on family holidays where we would have to keep washing the car window of splattered insects. I remember seeing enormous flocks of wild budgerigars filling the sky and hearing waterways filled with frogs—a buzzing, croaking, tweeting world of song which is now so much quieter. 

  1. How do you put this into music and which role do theatrical elements play in the piece?

My piece is haunted by the songs of various creatures, for instance a transcription of the song of a now extinct bird, the Hawaiian Kauai O’o bird which appears in the sonic landscape after the entry of the plastic in the first movement. There are the sounds of a chorus of Australian reef fish singing at dawn in the last movement in the low drones, noises and burps of brass and percussion (these are the sounds fish make!). One might not think of plastic as a ‘creature’ but when you stop to think about it, it’s a very dangerous and active agent in the world. It appears in my work literally as a percussion instrument and in the looping repetitions and circulations of the music which trace the dance of plastic in the environment. Time is thematized in various ways including in some more melancholic elements—a liminal zone of the 19thC disappearing into the 20thC is metabolised in aspects of Janáček’s solo piano music On an overgrown path that underpin the harmony of the 3rdmovement called ‘Autocorrect’, and there is a kind of abject ‘puppet play’ in the 4thmovement ‘Transmission’ where a violin/ist tries to teach a repurposed snare drum/ist how to sing. At the end of the work a contraforte extended with an extra metre and a half of plastic tubing sounds a low F, a notional 22hz that sits right at the edge of human hearing, pointing towards a post-human world.

When I say ‘post-human’ I don’t mean that humans cease to exist but that we need to de-centre humans in the world and more fully experience our radical interconnection with and interdependence on every other thing. This for me provides an ambiguous form of hope: that we might have a better chance of survival if we could listen more attentively to the voices and songs of other beings.

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For more discussion on this topic, I’m giving a talk about ‘Extinction Events and Dawn Chorus’ as an online event: Post-human songs for the Anthropocene for City University London on 30th September, UK time 2-4pm; Australian EST 11pm-1am.