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Composing a Musicians' Climate Citizenry

Composing a Musicians' Climate Citizenry

By Gabriela Lena Frank and Rebecca McFaul

Photo courtesy of Rebecca McFaul

A chamber musician and a composer grapple with the environmental impact of a career in music—and begin to chart a new path forward.

A Note From the Authors: In the short time between submission of this article and its publication, the United States was stunned by the ferocious advent of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19). In short order, as deaths mounted, normal daily activities ceased, leading to nationwide cancellations of concerts from small and large organizations alike, with many folding completely. Thousands of musicians were put out of work and music schools fell silent. Meanwhile, in the backdrop, growing evidence continued to link a warming planet to more frequent health epidemics in the future, one of the many dangers posed by environmental crises. We feel that the words of this article are more urgent than ever. 

In Logan, Utah, a violinist in a professional string quartet sits at her kitchen table, scanning her upcoming tour itinerary with increasing unease. Headlines marking the mounting impacts of a warming world never slip by unnoticed. With a large multi-media project on the environmental crisis in her quartet’s repertoire, solar panels installed behind her house, a soil-health restoration project underway in her yard, vegetarian fare in the kitchen, and married to a physicist who studies global change, she worries.

Bee Hive

Photo courtesy of Gabriela Lena Frank

In Boonville, California, a composer wakes from another nightmare, one of many lingering remnants of trauma wrought by two years of apocalyptic wildfires. Having left her native Bay Area to build a permaculture homestead in the rural north, she has missed concerts to stay behind with her husband during fire emergencies and asked for extensions on pieces due. They have become regulars at classes at the local fire station, and she watches her husband toil daily clearing brush and felling trees to mitigate danger. On her mind, always, is Paradise, a nearby city of thousands that became a ghost town in a matter of hours in the Camp Fire of 2018. She, too, worries.

The violinist and composer meet through a mutual colleague, the quartet’s violist. In an eco-garden of native desert plants, they share a drink. They compare notes on gardening, the best stress-reliever for a jet-fueled life on the road. The composer talks about her beehives not surviving, season after season. The violinist talks about the carbon footprint of the quartet’s recent tour of China. She inspires the composer to commit to trading in her gas-guzzler for an electric vehicle like her own. The composer shares that she was forced to relocate residencies at her fledgling music academy in California to avoid newly anointed “fire months.”

The two artists talk about the composer’s private meeting earlier that day with two of the violinist’s students who are co-composing an opera on the climate emergency. The composer describes how she gave the young musicians strategies for structuring large-scale work so that the messaging is powerful; and how she shared an emotional inter-generational conversation with them on eco-responsibility.

In that desert garden, a moment of safety is created. The two artists talk about the ease with which the mind shuts down in a paralyzing mix of anxiety, despair, and even shame when it comes to confronting their beloved profession’s contribution to the climate emergency: Abundant air travel, inordinate use of plastics at post-concert receptions, meat-heavy meals, and more. They talk about the psychological dissonance between manifesting art for human connection with a live audience while having harmed the planet to do so. They talk about their fear of losing work should they express a preference for alternative choices to potential employers, and the need for employers to work with one another to reinvent the touring profession. Beyond all, they talk about their fear of not being able to concertize, to essentially not be musicians.

The dam breaks. Grief and hope co-mingle. Those two artists? They are us: Rebecca McFaul of the Fry Street Quartet, and Gabriela Lena Frank, on the G. Schirmer roster. We are concerned citizens who love our vocation. We love it not only for the continued gifts of self-knowledge that artistic pursuits bring, but equally for its interdependent and communal nature: Composers have no voice without performers; performers collaborate with one another to interpret the stories that composers unearth from their psyches. Live performances bring it full circle by involving listeners to create shared experiences. And yet, as a community, we artists have been slow to make space for the uncomfortable conversations necessary to green our lives and secure our futures.

Rebecca McFaul Looks out at land

Photo courtesy of Rebecca McFaul

It is understandable. For years, musicians have persevered despite lack of diversity, low pay, job uncertainty, crushing music school debt, a punishing travel schedule, and cramped, shared apartments. A lucky few manage a comfortable lifestyle. Still, for all of us, being asked to compromise our hard-won professional life when there is already so little margin for change seems unfathomable. Strapped for time and mental bandwidth, how does one put in the hours of reading and research it takes to be informed, to be politically active? How do we challenge our work opportunities to be greener when they already seem perennially imperiled?

And yet, the realities are harsh. To name but two:

The risks are unprecedented. According to a recent report in the journal Nature, a cascade of tipping points could soon be set in motion: The loss of entire ecosystems, including tropical forests, boreal forests, and coral reefs. The melting of tundra and the world’s ice sheets could combine to dramatically intensify changes already underway. This scale of potential collapse is not compatible with an organized society. The science is screaming that we’re in an emergency. We will never get this time back, and the longer we wait the more severe the consequences will be.

Gabriela Lena Frank at Utah State

Photo: Andrew McCallister

The math is brutal. According to a report conducted by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), urgent action is needed to avoid the catastrophic effects of global warming. Beyond 1.5 C of warming, risks compound quickly. To hold the planet to no more than 1.5 C of warming, scientists have formulated a budget: 340 billion tons of carbon dioxide. Without transformative change, humans will surpass this budget in less than a decade. Divided evenly among the world’s population, this is a lifetime budget of about 44 tons for each person alive today. Most Americans will consume their share in just over two years. The warming doesn’t stop until the emissions are at zero. The next ten years are critical. The time for action is now.

After that fateful conversation in the garden, Rebecca took an even deeper dive into climate research, all while continuing to teach and concertize. With the other members of the Fry Street Quartet, she drafted a proposal to “green” the NOVA series in Salt Lake City, UT, where the quartet serves as music directors. The FSQ decided to make personal donations to Utah Clean Energy to offset the carbon emissions of university guests visiting at their invitation, and also pushed their institution to adopt some version of this practice for all guests. For its January 2020 tour of Nebraska and Kansas, the FSQ rented a minivan and drove to all of its engagements before returning by air, reducing the ensemble’s carbon footprint by nearly half. Afterwards, for the first time ever, a chamber music presenter thanked the FSQ for declining bottled water in their contract.

Meanwhile, a third straight devastating fire season gripped California. Having already missed concerts earlier in the season because of statewide power outages, Gabriela left a recording session of her orchestral work early to reunite with her husband during the Kincade Fire of October 2019, only to be cut off from him for several panicked days because of road closures. She held another fundraiser concert for fire victims, and drafted a climate initiative amendment to her music academy’s mission statement, overhauling its programs to lower their carbon footprint. She remains frightened that fewer musicians, consequently, will want to participate.

Not long after, Australia entered a season of devastating conflagration, the likes of which had never been seen by the world. There was a staggering loss of animal life, and of entire eco-systems. Concerts were cancelled, and daily life was disrupted for millions. Needless to say, the livelihood of musicians throughout the continent was harmed, and communities were robbed of access to the performing arts.

Fry Street QUartet Crossroads Project

Photo courtesy of Rebecca McFaul

Moving forward, what is needed? In our view, the very interdependent nature of the musical life and our longstanding custom of listening to and conveying human stories will be our community’s strength in navigating the elusive space between alarm and aspiration. It is indisputable that change is already upon us. But we can only be stewards of that change if we dare to imagine and propose alternative actions—even if they eventually prove to be wrong, ineffective, or short-sighted. The point is to move, to act, and to be ready to discard what doesn’t work, all while demonstrating consistent compassion towards one another.

For example, some specific actions might be to:

Foster Block Booking: Musicians and presenters can dialogue with one another to set up regional tours where little or no flying is required of performers. This would render “exclusivity” performance clauses, i.e. not performing for another nearby organization in the same season, obsolete.

Use Technology: Presenters and ensembles can request that composers record a video of themselves speaking about their piece to play at a concert instead of requiring their physical presence (often necessitating plane travel), paying them a fee for their time.

GLFCAM

Photo courtesy of Gabriela Lena Frank

Feature Local Artists: Orchestras can invite a concertmaster to play a concerto instead of flying in a soloist from far away. This can also serve to prime local audiences to celebrate local musicians in other concert settings as well.

Consider the Carbon: Presenters can provide additional honorariums for musicians who agree to take the train (i.e., sleeper cabins to arrive rested), which are more time-consuming. Long distance train travel is often more expensive, which would necessitate fundraising for a climate fund. Or: self-impose a “carbon tax” in the form of a meaningful donation to a local organization that is creating proven sustainable alternatives.

Set the Table: Presenters and other organizations can change the menu of donor functions and post-concert receptions to feature vegan and/or sustainable fare and reduce the use of single use plastics.

Talk About It: Everyone can help normalize climate actions and conversations by articulating and sharing your efforts on social media, in concert programs, on websites, in mission statements, pre-concert talks, and at receptions.

We are in uncharted territory. Proposing solutions is risky, especially among musicians who are accustomed to expecting nothing but perfection: We expect (and are expected to) play in tune while mastering impossible phrases, and to compose idiomatic, compelling works. And we expect to do all of this while keeping stage fright at bay and making it all look easy. These are goals we understand. In imagining new models beyond our traditional purview, we would benefit from compassionate and open conversation. We will need to set aside understandable fear and mental paralysis in order to share and implement new ideas. Alongside that, we will need to cultivate awareness of the very real eco-depression and anxiety that threaten our innovation and the courage needed for reinvention. After all, the solutions to our climate crisis also bring great benefits: deeper local connections, a more humane lifestyle for musicians, and a safer planet for us all.

Fry Street QUartet Crossroads Project

Photo courtesy of Rebecca McFaul

This is a journey, albeit an urgent one; the landmark 2018 report by the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) outlines just twelve years of action to turn things around for ourselves and our children. To that end, at a crossroads in our professional and personal lives, this violinist from Utah and this composer from California are debuting a column as we wend our way to climate citizenship as practicing musicians. Decidedly not gurus nor experts, we will be writing sincerely, even vulnerably, about both successful and failed attempts to address the embers burning in our conscience. By sharing glimpses of our lives, we hope to nudge our beloved industry toward ethical music-making, and to create a safe space for conversations on topics that may prove controversial, especially as they veer towards issues of multi-faceted inequities. We will share resources we discover as well as frustrations that will undoubtedly be encountered along the way. And we hope to hear from you, our cherished colleagues, who are likewise anxious and looking for solutions.

Join us at www.glfcam.com and look for the Musicians’ Climate Citizenry Blog.

Postscript: At the time of this printing, the United States and other countries are likely still battling COVID-19, grieving a collective loss of normalcy. Shock likely still intermingles with astonishing acts of kindness and courage, especially from doctors and nurses on the frontlines. And people are likely still downloading free coloring books from art museums, streaming films for no charge at independent film festivals, perusing the concert archives made available by major music societies, and crying to YouTube videos of quarantined Italians singing from balconies. Poignantly, while people turn to art for solace, and while carbon emissions have decreased due to a cessation of polluting human activities, we can’t help but wonder about the way forward. When this extremely urgent crisis passes, will we race back to business as usual? Or will the lessons of COVID-19 gift us the fortitude and compassion to seriously address climate action, increasingly not an abstract concept but a moral duty of survival?


Gabriela Lena Frank is a Grammy-winning artists based in Boonville, CA, where she also directs the Gabriela Lena Frank Creative Academy of Music. Rebecca McFaul is a violinist and founding member of the Fry Street Quartet.


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