Unconsciously, I’d left the postcard of Anders Zorn’s painting ‘Vallkulla’ that I’d bought in Mora, in the book ‘Through Vegetal Being’ by Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder – a book that leapt out at me from a shelf in a Stockholm bookshop – I had put the postcard on the page starting a chapter titled ‘Encountering another human in the woods’…
I spent two hot and dry months in the countryside in Västernorrland, in Sweden, working on farms. I stayed for one month in a village where in the 17th century, 71 people (65 women & 6 men) were accused of being witches and were beheaded and burnt.
I heard kulning – traditional cow herding calls – for the first time in a beautiful concert by Ulrika Bodén, in a 13th century church that wore its pre-reformation ornately decorated walls, positively pagan as nature symbolism sprung out of the wood and stone. Afterwards I went home full with inspiration.
I unconsciously began thinking of ways to synthesize these impressions, knowing that these powerful songs of female cow herders and the persecuted women (and men) of the witch trials were somehow connected.
As it happened, I’d already begun work on a piece of music setting words by Virginia Woolf (from The Waves) and Thomas Hardy (Tess of the d’Urbervilles). It was a coincidence that the character of Tess is a milk maid, which gave me the license to write a solo soprano melody that was inspired by kulning. I’d taken a passage from the Hardy, which luridly describes the tragically fated Tess moving through an overgrown garden at twilight. The passage from Woolf’s novel describes darkness enveloping a landscape, covering everything eventually. Though on the one hand it is a poetic description of nightfall, I also naturally interpret it in light of Woolf’s personal history of early sexual abuse and a life shaped by depression, ending sadly with her suicide.
Over the following months I worked my impressions into a piece called ‘Evening Prayers, for choir and baroque ensemble.
Waves of darkness in the garden, damp and rank with juicy grass, darkness in the air, mists of pollen; tall blooming weeds, weeds of red and yellow and purple hues, darkness moved, covering houses, hills, trees, as waves of water wash round the sides of some sunken ship, gathering cuckoo-spittle on skirts, staining hands with thistle-milk and slug-slime, darkness washed down streets, round single figures, engulfing them; blotting out couples, conscious of neither time nor space, floating pollen seemed to be notes made visible, dampness of the garden, weeping of the garden’s sensibility, darkness rolled its waves along grassy rides, wrinkled skin, enveloping the solitary thorn tree, the empty snail shells at its foot, darkness blew along upland slopes, where snow lodges for ever, near nightfall, rank-smelling weed-flowers glowed, valleys full of running streams, yellow vine leaves, waves of colour mixed with waves of sound.
Vanitas is a piece written for string quartet and electronics. The piece was written during a dark time, and naturally the music reflects this, being full of archetypal imagery of multiple suns blazing both white and black, moons casting great shadows, cypress trees, a bell tower on a hill, a primordial summer dance interrupted by a storm…
‘Vanitas’ is divided into three movements, each having it’s own small ‘narrative’.
Movement I : Mix Tape
The first movement ‘Mix Tape’, was the last of the three movements that I composed. It is an evocation of an idyllic summer in the far north, full of longing and nostalgia. There is a beauty, and at the same time a sadness.
The movement starts energetically with a midsummer dance. The atmosphere I hope to evoke is inspired by my experiences in the subarctic during light summer nights; the sounds of the forests and mires, and the brilliant energy in the vivid colours and smells of the wild plants.
Half way through the movement, the party is suddenly interrupted by a dark storm.
The form of the movement is that of a slightly broken ‘Rondo’; musical ideas keep returning in a variety of guises.
Movement II : Soma
Standing in between the two outer movements inspired by summer and winter (and the sun), ‘Soma’ is inspired by the moon. This movement was sketched in September 2015. I recorded and looped myself playing synths using an old mini-cassette dictaphone. Since the tape is so old and worn, and the small microphone intended for only speaking, the result is a decayed / distorted, melancholic ambient music. The title of the piece, which came immediately to my mind as I made the music, refers to a mythical concoction that grants those who drink it immortality. I had not even thought of writing a string quartet at this stage.
Movement III : Love Song
‘Love Song’ was composed, more or less entirely in one sitting, on Saturday 14th November 2015. The piece that arose on that morning came naturally as a stream of consciousness. A diary entry in which my feelings are recorded.
Throughout the majority of ‘Love Song’, the cello plays a drone on the open A string, and as the rest of the quartet’s music moves away from this note, the cello continues undisturbed. In contrast to the first movement, the third movement represents my sense of the ‘light in darkness’; like the sun suddenly shining through the clouds on a grey winter day, the music in this movement slowly builds to a blazing climax.
At the very end of the movement is an ‘Epilogue’ that mirrors the middle (storm) section of the first movement ‘Mix tape’.
In September 2019, I started a two year artistic research project at the Rhythmic Music Conservatory in Copenhagen, with the title ‘Listening to Loss’. In this project, I set out to explore ways of listening, remembering, preserving and contextualising music and sound, during a time of climate crisis, global warming and mass extinction – in a time of loss – through the creation of new music.
I begin with some borrowed questions, which I ask myself, and respond to creatively through music, sound & words. The first questions are borrowed from Steven Feld, in the 2007 publication ‘Coping with the past : creative perspectives on conservation and restoration’, he asks:
‘How can we inherit the past well, and how do we imagine poetics as a production of future memory?‘
He continues, ‘How can I create something that comes from intellectual work but performs its argument more directly in a sensuous medium, making the question of inheriting the past into a way of hearing the audible past?’
The next questions are lifted from the poem ‘Bestiary’ by Joanna Macy, in which she asks:
‘The list of endangered species keeps growing longer every year. With too many names to hold in our mind, how do we honor the passing of life?What funerals or farewells are appropriate?‘
And if this sounds dangerously close to imperial nostalgia (Renato Rosaldo, 1989), my final question, for now, points to responsibility, and is inspired by a quote originally attributed to Jonas Salk, ‘Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors’ (Edward Cornish, Responsibility for the Future, The Futurist, May/June 1994), subsequently appropriated by the environmental movement and turned into the question ‘Are we being good ancestors?‘
“This year, I heard the nightingale sing. I didn’t know I’d missed it.” These are the closing words of the writer Josefine Klougart, when she spoke at a demonstration in the Copenhagen City Hall Square, on 23rd August 2018. The demonstration, organised by Amager Fælleds Venner (Friends of Amager Common), was in reaction to the Lord Mayor of Copenhagen, Frank Jensen’s selling off of a part of Amager Commons, a predominantly protected area of wildlife within greater Copenhagen, for the development of apartment buildings. Within the proposed sites for building development, is an area containing species on the EUs red-list of endangered species.
In her talk, Klougart highlighted how the loss of wildlife areas in our cities as well as the rest of the country, fits a general disconnect that we have as people, when we think and talk about the natural world; she reminded us that we are in fact a part of ‘nature’, not separate from it. “Our bodies already know this; our bodies know that one day flowers and grass will sprout from our rib cages; that we are already one; that we are the very land that our politicians want to sell.”
In her final two sentences, Klougart expresses longing for something that she wasn’t aware she’d missed. Why does this resonate? Perhaps, because it touches on the fragile connection between noticing and caring. Unfortunately, I did not attend the demonstration in 2018. And even more regrettably, I was unaware of the Thrush Nightingales who sing in Amager Commons. This, despite being a regular visitor, since I first moved to Copenhagen in 2009. From the start of May to the end of August, the thrush nightingales in Amager Commons make up 85-90% of Copenhagen’s resident Thrush Nightingale population. Like their close cousins, the common nightingale, the elaborate male songs can best be heard during the summer nights. I had doubtless heard them singing, though without knowing, and therefore sadly without appreciating them. There is the old cliche that ‘we don’t appreciate something until it’s gone’, but I think the truth is even sadder: that something can disappear without us even knowing it had ever been there.
This connection between knowing and caring about the ‘natural world’ is referenced in the UK’s ‘State of Nature 2019’ Report:
“As wildlife populations decline there is increasing concern about people’s willingness to act to reverse this. While social, cultural and political factors influence attitudes and behaviour, and there is a recognised gap between people’s values and actions, one reason for this lack of engagement is considered to be disconnection from nature: “Simply put, humans don’t protect what they don’t know and value.” “Connection to nature” describes an individual’s relationship with nature and their perception of belonging to the wider natural community. Connection is a complex and multidimensional characteristic. Connection is not developed just through contact and simply getting people outside does not mean they will grow a wildflower meadow or petition for nature. Instead, connection is made up of emotional, cognitive and behavioural aspects – feelings about nature, knowledge and actions.”
How can we inherit the past well?
With this question, I wish to explore the notions of temporalities and historicities – which past are we inheriting? Is there a only one past? Inheritance suggests ownership, in which case from whom do we inherit it? Inheriting ‘well’ implies ethical considerations such as (among many others) cultural appropriation, globalisation and cultural imperialism.
During an introductory speech, the rector at the Danish Rhythmic Conservatory, at which I am studying, defined the difference between this conservatory and other music conservatories (eg. the Royal Danish Academy of Music) as being this: Other conservatories teach students in a certain tradition, supporting the continuance of ‘traditional music’, whereas the Rhythmical Conservatory is interested principally in the development of ‘contemporary music’. This statement struck me as dissonant; aside from feeling inaccurate, it also appears to support an ideology that I don’t agree with – that of a ‘Great Divide’.
As Bruno Latour writes in his book ‘We Have Never Been Modern’:
‘The modern passage of time is nothing but a particular form of historicity. Where do we get the idea of time that passes? From the modern Constitution itself. Anthropology is here to remind us: the passage of time can be interpreted in several ways – as a cycle or as decadence, as a fall or as instability, as a return or as a continuous presence. Let us call the interpretation of this passage temporality, in order to distinguish it carefully from time. The moderns have a peculiar propensity for understanding time that passes as if it were really abolishing the past behind it. They all take themselves for Attila, in whose footsteps no grass grows back.’
How do we imagine poetics as a production of future memory?
‘Future memory’ is speculative, and in this sense mirrors the creative act of remembering, and the changeability of memory and understanding of the past.
It is also at this point that I look at all of the references to a ‘We’ in the questions I pose myself; the collective Subject referred to as ‘We’ needn’t only be human. My title for this investigation is ‘Listening to Loss’, not ‘Humans listening to Loss’ – and it is particularly important for my investigation that I don’t exclude other Selves that listen and remember.
In ‘How Forests Think’, Eduardo Kohn writes the following about memory and absence:
‘The giant anteater as a self is a form that selectively “remembers” its own form. That is, a subsequent generation is a likeness of a previous one. It is an iconic representation of its ancestor. But at the same time as such an anteater is a likeness of its forebear (and is thus a sort of memory of it) it also differs from it. For this anteater, with its snout and tongue, can potentially be a relatively more detailed representation of the world around it, insofar (in this case) as its snout, when compared to that of its ancestor, better fits ant tunnels. In sum, the way this anteater remembers or re-presents the generations that came before it is “selective.” This is so, in part, thanks to those past protoanteater selves whose snouts didn’t “fit” their environments as well and who were thus, in a sense, forgotten.’
How do we honor the passing of life? What funerals or farewells are appropriate?
I am interested investigating expressions of grief through vocal lamentations – particularly polyphonic vocal music.
Are we being good ancestors?
This question is partly rhetorical; I take it as a guiding question, one that holds me and others accountable. It asks for responsibility, and acknowledgement of the crisis humans are creating.
‘In my core I have the strange impression that I don’t belong to the human species’ – from ‘Água Viva’ by Clarice Lispector
I am interested in hybridity, blurring of foreground and background distinctions, parasite/host dynamics, epiphytes, repetition and self-similarity, multi-species mutualism, multi perspectivism.
‘This record (‘On Land’) represents one culmination of that development and in it the landscape has ceased to be a backdrop for something else to happen in front of; instead, everything that happens is a part of the landscape. There is no longer a sharp distinction between foreground and background. … Coupled with this transition was an increasing interest in found sound as a completely plastic and malleable material; I never felt any sense of obligation about realism. In this category I included not only recordings of rooks, frogs and insects, but also the complete body of my own earlier work. As a result, some earlier pieces I worked on became digested by later ones, which in turn became digested again. The technique is like composting: converting what would otherwise have been waste into nourishment‘
– Brian Eno, 1982, notes from ‘On Land’
‘We are accustomed to conceiving violence as immediate and explosive, erupting into instant, concentrated visibility. But we need to revisit our assumptions and consider the relative invisibility of slow violence. I mean a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous but instead incremental, whose calamitous repercussions are postponed for years or decades or centuries. I want, then, to complicate conventional perceptions of violence as a highly visible act that is newsworthy because it is focused around an event, bounded by time, and aimed at a specific body or bodies. Emphasizing the temporal dispersion of slow violence can change the way we perceive and respond to a variety of social crises, like domestic abuse or post-traumatic stress, but it is particularly pertinent to the strategic challenges of environmental calamities.’
– from ‘Slow Violence’, Bob Nixon Chronicle of Higher Education. 7/1/2011, Vol. 57 Issue 40
‘In the fifteenth century, European painters began to paint the blue of distance. Earlier European artists had not been much concerned with the faraway in their art. Sometimes a solid wall of gold backed up the saints and patrons; sometimes the space curved around as though the earth were indeed a sphere but we were on its inside.’
– from ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost ‘ by Rebecca Solnit
‘Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer coined the term schizophonia (1977:90) to refer to the splitting of sounds from their sources. What he had in mind was the technological process of sound recording. The nervousness of his schiz-word captured the modernist worry that splitting means loss, a diminution in the relationship between a “live” original and it’s technologically mediated double. But what about the possibility that schizophonia might signify as much about amplification as it does about diminution? This takes us to the considerably more complex dialectic that proceeds from the ontology of the split, the possibility for new circulatory lives, for new social and aesthetic meanings.’
– Entangled Complicities in the Prehistory of “World Music”, Steven Feld / Annemette Kirkegaard
‘Being alive—being in the flow of life—involves aligning ourselves with an ever-increasing array of emerging habits. But being alive is more than being in habit. The lively flourishing of that semiotic dynamic whose source and outcome is what I call self is also a product of disruption and shock…
…That is, we don’t usually notice the habits we in-habit. It is only when the world’s habits clash with our expectations that the world in its otherness, and its existent actuality as something other than what we currently are, is revealed…
…Unexpected events, such as the sudden appearance of a stump across our path—when we manage to notice it—or Maxi’s peccary suddenly reviving can disrupt our assumptions of how the world is. And it is this very disruption, the breakdown of old habits and the rebuilding of new ones, that constitutes our feeling of being alive and in the world. The world is revealed to us, not by the fact that we come to have habits, but in the moments when, forced to abandon our old habits, we come to take up new ones. This is where we can catch glimpses—however mediated—of the emergent real to which we also contribute.’
– Eduardo Kohn, ‘How Forests Think : Towards An Anthropology Beyond the Human’