In the last decade, many performers and creative producers have risen to articulating the dimensions of human sustainability and vibrancy when it comes to speaking up about climate change and other major environmental impacts. The diverse spectrum of examples continues to proliferate in all genres of music. In July 2019, the band The 1975 released a song The 1975 that incorporated the words of Greta Thunberg, the teen who’s become a major spokesperson among youth groups, surrounding the challenges of climate change. Likewise, when the band dropped its new album Notes on A Conditional Form, members decided that instead of releasing the conventional array of merchandise they created a recycling hub at music festivals where fans could bring old T-shirts which were then printed with the band’s artwork.
Likewise, in a year where the news brought the COVID-19 pandemic and the dramatic surge of interest and support for the Black Lives Matter movement, there also is a more focused awareness of what is at stake for humans in the climate crisis. “White communities and families are also hurt by climate change — and their pain is real and deep and traumatizing,” S. Atyia Martin and David W. Cash wrote in a joint op-ed for The Boston Globe. “But if you are a person of color, you are more likely, because of structural racism, to be harmed physically, to lose property, and to be dislocated economically when climate change hits.”
In Utah, Rising Tide: The Crossroads Project is a transfixing film that signifies the enlightened intertwining of science, social conscience, music and art that strikes the precise, relevant tone for the challenges of human sustainability and the achievement of human vibrancy. Presented by NOVA Chamber Music Series, the film is part of a long-term project involving the Fry Street Quartet, the series co-music directors; Robert Davies, a Utah State University physicist who also explores the dynamics of how science is communicated; composer Laura Kaminsky and artists including Rebecca Allan (painter) and photographers Edward Burtynsky, Garth Lenz and Lu Guang.
The 71-minute film was produced and filmed at Utah State University, with Andy Lorimer as director of photography and editor. It enriches the captivating, lucid, personable scientific lecture and presentation by Davies with sections of art and performances by the quartet, including the exceptional music by Kaminsky, along with excerpts from two string quartets, one each by Haydn and Janáček. The six pieces of music give viewers the emotional space to absorb Davies’ words and to contemplate the humanistic dimensions of the circumstances presented in the film.
The film also encapsulates an eight-year creative journey for the Rising Tide portion of The Crossroads Project. There have been numerous live performances of the transdisciplinary presentation. While Kaminsky was commissioned to write the music for the four movements — H2O, Bios, Forage and Societas — in 2012, the text by Davies has been honed and revised repeatedly throughout the years. And, in a podcast which will be made available today, it became evident that the text will continue to be refined. During the podcast, Ben Abbott, a global ecologist at Brigham Young University whose research emphasis is about water, offered a comment about the last section of the film (Reimagined), as Davies talks about how we can leverage the accumulated knowledge, especially over the last couple of hundred years, to meet the challenges highlighted in Rising Tide. Abbott reiterated the value of indigenous knowledge, crafted over a much longer time, that becomes integral to the collaborative process at stake.
The NOVA Chamber Music Series had intended to present a live performance during the 2020-21 season but as it became evident that pandemic restrictions would last longer than anticipated, the Fry Street Quartet moved ahead with creating a film version that goes beyond simply a viewing experience on a digital media platform such as YouTube. The film, which is free and available to the public through the end of 2020, is accompanied by a series of four livestreams that expand upon the Rising Tide themes, such as the aforementioned podcast, which featured Davies, Kaminsky, Abbott, and Robert Waters, the quartet’s first violinist. Incidentally, The Crossroads Project’s companion component Emergence features music that the quartet commissioned from Libby Larsen.
Every component is indispensable in Rising Tide. Remove one and the entire presentation would risk losing its finely tuned coherence and cohesion. Davies, whose research has dealt with interactions of spacecraft with the space environment, the fundamental nature of light and information, and Earth’s changing climate, is a gifted storyteller of science. Davies’ sensitive commitment to distilling complex scientific knowledge and epistemological questions into a humanizing dimension drives the structure. Davies’ delivery is important because the perception of taking the value of science for granted tends to linger in our backgound. But, then in this unique transdisciplinary setting, one can be equally enthralled by the music, the visuals and by the elegantly crafted elucidation by Davies who has mastered distilling the concepts he has studied so many years with intensity and precision. A film like Rising Tide fills a critical gap especially in a news cycle where reports about political scandals, controversy and partisan rancor consistently take precedence over stories about the unique natural splendors in our environment and what humans can offer — note, not sacrifice (referencing a point raised by Kaminsky in the previously mentioned podcast) — toward regaining and maintaining the essential sustainability and vibrancy for our planet to heal, replenish and thrive.
The humanizing dimension of Davies’ text reverberates when he is not speaking. Kaminsky’s music responds to the precision of Davies’ language. For example, Kaminsky, a composer whose work is steeped in deep social conscience, uses an Armenian chant to set the H2O movement. The quartet exudes the organic cadences and underlying rhythms of the planet and the Davies’ themes expanded upon in the music. Rebecca McFaul, Fry Street Quartet’s second violinist, had approached Kaminsky to write the music for Rising Tide, which had a much different look and tone in its early manifestations. Chamber music by Beethoven and Shostakovich was used and the presentation included an eight-minute epilogue that Davies, in a Zoom interview with The Utah Review along with Kaminsky and Waters, says was a “gut punch” sounding far more dire than the version viewers see in the film.
Kaminsky says it was “fortuitous,” given that she wanted to write a string quartet that also could have its own life in a traditional concert performance and then Davies had offered these “four big chapters” as text. Unquestionably, Kaminsky’s commissioned work resolved some conundrums to allow Rising Tide to grow into its present organic form. Waters says the music has been performed more than 50 times in and out of the Crossroads Project and he adds that the quartet’s musicians continue to discover new elements in Kaminsky’s music.
Kaminsky initially received the preliminary structure and title headings before she had seen the script Davies had written. “I was not writing in response to actual word but responding to concepts,” she explains. “It came together with fact and poetic language and how that language melded with the visual images.” The art and photography featured throughout the film emphasize humanity’s holistic dependence on the planet and its natural resources. The human presence weaves through every moment of Rising Tide.
The film’s sunniest moment musically is at the opening, that unforgettable introduction in the first movement of Haydn’s Sunrise Quartet (Opus 76, No. 4). It is an optimistic statement of potential. There are alternating moments of visceral emotions, meditation and soothing reflection in Kaminsky’s music. There are both instances of restlessness and restfulness in her music, elements just as precisely evident in the final movement of Janáček’s First String Quartet, a work that is the composer’s interpretation of the Leo Tolstoy novella The Kreutzer Sonata. The Janáček selection, which runs less than five minutes, anchors the open-ended conclusion of Rising Tide, neither dire nor excessively optimistic. As Davies adds, “it does not leave you on a high or low but somewhere in between.”
The script might be eight years old but it also indicates how scientists have long been acutely aware of many of the intersectional issues that have come into sharper vision for the public and elected officials, especially within the last one to two years. “That aspect has been the same the whole time,” Davies explains. “Many scientists from earth systems scientists to social scientists have been studying this for many decades and practically screaming at the top of their lungs. In the script, it was a matter of how do we bring this all together and it became clear pretty quickly. You don’t talk about the issues of poverty, species extinctions and diversity loss in silos but in a framework that acknowledges the same underlying emerging pathologies.”
Davies continues, “We’re asking people to wrestle with the single most devastating problem of our era and there are some people who don’t feel safe having this conversation in their families, especially if they are a single mother struggling to survive by working three jobs and figuring out what space she has to take any of this in or the person of color who always must contend with a low-level fear, at the least, of police violence. This is an abstract and massive topic but it affects all of us and we need everyone to act and to make sure everyone can do so reasonably and safely.”
No question, the film is a good substitute for live performances at this particular time. And, there is a tradeoff in advantages and disadvantages from the kinetic vibe that comes with live performances not just for the musicians but also for Davies as well. Some of the material cut from the live presentation for the film includes some of the humor the scientist inflects his presentation with, an effective device when there is an audience to respond to it in the moment. However, there are wonderful closeups and angle shots of the musicians and the images of art, which allow every viewer to see them from as enviable a vantage point as possible. The film’s present version already comes close to being an artistic documentary that could be presented at independent film festivals.
For more information, visit the NOVA Chamber Music Series website.