Prayers for a Feverish Planet – Program Notes XII.

Anel Van de Venter • Robin Whirlwind Soldier • Chris Williams • Dalen Wuest • Kangyi Zhang

Anel Van de Venter, South Africa                 

Birdflight, III. con mosso (2020)

[The entire work is] a conversation in three parts between the collective human conscience and all of the dying earth, as represented by a bird.

In the first part, the two conversationalists are introduced to each other and the situation: an injured, struggling bird is approached by a human, the ignorant accountable.

During the second part the human starts to acknowledge the role played in the continued injury to the bird.

In the final part, some reform and restoration takes place and the bird can ultimately take flight again.

Throughout the three parts, the bird’s nature (to be liberated, to soar, to be light and full of life, to fly or to take flight) can be heard in repetitive flighty, fast passages. A continued undertone of angst serves as the counterpart to this and symbolizes the opposing character – the culpable human.

I started writing the first movement back in 2017, when I lived in the picturesque Eastern Cape (of South Africa) and was surrounded by wonderful nature and wildlife. It subsequently grew into a work of three movements over the years, the last of which I finished writing in 2020 after coming across your call for scores thinking it can fit well with your theme. Eco consciousness is a very real and very necessary value to adopt in this day and age and it is something that I fervently wish to adhere to throughout my life, through all means possible and I think it is great that we can also raise awareness through the arts.

Ann adds: This is a sweet, tonal work, and I am happy to have a piece representing birds (metaphorical or otherwise).

Robin Whirlwind Soldier, United States

Lingering in the Back of the Mind (2022)

Growing up Native American, it was instilled in me from a very young age that the earth is sacred and is something we must take care of. Because of this, even from a young age, I was aware of the growing concern of the shifting of Earth’s climate, this is where the title comes from, “Lingering in the back of the Mind.” I think a lot of younger people today know the feeling of dread and hopelessness in regards to the future of the Earth, and because of that the few odd moments of peace from news that a green future is possible really stand out.

Ann adds: Robin is a student at the University of Minnesota Morris, where I teach. I didn’t have any pieces from Native American/Indigenous peoples of the North American continent, and as Robin is a composition student, I asked them to contribute to my project.

Chris Williams, England                                            

Trees of India, II. “Jacaranda” (2009)

These three [movements of Trees of India] were inspired by the wonderful trees that grow around the city of Bangalore in India where I lived for several years. The country inspired a variety of compositions, ranging from the music theatre pieces Kim (based on the book by Rudyard Kipling), The Coolie’s Tale (about the building of the Kalka-Simla Railway at the beginning of the 20th century) to smaller scale works like these three pieces for piano, Trees of India.

I composed these in response to a request to perform something of my own at one of many recitals I gave all around the country. Having never written specifically for myself, I wanted to create something that challenged me technically whilst reflecting on a subject with an Indian theme. Once known as “The Garden City,” Bangalore used to be renowned for its trees, particularly the spectacular Gulmohar with its canopy of brilliant red flowers and feathery vibrant green leaves that bloom just before the monsoon, the Jacaranda with its delicate but luminescent purple flowers, and the enormous Rain Tree, providing swathes of shade and home to an abundance of wildlife. The name of this tree in Tamil translates as “tree with a sleeping face” on account of the leaves closing up as the sky darkens before rain or at sunset. 

During my time there, I witnessed the rapid expansion of the city and the destruction of many trees to make way for new transport and buildings, and the resulting rise in pollution, traffic and temperature; it was very much climate change at first hand. Particularly, it was watching the slaughter of a row of rain trees on the Old Madras Road to make way for the metro that moved me most, and the last of these three pieces I have subtitled Elegy. 

[added in subsequent email]: I lived in “The Garden City” for 16 years and witnessed the enormous population growth which was accompanied by hundreds of trees being felled to make way for new buildings, roads and the metro. This has resulted in a rapid growth of road traffic and with it enormous pollution, resulting in the average temperature of the city rising several degrees. It was climate change at first hand, and tragic to witness. 

Ann adds: For 2021-22, I’m learning and performing the second movement of the suite, “Jacaranda,” which I find quite lovely and enchanting, with a beautifully singable melody and flowing arpeggiations. Someday I hope to learn the other movements.

Dalen Wuest, United States                                                    

Dancing Under Waves (2017)

One of the enduring crises of the 21st century is climate change. At the time of this writing, over 50% of people in the United States of America, where I live, believe climate change is real, it is dangerous, and we are causing it. Also at the time of this writing, the elected president of the United States of America and a significant portion of his appointed cabinet do not believe (at least publicly) that climate change is real, dangerous, or man-made. This piece was written out of the anxieties that I feel daily, seeing record high temperatures every month while science deniers promote policies that do nothing to reverse these trends. The tense harmonies, jagged rhythms, extreme tempi, and general lack of transitions are all the product of living in a world struggling to find balance.

While these things weighed heavily on me while writing this piece, there is no programmatic narrative to it. The first section does not depict rushing rivers wreaking havoc as they overflow their banks. The second, slower section is not meant to evoke glaciers slowly, menacingly melting. The final section is not a musical portrait of the skies of the future, filled with nothing but poisoned air, unable to breathe or sustain life as we know it. The title of this piece is not a comment on the fact that if society does not make radical changes soon, then the only dancing we’ll be doing is under the waves of the rising seas.

Ann adds: check back for my thoughts.

Kangyi Zhang, Singapore/United States                                

Cyclic Coexistence (2017)

Climate change has made news headlines again due to the perpetual battle between global warming skeptics and activists for immediate action. Recently, America withdrew from the Paris agreement [note: the piece was written shortly after D. Trump assumed the United States Presidency] while approximately 200 nations are signatories. I am also intrigued after watching several shocking documentaries. In Cameron Highlands of Malaysia, illegal deforestation for tea plantations resulted in repeated flash floods and the loss of lives. By the year 2050, there will be more plastics than fish in the ocean. Fish ingest the non-biodegradable microplastics and humans then consume such seafood. In addition, microplastics are leached into the ecosystem when we wash polyester garments. Hence, I see a cyclical impact whereby human actions set off a chain reaction which ultimately result in retribution or reward. 

The melodic and harmonic basis of this piece is based entirely on the famous circle of fifths. The piece begins by depicting the pristine forests and tranquil oceans in “Codependence and Coexistence of Humans and Nature.” Since note pairs at opposite ends of the circle of fifths forms a tritone, this circle of tritones forms the harmonic progression for the middle fast section – “Deforestation, Pollution, Extinction.” Two pairs of tritones (C-F#, A-Eb) feature prominently as they form the main axes of my circle. Imagine the sounds of mechanical destruction like drilling and the chopping down of trees. At the climax, the extreme notes of the piano are used to show that adverse climate change is at the maximum level tolerable by our planet. Finally, in “Glimmer of Hope,” we recognize the urgency of climate change and we are reversing the damage. The jerky melody in the fast section reappears in this section in retrograde form. 

Ann adds: check back for my thoughts.