The Music of Climate Crisis

Last fall, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report predicting irreversible, apocalyptic conditions by 2040 if immediate actions weren’t taken, at once and everywhere, to curb rising carbon dioxide levels. That same day, I lectured on personal finance to the musicians in my classes at the New England Conservatory. 

How do you teach compound interest and retirement savings when the very possibility of continued life on this planet seems to be called into greater question with each passing week? Everyone knows it’s tough to make a living as a musician. Up until now, though, living itself – that is, remaining alive – was mostly assumed. My students will be 40 to 45 years old in 2040 – around the age I was when retirement savings suddenly became salient to me. I told them there could be no guarantees, but I wish I had taken advantage of compound interest when I was their age. I told them I grew up in the tail end of the Cold War, and we lived with the threat of annihilation then, too. I told them that cultures and systems can change. When I started school, you could smoke cigarettes in the classroom.

More reports followed through the spring, each bringing new scientific evidence of climate crisis. One million plant and animal species face extinction by 2050. Humans might face extinction, too. The teenaged Swedish activist Greta Thunberg addressed the panel at the United Nations Climate Change Conference with a steady gaze and a searing indictment. She sparked a worldwide youth protest movement. That movement didn’t seem to reach the walls of my schools. To paraphrase Leonard Bernstein in a way he certainly didn’t intend, it was as though we had decided that this would be our response to climate crisis: to practice more intensely, more persistently, more devotedly than ever before. 

I understood. As a teenager, I decided I would become a professional musician because I thought music had nothing to do with oil. I was born in Fort McMurray, Alberta, home of world’s largest oil sands deposit. I was a child of oil country. The way I saw it, oil was going to destroy the world, and music was an automatic good. I thought it was only a matter of time before everyone else would catch on and the people in charge would do the right thing. It was the end of the 1980s. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the Cold War ended and I got into Juilliard. Anything seemed possible. 

Oil development kept going. While I was busy moving to New York, then moving back home and quitting music to become an artist, oil turned Canada into an energy superpower. I didn’t pay much attention. I thought there were two kinds of people: those who worked in oil and everyone else, and oil had nothing to do with music. It could be dangerous to talk about it. In Alberta, if you pulled on the thread of oil, the whole social fabric might unravel.

Ten years ago, Fort McMurray made international front page news as the source of “dirty oil” to be carried into the United States through the Keystone XL pipeline. The images of oil mining were shocking. Giant lakes of toxic process water. Oil-soaked ducks. People dying, downstream, from rare cancers. The earth skinned alive. The protests sparked a global movement. Gradually, those two parts of my life – oil and music – were pushed back together again.

This was the same oil that fueled my family’s move into the middle class. It was this oil that funded my music lessons and my teachers’ orchestra salaries. It was the oil that funded the international arts center in the Rockies where I met the teacher who brought me to Juilliard. 

What do you do when your hometown turns into “the largest – and most destructive – industrial project in human history?” I got a grant to go home.

In July 2016, in the wake of a catastrophic wildfire, I went back to Fort McMurray for the first time since I was a child. I visited toxic tailings ponds and reclamation sites and I traveled deep into the bush. I listened to the stories of Indigenous elders and oil patch workers, heavy equipment operators and activists, engineers and educators and members of my own family. I wove these stories together with 12 songs to make a 75-minute solo show called “Tar Sands Songbook.” With my voice and violin, a laptop computer filled with field recordings, oral histories and visuals on my left, and a pianist on my right, I tell the story of what’s happened in my hometown. I place audiences at the epicenter of a disaster they would never otherwise see but that has everything to do with how we live today.

This fall, I’m beginning a 10-year project: performing “Tar Sands Songbook” along the pipeline and rail routes that carry crude oil from Alberta into the global market. I say 10 years because the pipelines are everywhere. An invisible circulatory system connecting us all, whether we know it or not. It’s going to take at least that long. I say 10 years because last fall, the UN said we have 12 years to limit climate catastrophe, and I’m rounding down. 

What, then, will be our response to climate change? It’s tempting to think the answers lie in projects like mine, but a project is just something to do. Like playing, like teaching, it’s planting seeds. Once a performance is done, I have little control over what becomes of it, but I believe it’s worthwhile. 

It’s tempting to think the answers lie in individual virtue and vice (less plastic, purchasing carbon offsets) but the root causes are bigger than us. They are systemic and structural. They are the stories of colonialism and capitalism. The stories that tell us that some lives are worth more than others, and that if you hustle hard enough – if you’re exceptional – you might just beat the odds.

It’s no wonder that many of my students respond to climate crisis by doubling down on practice – except no amount of practice can save us. 

When I ask myself why I continue to play and teach music today, there are certain answers I embrace too easily. Music will be needed for cultural preservation, for education, for inspiration and healing, for stitching communities back together and for keeping us all connected to the beauty of life. I know these ideas to be true, but they are lofty ones, attached to a terrifying and still distant-seeming future. 

What we need are millions of musicians willing to bring the best of what they have to offer – alone and together – in service of all life on this planet.

I struggle to find the answers for today. I struggle every day. I think that’s where the answers are: It’s the struggle that ties us to the present moment and lifts us out of denial. It’s the struggle that keeps us from fiddling while Rome burns. The struggle is what tightens the lines connecting who we are and what we believe, what we do and what matters most. People struggling, alone and together, change structures and systems.

There was a meme that went around earlier this year: “We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.” We don’t need climate-themed operas to save the planet. What we need are millions of musicians willing to bring the best of what they have to offer – alone and together – in service of all life on this planet. There are as many ways to do this as there are musicians. Find the ways that belong to you. 

As for my project, “Tar Sands Songbook” won’t change the world. But it has changed the story I tell about myself, and that changed the lens through which I perceive the world, and that’s what’s made the difference. When I thought music had nothing to do with oil, I thought climate crisis was something happening to someone else, somewhere else. Now I see that it’s the story of my life. 

Tanya Kalmanovitch

Tanya Kalmanovitch is a musician and scholar. She is as Associate Professor at Mannes School of Music at The New School, and a faculty member at the New England Conservatory. …more 

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