Music. Music. Music.
Once I was working with a group of high-school students in a classroom that was undergoing minor renovations. I had asked them to define "music," and the discussion that followed was vigorous and opinionated. A hard-hatted construction worker had entered the room and was busying himself with some repairs; he was standing on a ladder with his head up inside the ceiling. One of the students suggested, "Hey, why don't we ask that guy what he thinks?" (You could see the kid's eagerness to have input from the blue-collar working class.)
I waited until the workman had pulled his head from the ceiling.
"Excuse me, sir."
He looked politely in my direction.
"The students and I would like to ask you a question."
He said, "Sure!"
"Could you give us your definition of the term 'music'?"
And without a pause, he replied, "Culturally-mediated non-semantic patterns in sound," and stuck his head back in the ceiling to finish off his work. (Another reason to love the Boston area: construction workers with degrees in Philosophy)
Music, music, music.
Working with the shared raw material of vibrating strings, air columns, skins and vocal chords, our species has created endless weavings of sonic beauty and meaning, reflecting individual traditions and ways of living. There is no human culture without its own distinctive music.
And now that countless human cultures are living under the looming threat of a suddenly hostile planet, triggered into uninhabitability by steadily increasing doses of atmospheric toxins, administered to the global community by its wealthiest and least responsible members, many musics will drown, or burn, or be displaced into irrelevance.
And as someone who's been fascinated since childhood by all those culturally-mediated non-semantic patterns in sound, I find that a tragedy.
Now, while making music has certainly made me a better person, I know that it doesn't work that way with everybody. Hell, according to Kevin Phillips, old Prescott Bush loved singing more than anything. And don't forget John Ashcroft. There's ample enough evidence that you can be tuneful and musical — and a raving, destructive sociopath. On the other hand, maybe if GHWB's daddy hadn't been a singer, he would have been an even worse human being. Scary.
But I'm an old hippie (well, a getting-old-hippie, anyway), and I'm proudly naive enough that I stand with Pete Seeger when he says, "I don't know if humanity's going to make it...but I do know that we're definitely not going to make if we can't learn to sing together." Thanks for everything, Pete; sometimes you're the evidence I need that our species is worth saving after all.
Boatsie has asked me to kick off the Daily Durban series with some music to accompany my usual assortment of Letters. I've decided to present music from some people who don't show up on Americans' cultural radar screens too often — and some information on what the greenhouse effect is likely to do to them. Alternating with the music are a few LTEs triggered by the upcoming Durban conference, starting way back in August. All of these letters, along with over seven hundred more (one a day, starting on January 1, 2010), can be found at my blog.
Africa is an entire musical universe, and I could show you stuff for hours. But some of the most beautiful and emotionally affecting singing I know of comes fro the B'aka Pygmies of Cameroon, who yodel polyrhythmic songs of love and respect for the forest that gives them life:DAKAR (AlertNet) – An increase in sea level and a drop in the quantity of rainfall linked to climate change could destroy Cameroon’s biodiversity, disrupt businesses and uproot hundreds of thousands of people in the west-central African nation, Cameroon Tribune newspaper reported on Thursday.
The August 3 Chicago Tribune reports on low expectations for the upcoming Durban conference:WELLINGTON, Aug 2 (Reuters) - Major climate talks in South Africa at year-end will be unlikely to strike agreement on a new pact, but will be important in determining the shape of
long-term efforts to tackle climate change, a senior U.N. climate official said on Tuesday.
The future of the Kyoto Protocol, the existing U.N. plan which obliges about 40 industrialised nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions until 2012, is widely seen as under threat. Japan, Canada and Russia have said they will not extend it, while the United States never signed up to it.
La de da de da de da de da....
Sent August 3:How low our hopes have fallen! The international community is still meeting in Durban to address the complexities of climate change — and while nobody expects anything to actually, you know, happen, the good news is that representatives of the world's nations will all be there mouthing platitudes at one another. Given that the overwhelming consensus of the scientists who actually know what's going on with the planet's climate is that runaway climate change poses a civilizational threat to our species, this diplomatic dithering is a pathetic substitute for the concerted worldwide action that is necessary. Eventually, of course, we'll learn that they've agreed to a template for developing a process to organize a protocol for establishing a framework for beginning negotiations on the elements that need to be included in a new emissions treaty to replace the Kyoto Agreement. And that will be our good news for the day.
"Throat Singing" from the Siberian nation of Tuva is one of the most remarkable phenomena in all world music; individual voices are trained to produce multi-note melody-and-drone combinations, creating an orchestral effect.
Kongar-ol Ondar visits David LettermanTuva has been inhabited since the 12th century, starting with the expansion of the Mongolian empire, but because of changes in weather and climate (increasing drought, growing and fire seasons), the severity of fires and areas burnt have increased since 1990. At the same time, protecting the area against future fires is becoming more difficult. This might be because large portions of the forest are being converted to a steppe-type ecosystem after fires have occurred, which further inhibits post-fire forest regeneration. Such a conversion is precisely what models predict will be an initial indicator of climate-induced ecosystem change. In addition, annual fire carbon emissions have been estimated for the Balgazyn forest of Tuva with regard to ground fuel loading and fire severity. This is important because the dryer the fuels, the more severe the fires and the greater the greenhouse-gas emissions. And, forests are not always able to regenerate on severely burnt or repeatedly burnt regions.
USA Today runs an AP article on Ban Ki-Moon's statement to the Climate Vulnerable Forum:DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) – U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged world leaders Monday to finalize the financing for a multibillion-dollar fund to fight the effects of climate change.
Delegates at a U.N.-sponsored climate change conference that starts Nov. 28 in Durban, South Africa, are to consider ways to raise $100 billion a year for the Green Climate Fund created last December to help countries cope with global warming.
Ban told the opening session of a climate meeting in Bangladesh's capital that the world should make a concerted effort to finance the fund.
Read more about the CVF here. Naturally the only comments on the USA Today website at the time of writing were from wingnuts prating that we should defund the UN, or something. Sheesh.
Sent November 14:The nations of the Climate Vulnerable Forum are among the world's least significant contributors to the greenhouse effect — a sad irony, given the fact of their susceptibility to the rising ocean levels and extreme weather events brought in global warming's wake. It is a further demonstration of the inherent inequity of a globalized consumer economy that the lands and lives of the planet's poorest citizens are now at profound risk from the activity of the richest.
But while the CVF's members may be cash-poor, they're second to none in their moral authority. Countries like Kiribati, Bangladesh and the Maldives are working hard to reduce their own CO2 emissions despite the fact that it is the wealthiest members of the global community who've made such a mess of things.
America's politicians and their corporate masters ignore the simple and obvious principle we all learned as children: clean up after yourself.
Years ago, a Dutch lady loaned me an lp of music from Indonesia. While I had already heard and admired the island nation's complex orchestral music — the "gamelan" — I was unprepared for the soft and exquisite chamber music of the Sundanese people, which immediately captured my heart and enraptured my ears.
Sundanese music of West JavaJakarta, June 4, 2007 – Indonesia is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change including prolonged droughts and floods raising serious food security and health threats while endangering the habitats and livelihoods of coastal communities...
...global warming could increase temperatures, shorten the rainy season and intensify rainfall. These conditions may lead to changes in water conditions and soil moisture which have effects on agriculture and thus food security. Climate change will likely reduce soil fertility by 2 to 8 percent, resulting in projected decreases of rice yield. A simulation has projected a significant decrease in crop harvest in West and East Java due to climate change, the report added.
Global warming will also make sea levels rise, the report said, inundating productive coastal zones and reducing farming in such communities. For instance, in West Java province’s Karawang region, a huge reduction in local rice supply is estimated as a result of inundation and loss in fish and prawn production could go over 7,000 tons. If such predictions come true, thousands of farmers in that area alone would have to look for other sources of income.
The UK Guardian runs an optimistic take on Durban (NOT):The will to act on climate change is out of political energy, running on empty. The problem is (relatively) distant, complex and intractable. The solution is costly, immediate, and the gains uncertain. It is the kind of slow-burn crisis that democratic politicians only tackle under sustained popular pressure and right now western voters have other things on their minds. Here, the government that promised to be the greenest ever is allowing emission-cutting policies to appear an indulgent hangover from a more prosperous age. Starting on Monday, when the 17th climate change conference opens in Durban, Africa has the opportunity to remind the rest of us why inaction is not an option.
Writing letters to the UK press always makes me want to use fancy words and allusions. To the best of my recollection, Saint Augustine has never before manifested in one of my climate letters. Sent November 25:The yawning chasm between scientific reality and political exigency is swallowing up any hope for a meaningful agreement from the upcoming Durban climate conference.
Ultimately, the world's nations are negotiating not with one another, but with parties whose inflexibility and intransigence would be the envy of any tinpot dictator. The laws of physics and chemistry are unmoved by arguments of economic survival, of market imperatives, of global justice — and their demands are simple: stop putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Immediately. And all of us (nearly seven billion humans along with the rest of Earthly life) are the hostages.
The industrialized world's leaders aspire to climatic chastity and carbon continence, but (like Saint Augustine) not yet. Their hope is that at some unspecified future date, some unspecified future politicians will do the right thing, an outcome depressingly less likely than the ravages of a runaway greenhouse effect.
The Solomon Islands have an extraordinarily varied traditional music, much of which involves bamboo.
Music of the 'Are'are peopleThe Solomon Islands' government considers climate change its most important environment and development issue.
Climate change and sea level rise are likely to displace a number of communities in the country, particularly in the low-lying atolls where it is difficult to find protected land. Land tenure and access to land has often lead to ethnic tensions, and as communities move to areas protected from the effects of climate, these tensions are likely to intensify. A number of coastal communities, particularly on the islands of Guadalcanal and Makira, have already moved two to three times over the past 15 years due to storm surges and rising tide lines.23
Climate change may also affect the island's supply of fresh water. Water in Solomon Islands is sourced mainly from rivers and streams originating in high mountain and dense forest catchments on high islands, rainwater harvesting (especially on artificial islands) and from thin freshwater lens of underground aquifers on small low lying atolls and islands. These sources are expected to be affected by climate change and sea-level rise on both high and low-lying islands....The decline in availability of clean water for agricultural and household use may very well lead to health issues including poor nutrition, reduced immunity, and the spread of harmful bacteria and parasites. Other potential health issues resulting from climate change are similar to those in other tropical areas and include changes in the prevalence of a number of diseases and illnesses including malaria, mental illness, malnutrition, diarrhea, acute respiratory infections, micronutrient deficiency, parasitic diseases due to poor sanitation, tuberculosis, leprosy and non-communicable diseases.25
Incidentally, I had a LTE published in the Solomon Island Times, back in March.
Why am I not surprised? USA Today:As prospects for a major global accord on climate change look dim, ensuring that negotiations continue may be the most a United Nations climate summit will achieve next week.
Beginning Monday in Durban, South Africa, the 12-day U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change picks up where last year's meeting in Cancun left off.
What eluded negotiators then, and still does today, is a grand bargain in which 194 nations commit to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions that most scientists contend are contributing to a warmer climate.
"Almost everyone agrees that some kind of big deal is unlikely," says international negotiations expert David Victor of the University of California-San Diego. Economically, he says, "these are dark times and we have made that choice already in past meetings."
Sheesh. Sent November 24:In theory, our democratic government is supposed to be ever-active on behalf of the people. But in practice, it looks like America's political system defines "people" rather more narrowly. Perhaps in the aftermath of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision affirming the "personhood" of corporations, our representatives mistakenly concluded that since corporations are now "people", ordinary citizens aren't.
How else to interpret America's inability to take significant action on the profound threat of climate change? When the world's biggest emitters of greenhouse gases are "unlikely" to come to any kind of meaningful accord at the upcoming Durban conference, there is only one interpretation: "corporate persons" believe themselves invulnerable to the runaway greenhouse effect scientists say is now all but inevitable.
Maybe so. If climate change brings an "evolutionary bottleneck" for humanity, Earth may indeed eventually be ruled by mindless, consumption-driven corporate intelligences. Cockroaches, after all, are the ultimate survivors.
The Native People of Australia have a music that is thousands of years old, including complex rhythmic structures, elaborately ornamented songs, and the rich drone of the didgeridoo.
Traditional Music of the Australian Maningrida PeopleThe Maningrida live in Australia's Northern Territory. There is an interactive map which will show you projections of their post-greenhouse-effect future here. It's not very reassuring.
As usual, I beg you to write some letters of your own. Here are some tips:
1. Google a string like "climate change news" and look for something in a print medium. Local and regional newspapers are more likely to have higher word limits and lower standards; bigger papers have lower word limits and higher standards.
2. Imagine yourself in an elevator conversation with people who've just read the article. What could you say to them that would make them think? That would make them change their minds?
3. Write it out, then edit, edit, edit. I always strive for 150 words; it is a useful mental discipline, even when I'm sending something to a local paper with a 300-word limit.
4. Do not feel reluctant to steal my stuff. Take one of my pieces, substitute synonyms, reverse the order of clauses, exchange analogies...and presto, you've got yourself an original letter. How else do I manage to keep doing this even when I'm completely exhausted? I steal from myself, that's how.
5. Don't be discouraged if you don't make it into print. Even unpublished letters form part of the statistical universe that influences news coverage. The more people write letters about climate change from a scientifically informed viewpoint, the more weight there is for responsible news coverage of this issue.
And now, a brief report on my most recent Climate Concert. I haven't got the videos cleared by the artists yet, so I'm not including them as part of this diary. That will be another diary, another day.
The Dunya Ensemble
Durga Krishnan - veena; Gaurishankar Chandrashekhar - mridangam
Eliot Fisk & Zaira Meneses — classical guitarists
But I will encourage you to read Andrew Gilbert's wonderful article in the Boston Globe, which gives a very clear and sympathetic picture of what we're trying to do — and helped bring a capacity crowd to Boston's Emmanuel Church on the evening of Friday, November 11:
Warren Senders figures that a global crisis requires an international response.
Looking to take up arms in the fight against global warming, the New England Conservatory faculty member decided to put his expansive network of musical connections to use. Since presenting the first Playing for the Planet concert in October of 2009, Senders has produced a series of stylistically expansive, instrumentally thematic fund-raisers for 350.org, an organization on the frontlines in the struggle to limit greenhouse emissions.
Billed as “World Strings Against Climate Change,’’ the fifth Playing for the Planet concert takes place tonight at Emmanuel Church, and features a triple bill of Mehmet Ali Sanlikol and the Dünya Ensemble, the South Indian veena master Durga Krishnan, and the celebrated classical guitarists Eliot Fisk and Zaira Meneses.
“The premise behind all of this is that climate change doesn’t know any national boundaries,’’ says Senders, an expert in North Indian Hindustani music. “These are musicians who work in traditional idioms. When you perform music like that you’re establishing a link with someone who lived centuries ago. And you have to imagine that people 600 years from now will interact with that same tradition. You could say addressing climate change is artistically selfish. We have an investment in the future.’’
And, as icing on the cake, Steve Elman gave the concert, and the series, a beautiful review in the Boston-area arts website Artsfuse, including these paragraphs, which speak to my condition far more eloquently than I can:
In essence these concerts are Senders’ way of grappling with an essential conundrum in an artist’s life: can and should this non-utilitarian work called art have an impact on what we occasionally refer to as real life?
The water gets deep here.
Most artists are too involved with honing their craft and their personal themes to consider whether what they do will make the world better. Art is usually an act of faith in the future, a throwdown in the hope that someone picks up. What results from an artist’s efforts isn’t a pair of shoes or gallon of milk or a roof that won’t leak. It’s a patch of color on a wall, or a mass of typescript, or an untouchable object, or, horribly, in the case of the performing arts, a period of spiritual transport that can only be captured approximately if at all.
For most artists, this is enough. And it has to be. The effort involved in the hard work of art is sufficient to occupy most artists full-time or at the very least, to drain out so much energy that they barely have time to do the shopping. If you were Warren Senders, you might take sufficient satisfaction in writing large-scale compositions for the Jazz Composers Alliance Orchestra, having dinner with your wife, preparing your own recitals of Hindustani vocal music, playing with your daughter, giving others the benefit of your aesthetic experience through your teaching at the New England Conservatory and in private lessons, and remodeling the bathroom. But, in that case, you wouldn’t be Warren Senders.
As Senders will tell you (and as he occasionally explains in lively monologues in between acts at PFTP concerts), he came to the realization that part of his life’s work has to be an effort to preserve a planet livable for human beings so that music can continue to exist. Since he’s become adept at producing concerts on a shoestring, he began directing those skills towards creating a series to generate money for Bill McKibben’s 350.org. To maximize revenue, he jawbones outstanding area musicians into playing gratis, sugar-coating the ask with the promises of an attentive audience and a home-cooked meal.
While it goes a bit against my grain to quote other people's articles about me, I'm pretty doggone proud of both of them. Forgive me for blowing my own trumpet briefly. We raised almost $1200 for 350.org, after meeting all the costs of production — which is damn good.
It was a great night. The music was spectacular...I promise to get some videos up soon.
Try and make it next time...or, better yet, find some musicians and put on a benefit concert in your neighborhood!
Okay, that's all for now. Be well, dear friends.