Saving The Earth–Artist/Activists for the Environment

It’s obvious that our physical world is in deep trouble.  Old and new technologies are out of control—polluting our air, water and soil, poisoning our health, heating up the climate to extreme weather changes, and destroying the ecosystems upon which our lives and all living things depend.  What is it that we, ordinary people, can… Read more »

Written By

Alice Shields

It’s obvious that our physical world is in deep trouble.  Old and new technologies are out of control—polluting our air, water and soil, poisoning our health, heating up the climate to extreme weather changes, and destroying the ecosystems upon which our lives and all living things depend.  What is it that we, ordinary people, can do to force our governments to stop this rape and murder of the earth?

We are six women artists. Since we are artists, we will try to help through our art.

In 2016, composer Alice Shields collaborated with composers Sheree Clement, Eleanor Cory, and Nina C. Young to design a concert of new works dedicated to the earth, all created by women.  The concert would be presented by The Association for the Promotion of New Music in New York City (APNM) and would be performed by the musicians of Ensemble Pi.

Idith Meshulam Korman—pianist, artistic director of Ensemble Pi, and one of the most vibrant social activists in classical music—was already a friend of several of the composers and immediately got involved. Ensemble Pi was indeed the perfect ensemble for this project: an outstanding contemporary performing ensemble, with a celebrated history and ongoing commitment to human rights and environmental protection.

With Idith and Ensemble Pi’s roster of musicians in mind, several of us began writing new pieces about the environment that would be performed at the proposed concert.  As plans developed, we decided to explore what visual artist we might bring in to enhance the experience of our audience.  Erik Lundborg, the president of APNM, suggested we might want to ask the prominent environmental photographer Lynne Buchanan, whom he had known as a fellow student at New College, if she would be interested in participating.  Passionately committed to environmental protection, Lynne has documented climate change and water issues across the United States and around the world in places such as Patagonia, Iceland, the Falkland Islands, Antarctica, and Bangladesh.

We contacted her, and Lynne quickly became the sixth member of our artist-activist alliance. A dedicated environmentalist, she has photographed natural phenomena around the world, working for environmental organizations such as Waterkeeper Alliance, as well as with indigenous people.  Lynne’s beautiful, often disturbing photographs of the current state of the earth are riveting. Not only do they document the actual physical phenomena of streams, rivers, oceans, trees, and landscapes, but they are also works of art, radiantly detailed and shining with natural light.  Lynne’s environmental photographs will be shown throughout the SAVING THE EARTH concert, matched with the mood and world view of our different compositions. Our concert audience will not only be hearing music inspired by the environment, but will be experiencing visual art representing environmental issues as well.

Is our music and visual art enough to convey our concern about saving the physical world?

We considered what else might elevate the audience’s experience.  We were not environmental scientists or biologists: is our music and visual art enough to convey our concern about saving the physical world? Don’t we also need someone who can speak with authority about the perilous state of the environment?  We asked Lynne what environmental organization we should invite to speak at the concert. Lynne suggested we contact Waterkeeper Alliance, a nonprofit devoted to clean water around the world which she knew well.

The Waterkeeper movement was started by fishermen on New York’s Hudson River in 1966 because industrial polluters were destroying their way of life. Their environmental activism led to the Hudson’s inspiring recovery. Waterkeeper Alliance now unites 300 Waterkeeper organizations around the world, tracking down polluters, enforcing environmental laws in the courts, advocating in town meetings, and teaching in classrooms.  They speak for the waters they defend. We contacted them and are pleased to say that Waterkeeper’s Executive Director Marc Yaggi will speak during the concert.  Before joining Waterkeeper Alliance, Marc, a specialist in environmental law, was a senior attorney for Riverkeeper, Inc., where he worked to protect the 2,000-square-mile watershed that provides New York City’s drinking water.

The concert program we have designed together—four composers, a pianist-ensemble leader, and an environmental photographer—is called SAVING THE EARTH – Two operas and two meditations for our Planet. It will be presented by the Association for the Promotion of New Music on Nov. 20, 2018, at 7:30 p.m. at the Baruch Performing Arts Center in Manhattan. Below, each one of us speaks a little about the concert and our hopes for the preservation of the earth.

Sheree Clement

Sheree Clement

Sheree Clement
About Swimming Upstream (2018)
for soprano, flute, clarinet, piano , violin, cello and video
Elizabeth Farnum, soprano
Conducted by Carl Bettendorf
Projection design by Ross Karre
NYC premiere

Swimming Upstream, a one-act chamber opera, explores our emotional connection to water and rivers and streams. The main character is a retired biology teacher from Rumford, Maine—and/or a water goddess. You get to decide.  Imagine her reaction to what we humans have done to the water on our planet – dammed streams and rivers, upended ecosystems, and even contaminated our own drinking water.  The piece incorporates projections and pre-recorded audio with field recordings and texts about water, the Androscoggin River, and migratory fish. With a minimal stage setting, it weaves together science, politics, regional history, and family history.

Upstream Fish

An image of upstream fish that will be projected during Sheree Clement’s Swimming Upstream.

The work challenges the audience to consider our relationship with water.

In four scenes, the heroine Mary Beth Davis comes to terms with the defilement of the Androscoggin River and the ramifications of the devastation it caused. Many of her family members worked in the Oxford / Verso paper mill, and many died of one kind of cancer or another. In reflecting on the river, Mary Beth’s science background leads her to consider the 2014 tap water crisis in Flint, Michigan and more. This drives her to ideas of retribution and extreme measures, but who is actually responsible? The work challenges the audience to consider our relationship with water.

Nina C. Young

Nina C. Young

Nina C. Young
About L’heure bleue (2013)
Roberta Michel, flute; Ah Ling Neu, viola

I was trained as an ocean engineer at MIT and my work as a composer has often engaged with topics and sounds that address human interaction with technology and the environment.  In 2017 the American Composers Orchestra premiered Out of whose womb came the ice, a work for baritone, orchestra, electronics, and generative video commenting on the ill-fated Ernest Shackleton Trans-Antarctic Expedition 1914-1917.  The composition is built upon sourced texts from the journal entries of the crew, visual manipulations of Frank Hurley’s photographs from the expedition, and recordings of ice floes and glaciers obtained from the PALAOA Ocean Acoustics Lab.  The glacier recordings resurface as the sonic and harmonic structure of Rising Tide, a work commissioned for the Milan Expo that comments on human agency and rising sea levels.  I’m currently collaborating with vocal bassist, writer, and community organizer Andrew Munn on an evening-length, multi-media ritual opera, titled Making Tellus – An Opera for the Anthropocene, which addresses the current socio-political conversation surrounding human intervention and earth’s rapidly changing geology.

For me, music, as a temporal art, serves as a vehicle for expressing notions of process, memory, ephemera, and fragility.

All of these larger projects stemmed from one of my first attempts at tying together concepts of natural phenomenon with organized concert music: L’heure bleue, the work programmed on APNM’s concert.  For me, music, as a temporal art, serves as a vehicle for expressing notions of process, memory, ephemera, and fragility.  L’heure bleue evokes with sound the earthly transition from day to night, the unique glow of the mysterious blue hour that fades into darkness.  The flautist and violist are two individuals in a partnership—conversing, arguing, and admiring their surroundings as they try to find a union between themselves as singular, together, and in counterpoint with the liminality of their surroundings.  The piece also contains an easter egg: play L’heure bleue alongside Steven Wilson’s song “Harmony Korine” and you may discover an unexpected connection.  (If you are interested why, come and chat with me after the show!)

Eleanor Cory in Straus Park

Eleanor Cory (Photo by Molly Sheridan)

Eleanor Cory
About Reverie Interrupted (2018)
Aexis Gerlach, cello; Idith Meshulam, piano
world premiere

I grew up summering on the far end of Long Island. We lived at the top of a hill away from the surf, but many summers our yard was flooded with waves which came up over the dunes during hurricanes. These were frightening experiences for me as a little child. The waves felt enormous, and surmounting their ire made me strong. Looking back, I experienced extreme vulnerability, but also a sense of power. I think the extremes of environmental events have some relation to writing music. We need to be in command of notes which can have the power to present listeners with everything from beauty to complexity, fear and anger as well as sensitivity and vigor. The environment has often inspired me with images which I have translated into notes.

I felt a need to find new ways to connect my ideas more directly to other people.

Writing music is a very solitary activity. For years I composed and taught composition to college students.  When I retired and was alone with just my music, I felt a need to find new ways to connect my ideas more directly to other people. Eventually, my pieces began to refer to political events like Occupy Wall Street or the experiences of people in prison.

Recently I have been concerned about the threat to the American environment, which led me to write Reverie Interrupted for cello and piano. The music alternates between supple lines and chords expressing the beautiful panoramas of wide U.S. landscapes, and agitated, more dissonant sections, which depict the environmental damage that humans can cause.  At the end of the piece, a quiet equilibrium allows the two musical extremes to co-exist expressing my optimism that people can end environmental corrosion.

Alice Shields

Alice Shields

Alice Shields
About Zhaojun – The Woman Who Saved the World (2018)
for soprano, baritone, flute, oboe, percussion, piano, violin, viola, cello
Sharon Harms, soprano; Jeffrey Huw Williams, baritone;
Conducted by Carl Bettendorf
Directed by Ashley Tata
world premiere

In early childhood I lived for a while in the Sonoran Desert, and saw Spring come on the desert, with thousands of cactus in bright blooms, radiating color under the enormous skies. Later, as a child growing up in the suburbs of New Jersey, I saw more and more asphalt being laid down for roads and malls, covering over the woods and meadows. As the number of cars increased on those roads and malls, the fresh air changed to something less alive. Since that time I have felt increasingly estranged from the natural world, and have tried to draw it near to me in my work. A recent piece in which I have held nature close to me is The Wind In the Pines, a commission from Chamber Music America for singer and six instruments. In this piece, based on the Noh play Matsukaze (“Pine Wind”), a pine tree speaks of the doom of the earth.

Joining these pieces is my new opera Zhaojun – The Woman Who Saved the World, a one-act chamber opera. The plot is based on stories about Wang Zhaojun, who created peace between Mongolia and China two thousand years ago and is still celebrated in China today. Zhaojun had been given by her former master, the Emperor, to the Mongols as a sexual peace offering. But in the opera, to stop environmental destruction and create universal peace, the sex slave Zhaojun steps out of ancient times into the 21st century to confront the Emperor, the modern ruler of the world.

The costume for the Emperor of the Future

The costume for the Emperor of the Future in Alice Shields’s opera Zhaojun – The Woman Who Saved the World.

She’s here to dethrone the 21st century Emperor so he will not be able to abuse women and destroy all life on earth through his violence, rapacious finance, and pollution.

She’s here to dethrone the 21st century Emperor so he will not be able to abuse women and destroy all life on earth through his violence, rapacious finance, and pollution. The plot unfolds: Zhaojun three times tries to rip away his guns, money, and garbage, but fails to trap him. Nonetheless, he stumbles and falls into his own toxic environmental garbage, smothers, and dies. She brings him back to life, and teaches him to sing a liturgy of caring for others, and immerses him in Indra’s Net, the connective tissue that connects each cell in the universe. He is overwhelmed with the beauty and profundity of the universe until there is no narcissism left in him, and he finally feels compassion and the urge to protect all living things. Nearer to enlightenment, and almost happy, the Emperor’s Soul is released, and he dances together with Zhaojun, dedicating his new life to caring and compassion for all things.

Idith Meshulam Korman playing the piano

Idith Meshulam Korman, pianist and artistic director of Ensemble Pi

Idith Meshulam Korman

Ensemble Pi, a socially conscious new music group, strives for activism through music by presenting concerts focused on such policy matters as mass incarceration, media suppression, Black Lives Matter, and protecting our environment. The last subject is the most alarming one, especially under the current administration, and encompasses issues of racism, economic injustice, greed, inequality, and media presentation.

For the first time in history, the next generations are going to be sicker than previous generations.

In my personal observations of environmental shifts during my lifetime, I would say that the most conspicuous change I have seen is the compromised health of the younger generation. For the first time in history, the next generations are going to be sicker than previous generations, afflicted with new, debilitating, undiagnosed, and misunderstood chronic diseases. The cause of this alarming and painful situation can be nothing other than that we live in a soup of environmental toxins. Our water, air, food, oceans, and mountains need our protection—and are not getting it.

And because we live in a male-dominated society that allows this to happen, it is time for  women to connect, collaborate, create a new movement, and launch a revolution to effect significant environmental change. Naomi Klein, in her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014), cites the need to hear from more women scientists on the topic of climate change, and she notes that the Dakota Access Pipeline struggle at Standing Rock was initiated by women and children from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

Ensemble Pi rehearsing

Ensemble Pi rehearsing Alice Shields’s opera Zhaojun – The Woman Who Saved the World

I believe this should be our model, and that “Change the System to Change the Climate” should be our motto.

The question is: How do you stay hopeful or engaged in the present, dire political climate? The answer: by getting out of our homes and off our screens and coming together with like-minded people to share our concerns and pain and to call for change. This concert is part of that movement: women for environmental change.

Lynne Buchanan on the Kapitan Khlebnikov

Environmental photographer Lynne Buchanan on the legendary Kapitan Khlebnikov, one of the most powerful icebreakers in the world.

Lynne Buchanan

For the last 15 million years, Antarctica has been a frozen desert under ice.  My interest in water naturally led me there, as the Antarctic contains somewhere between 60 and 90 percent of the earth’s freshwater in frozen ice sheets.  According to Andrew Shepherd, the lead author of a recent study on Antarctic ice loss, Antarctica lost 3 trillion tons of ice between 2002 and 2017, with forty percent of this loss in the last five years.  In addition to glacial land ice, there is sea ice, which is also declining and resulting in alterations to the food web and habitat loss.  The melting of freshwater glaciers is altering the fresh and saltwater mix, which is causing changes in the ocean’s chemistry, ecosystems, and biodiversity.  It was fascinating to observe some of the changes that are happening with my own eyes, as I watched glaciers the size of city blocks move past the icebreaker.

The melting of freshwater glaciers is altering the fresh and saltwater mix.

The sea ice is what really spoke to my soul though.  To study it was to watch geology in motion, something that is not possible on land.  Fast sea ice attaches to land masses and is less prone to seasonal melting, and this is what we walked on to visit the emperor penguins, which are the only creatures to lay their eggs on sea ice.  (Sadly, studies have predicted the rapid decline of these species as the sea ice diminishes.)  Floating sea ice can be multiyear thicker ice or thin ice that freezes each winter.  The winds and currents blow icebergs and sea ice around in the ocean, and it is easy to become trapped. Helicopter reconnaissance missions were performed regularly to make sure we would not get stuck. Sheets of sea ice often crash into each other and form fracture lines. I loved when finger-shaped pieces of ice were superimposed on layers below, or when frost flowers dotted the surface, or when the ship churned up thick chunks and you could see the krill and algae on the underside.  Glacial ice is devoid of life, but sea ice is a platform for it. The intricacies of how the sea ice behaves reminded me of the human psyche–the “armor” or artificial walls we often construct and how our personalities evolve when we are triggered or when aspects of our inner selves erupt. To me, Antarctica embodied the interconnectedness of existence. The sea of whiteness was a blank slate at times, but when you looked closer it wasn’t blank at all. There were traces and records of being in nothingness all around…

When Erik Lundborg, the president of APNM and a fellow New College alum, approached me to see if I was interested in participating in a “Saving the Earth” concert of works by female composers, I was honored to share my images.  Having worked with indigenous women on water and other environmental issues, I instantly knew the value of having a program with this theme designed and composed by women. Then I learned of the opera by Alice Shields that will be performed in this concert.  She describes the penultimate scene as being Indra’s Web, in which the female character Zhaojun immerses the Emperor’s body in the interconnected web of atoms that reflect all the other atoms in the universe, and teaches him to serenely sing with her the Bodhisattva’s guide to life. I was a yoga instructor before I began photographing water and interdependent ecosystems, so this spoke to me on a deep level.  My worldview is also greatly influenced by Hildegard von Bingen, who lived in the 12th century and believed in a web of life. The theme of Alice’s opera is a reminder that women throughout history have been advocating for the need to connect with the earth and share her resources for future generations.