I Harp. You Harp. We (All Should) Harp … to Fight Climate Change

November 1, 2017

By Frank Horvat

Do you know what Earth Overshoot Day is? It’s the specific day of the year when the Earth’s inhabitants have consumed the limit of resources that the planet has available to us for that year. Any consumptive act following that date is self-destructive, given the unsustainable level of extraction from the planet.

According to the Global Footprint Network, as recently as 50 years ago there was no such thing as Earth Overshoot Day. But since then, humankind has gradually and systemically stripped the world of its precious natural resources and this year, we “celebrated” Earth Overshoot Day on August 2, the earliest it’s ever been—by comparison, in 2000 it fell in October.

At the same time that we test and exceed the limits of natural resources on this planet, our patterns of consumption result in climate change (or climate breakdown) which exacerbates access to food, contributes to the displacement of communities, and a variety of other and dramatic and violent impacts.

Climate change affects every person on the planet. Yet, as world leaders gather in Bonn, Germany at the UN Climate Change Conference to ring their hands and blame each other, popular and engaged campaigns within civil society are lacking, and the mendacity of climate change deniers feels omnipresent. I am dumbfounded by the malaise of our global community as we race along this catastrophic trajectory. It is difficult to account for a psychology that defies our instinctive self-preservation. The fact that the immediate impacts of climate change are felt most by racialized and poor communities—communities whose voices are most easily silenced and ignored by those benefitting from the status quo—explains some of the misinformation, and inaction.

Throughout my residency I have been exploring examples of composers who address world events and social justice issues through their writing. On the topic of climate change and ecology, there are people who are effectively using their creative voices to bring awareness and hopefully change the hearts and minds of their audience. One such individual is CMC Associate Composer, Adam Hill.

I became aware of Adam’s music after I issued a call-out on social media asking friends to refer me to compositions that address climate change. I was forwarded many fine examples, and one that caught my ear was Adam’s piece, Oilblood, performed wonderfully by Vancouver’s Erato Ensemble.

Oilblood is the reimagining of Svegliatevi nel core, an aria from Handel’s 1724 opera, Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Adam replaces a son seeking vengeance for the death of his father, for a battle cry as humankind wages war against nature. Adam’s collaboration with Vancouver poet, Kevin Spenst, supplies us with a provocative parallel of the two stories. Composed in 2014, the libretto repeatedly refers both directly and indirectly to then Prime Minister, Stephen Harper.

Here are samples of the text that punctuate the score, appearing and reappearing in varying configurations:

I harp, you harp, he harps, she harps, we harp
Harper your strings waylay us, You strum discord on nature. You cry out “Extract the guts of quaries with jawstock”

The playful use of the verb harp (persistently and tediously addressing a particular topic) before the reference to Harper makes us wonder who is doing the harping. What is their agenda? Ultimately, the text points to each and every one of us, and our role in addressing climate change. Apart from chiding Harper for his record on the environment, Spenst seems to take steady aim at the former prime minister’s efforts to appear more human by playing in a cover band—at least I can’t help but make that association.

Excerpts from Adam Hill's Oilblood score with text by Kevin Spenst. Copyright: Adam Hill

While Mr. Harper’s clutch on the gullet of Canada’s ecosystems has since come to an end, the political relevance of Oilblood remains since the current federal government has not yet proven that they have the desire or foresight to advance legislation and initiatives to reduce Canada’s carbon footprint in a drastic and timely manner.

Quotation is a fascinating feature in contemporary composition, and for me it works really well here both literally and musically. Handel’s main motif is prevalent and playful when appearing in Oilblood. Harmonic changes are more tonally obvious in Handel’s version, while Adam uses minimalist texture and repetition to create interesting shifts in sonority. I like how Adam maintains the Da Capo Aria (ABA) structure in Oilblood—the A’s being playful and the B section contrasting with the more soulfully passionate tenor solo. There’s a reason why composers like sticking with this simple structure for all these centuries…it’s quite impactful emotionally!

As intriguing as I found the libretto and treatment of the tenor and soprano voice parts, I was drawn to Oilblood’s unique instrumentation. In particular, the blend of electric guitar, prepared piano, and tenor saxophone—the exploratory overtones and microtones offer a modern twist to an accompagnato.

An excerpt from Adam Hill's Oilblood score with text by Kevin Spenst. Copyright: Adam Hill

Other than the theme, I have to admit that this piece caught my ear precisely because of its catchiness! What wonderfully simple interplay between the assortment of eclectic instruments and voices. And the beat, pulsing in a way that the minimalist in me enjoys so much.

Adam’s version lives up to the musical spirit of Handel’s piece. For me, Oilblood is an easy listen, which I offer as a compliment—it feels as though Hill and Spenst wanted to convey something directly, and while there are deeper qualities to the music and text that we can explore, the artists prefer not to overwhelm the listener.

As a result of this residency, I have been thinking about the responsibility that artists have to use their medium to get the message out about important issues like climate change. I would not suggest that every composer should base every composition on “big” issues, but we might help this global cause if we consider opportunities to use our creativity. We have a capacity to reach individuals, perhaps motivating someone to make big changes in their workplaces, consider smaller energy-efficient homes, sell their cars and cycle or take transit, consider renewable energy sources, or even reduce their dependency on plastic. And perhaps we can find ways to collectively harp on those industries whose profit driven models would rather see environmental protections stagnate or, even worse, rolled back.

Music is entertaining and engaging…but it also just might help us save the planet!

Frank Horvat is one of several contributors taking part in the CMC Library Residency program, which profiles works from CMC Associate Composers. Visit the community page on the CMC website regularly for new features in the series. You can learn more about Adam Hill and his music from his website.