Music in Times of Global Disaster

The alarm woke him up at 7 a.m., when finally he had found some sleep. Fragments of his own work, rehearsed on the previous day, had been revolving in his head all through the night. Today: one more rehearsal at the Philharmonic, a few telephone interviews, and at 8.15 p.m., the premiere of his Extinction.

Again he felt annoyed that in the press, in conversation, almost everywhere his latest work was referred to as Extinction Symphony. Not only did the term ‘symphony’ not suit a piece in one movement; it also sounded too traditional and harmless. Here he had finally written a piece that explored the boundaries of music in making a statement, a call for dissent, an act of engagement. The whole work was conceived as a preparation for the brutal outbreak of silence at the end. A silence which should fall upon the audience like a suffocating shroud.

But even that idea was too romantic. Like his previous large scale work, the opera Dust and Ashes, his new composition was just another monument to melancholy. Glorified depression, to be followed by depression plain and simple.

Answering questions about the animal sounds in this work, sounds of species on the brink of extinction, he had got the feeling that there was little difference between what he had done and the bird sounds in the Adagio religioso of Bartók’s Piano Concerto no. 3, or in Messiaen’s more emphatically religious Des canyons aux étoiles, with which Extinction shared the programme. Excellent company, but company that seemed to stress the nostalgic aspect of his own vision.

Checking his email before going down for breakfast, he first found a graphic morning kiss from his wife, who couldn’t be present that night. Her father was gravely ill. Scrolling down he hit upon the announcement of a London symposium, Music Studies on a Damaged Planet: Sound Responses to Environmental Breakdown.

Concerns about the planet had been disconcertingly few in his professional world. Activist responses were even fewer. So he read on.

… the scale and complexity of the current ecological crisis and the urgent need for widespread systemic change raise questions about the roles and responsibilities of music scholarship as a whole. If we must now find ways to live on a damaged planet …, environmental breakdown is no longer simply a topic with which some music scholars choose to engage; rather, it is one of the conditions in which music studies operates.

That made sense, and should include music as much as musical scholarship. But what at first sight looked sympathetic, he found shocking at second. Is finding ways of adapting our first concern? Is it too late to step on the breaks of breakdown?

The message he wanted to communicate that evening was: I don’t want to adapt; I don’t want to live in a globalized townscape; and I don’t want to share in the guilt of mass extermination. Nor should anyone.

Extinction was a gloomy piece, though not gloomy enough. But who would listen to anything gloomier? By transforming mass extinction into a musical topic, he made it palatable, contributed to survival and adaption, and provided consolation. But there is no consolation, and should be none.

Maybe, instead of writing orchestra music and aestheticizing global disaster, he should have tried to organize a worldwide musicians’ strike. A day, a week, a month, a year, an eternity of musical deprivation. No more music among environmental breakdown.

Should he start by withdrawing his work from the programme that day?

With a sigh Thomas Winstrich threw his legs out of bed and started dressing for breakfast.