‘If we take action, hope will be everywhere’: An Interview with Pianist and Composer Sarah Nicolls

Sarah Nicolls

‘If we take action, hope will be everywhere’: An Interview with Pianist and Composer Sarah Nicolls

Sarah Nicolls has composed a new work inspired by the announcements on climate change last autumn and the activism of Greta Thunberg. She spoke to The Journal of Music about the impetus for the work and being so politically direct with an audience.

This Friday 29 March, British pianist and composer Sarah Nicolls will perform her new work Twelve Years in Galway.

A piece in twelve movements, it brings the audience on a journey, from sharing the enormity of the challenge of climate change, to exploring common anxieties and indifferent responses, adding in some humour, and suggesting practical ways forward.

‘The trigger for making this piece was the urgency of the news that we got last autumn from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change,’ Nicolls says, ‘where they said we have 12 years to halve global emissions. I basically thought: I need to do something. But what should I do? I better make a piano recital. It was that blunt, to be honest.’

Nicolls describes the concert as an ‘eco-recital’. The world premiere took place at City University, London, on 12 March, and the Irish premiere will take place at the Mick Lally Theatre in Galway as part of Piano Day, promoted by the Galway Jazz Festival.

Frank conversations
The experimental pianist’s approach to writing Twelve Years was to consult and collaborate in different ways with four ‘mentors’, including climate scientist Ineke Taylor, with whom she had ‘very frank conversations… and it was quite hard because [scientists] know what’s behind the headlines, which is generally worse than the headlines’. She also consulted with environmental activist Atlanta Cook, who is ‘incredibly positive’, and two art mentors, film writer and director Nicola Mills, and comedy writer Emma Edwards.

For the work, Nicolls, who has previously performed in Ireland at the Sligo New Music Festival, combines pre-recorded tracks with her playing on the ‘inside out piano’, an instrument of her own creation that allows her play directly on the piano strings and lets the audience see more clearly what she is doing.

The pre-recorded tracks include imaginary phone-calls with family members who are less serious about the challenge of climate change. One voice says, ‘Hi Sis, you saved any more whales? Oh Lara, don’t take everything to heart. Headlines are designed to be shocking… 12 years? … What do you mean, what am I going to do?… Isn’t that what we have governments for and scientists and Elon Musk?’

The interspersed phone-calls allow Nicolls to be ‘the voice that you weren’t hearing’ and provide a range of perspectives throughout the work: ‘Although I take people into dark places, panic and sadness, I didn’t want to be preachy.’

Hope will be everywhere
The voice of the teenage activist Greta Thunberg, who has inspired world-wide climate school strikes, appears in the penultimate movement of Twelve Years.

She brings all the loose ends together – the panic and the enormity of it, and she thrusts it straight into action. Basically she says we do need hope, and therefore we should all act, and if we take action, hope will be everywhere.

When Nicolls first had the idea for the piece, she realised that there were not many precedents for a climate-focussed contemporary music work, and there was a definite creative challenge in speaking so directly to the audience. She decided early on that if she was going to address climate she was going to do it literally, and the result, she has found, is that it does encourage conversation around the issue.

When people ask about my work, climate is now part of that conversation. And in a way that might be the most useful thing. Talking about it, getting it out there, wherever we can get climate change in the conversation, that feels like a useful thing to be doing.

What has really surprised her, however, is how well suited the piano is to the subject.

What I found really brilliant about this particular project is that the piano totally lends itself to sounding like natural sounds – it’s something about the sympathetic, massive resonance with a grand piano. In terms of music, that’s really exciting, to have discovered a real synergy between the issue at hand and the music that I made about it.

Sarah Nicolls will perform Twelve Years this Friday 29 March at 8pm at the Mick Lally Theatre in Galway, promoted by Galway Jazz Festival. For booking, visit www.druid.ie/the-mick-lally-theatre/whats-on/piano-day-2019.

Published on 26 March 2019

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