RTÉ Culture: Can music help us face the climate crisis?

Published at the RTÉ Culture website, Friday 15 March 2024 (link to source)

Musician and programme-maker Jonathan Grimes introduces We Only Want the Earth, a two-part exploration of how contemporary composers in Ireland are responding to the climate and biodiversity crisis through their work, coming to the Lyric Feature this March.

It started with a bike ride. It was September 2020, that time when we thought everything was opening up and that the pandemic was in our rearview mirror. Like many, I missed live music and the freedom of being able to travel.

So when I got the chance to cycle from my home to Burrow Beach, Sutton to hear an outdoor performance, as part of Kirkos Ensemble’s Biosphere Festival, and record interviews with some of the musicians involved for the Contemporary Music Centre’s podcast amplify, it planted a seed.

Biosphere was a climate crisis-inspired festival and composer and Kirkos co-director Sebastian Adams’s Tide Quartet was one of the pieces programmed during this festival. It was performed by musicians on the beach as the tide came in, and finished as it reached their necks.

Sebastian Adams — Tide Quartet [m/ score]

It's so much more about the poetic idea of the fact that a string quartet played in the water till it came up to their necks than it is really about hearing the music

says Sebastian Adams.

Seeing a music festival that put the focus on our relationship with our natural environment was fascinating. Working in the arts and music, I often question if music really matters when it comes to the bigger issues we face such as the climate crisis.

Karen Power, photo by Frida Sjögren

Writing music can often feel a little unnecessary or unimportant because of what's happening in the world. Why am I writing music? What purpose does it have in the grander scheme of things?

says Judith Ring. Ring is one of the composers in our series and someone deeply engaged with climate and biodiversity loss.

Another composer Karen Power, whose practice is all about recording in the most remote places in the world, puts it quite poignantly - saying the art of listening to the sounds of nature has changed her:

... part of that change is in hearing the effects of humans and of industry - you can't un-hear them. It changes everything.

In my journey, I was struck by how connected these composers' music is to our world and how they all care and think deeply about our planet and its future.

I think about the climate crisis a lot and I worry about my children's future as our planet continues to warm and reliance on fossil fuels remains embedded in our society. I wanted to find out more about how composers are responding to the climate challenge, and if sound and music has a role to play in our transition to a carbon-free future.

I'm also an avid cyclist and riding bikes is a big part of my life. When we could not travel during 2020, I spent a lot of time dreaming up different long-distance cycling routes across Ireland. So last summer, I took my bike, loaded down with recording equipment, and cycled across Ireland to meet with composers.

Jonathan Grimes, photo by Caitríona McElhinney Grimes

The result of this is a two-part documentary for the Lyric Feature on RTÉ lyric FMWe Only Want the Earth. Through interviews with composers Sebastian Adams, Natalia Beylis, Éna Brennan, Robert Coleman, Gráinne Mulvey, Karen Power, Judith Ring, Nick Roth, Jennifer Walshe and Ian Wilson, and contributions from climate scientist Hannah Daly and musicologist Stephen Graham, the series finds how some Irish composers are engaging with the climate challenge in their work and if music can help us face the climate crisis.

The series title comes from the 1907 song with words by James Connolly, We Only Want the Earth, about the Irish labour movement. This phrase resonated as the climate challenge is not just about science but about how we live on the planet, and about creating a shared future.

Jonathan's bike at the O'Carolan Statue in Mohill, Co. Leitrim

In my journey, I was struck by how connected these composers' music is to our world and how they all care and think deeply about our planet and its future. While none of them believes that their music can change the world, there is a deep conviction in the power of music and art to move us.

Art has the capacity to make us feel emotions and make us feel moved, and give us another person's experience, or step into another consciousness. And all of those things can help shift how people behave.

 says Jennifer Walshe.

Sound walk in the Belfast Hills

The journey across the island - from the Blackwater Valley in Cork to the Belfast Hills - left me convinced that our musicians and composers have a lot to contribute to this transition. It's the subtle power that music and sound have in tapping into our world that we need to pay attention to.

As Nick Roth says,

Every species has its own way of expressing this delight in existing… and all of the arts are fuel for that kind of energy.

The Lyric Feature: We Only Want the Earth, RTÉ lyric fm, 17th and 24th March at 6.30 pm - listen to more from The Lyric Feature here.