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The Wild Within

Interview

Paul Hillier, director of Theatre of Voices and Associate Artist in Nature Unwrapped, explores the place where music and the environment intersect with Helen Wallace

What does ‘nature’ mean in your day-to-day life?

At first we think it means ‘wild’ – everything out there that’s not us, and our housing estates, and shopping centres, and motorways etc. And if that’s true, then it means that nature really is disappearing – not just through climate crisis, but in the way mankind’s footprint is now all over the earth. But nature can also mean the entire material world – all the results of human action. It means we are part of nature and all our machines. That doesn’t mean anything we do is OK – it makes is clear that we must be responsible towards each other and the world, because we are all interdependent. I went to Iceland recently, which rekindled my interest in the sagas. I read about how the first settlers already by the 10th century had created problems for themselves, because they had caused erosion and overgrazing of the grasslands and by the 14th century all the original lowland birch forest was gone. It’s clear that it wasn’t the presence of people per se that created problems, but the way they used the land.

Have environmental ideas particularly intersected with your musical work?

As a ‘theme’ no, but in a larger, background kind of way, yes. I’ve been strongly interested in ecology since the 1970s, when I read Schumacher’s wonderful book, Small Is Beautiful. I eventually thought up a phrase, the ‘ecology of music’. I didn’t know what I meant by it exactly, but I felt instinctively drawn towards traditional forms of making music – shakuhachi flute, Native American drumming and singing (I heard these at pow wows I attended in northern California), the Australian didgeridoo, Baltic rune singing, primitive musical resources with a very close, ancient connection with their regions. And, in our own music, I like pieces that sound like nothing else – by Xenakis, for example (Pleiades for percussion quartet, Nuits for 12 voices), and Stockhausen. And that’s why I was also drawn to Steve  Reich’s music, Drumming, music for pieces of wood, precisely because the instruments used are so utterly basic. And it’s why I also quickly accepted John Cage’s use of natural sounds as part of music – a burning fire, water being poured from conch shells – and his prepared piano shows us how European musical artifacts can also be bent to this kind of use.

How is the experience of listening to music related to that of tuning in to the environment?

When I listen to waves, or birdsong, or wind and rain, or a London bus driving past, I can and do become absorbed by listening – aesthetically speaking, rather than simply out of curiosity or for information. But I don’t feel the need to call it music. We can make pieces of music that quote or imitate natural sounds, but then we create a special context for the sounds and that becomes a particular kind of musical approach. So there is a point somewhere in the middle where they touch. But I still think music is something we make as humans, both for ourselves and for each other.

Which composers, who are attuned to nature, you felt needed to be included in this series?

I will mention just three. Certainly, Beethoven deserves to be here, and you have the Pastoral Symphony – it’s a wonderful choice. At first maybe it seems too obvious, but in the context of the Kings Place theme for this year, it takes on a whole range of fresh significance, I am sure people will be listening to it with very open ears. Kevin Volans is another, because through his African roots his music has a quality that I identify with the natural world, the earth itself, that is still apparent in African music today. Then there’s John Cage, who all his life was one of the most ecologically-aware composers imaginable – articulated is in his writings as well as his music. So I want to keep a little corner of our December concert for him.

Tell me about the opening event you are bringing to Kings Place?

The film is about a farm entirely run on biodynamic principles by farmer, Niels Stokholm, and a supplier of Noma Restaurant. Visually it is very beautiful, a feast for the eyes. And the music for it was chosen by Phie Ambo, the film’s director. In fact there are two films. The longer one is a documentary about the farm, Thorshøjgaard, and the issues that arise when his farming processes come under fire from government authorities, who threaten to take away his licence to keep cattle. That film has a pre-recorded sound track, with music by the Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. The second film is more of a visual poem about the same place, simply following the pattern of the seasons, with music by Arvo Pärt, this time, performed live. Then we sing a very different kind of music – Michael Gordon’s A Western. In recent years Michael has written various pieces for single instrument ensembles – all wood, all saxophone – in which the parts use reiterated sounds or rhythms that overlap with each other. For several years we discussed his writing one for voices, and this is it. But it’s also quite different from those other pieces in having a text, and a background subject – the film High Noon. This is one of the best pieces we have ever commissioned – I put it right up there next to Steve Reich’s Proverb and David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion.

Why was it important for you to commission John Luther Adams?

I have been interested in John’s music for about thirty years. For me he is the equivalent in music of someone like the writer Barry Lopez (Arctic Dreams, Of Wolves and Men): ‘My work has always been deeply rooted in personal experience of wild places.’ John wrote. John and I began a dialogue a few years back, in which my first question, because I knew he tended to write for large ensembles, was would you be interested in writing for a really small group of voices?! He laughed and said ‘Yes’. It’s well over a year away (at the time of writing), but his idea is to make a piece for us about the history of the earth before the arrival of humanity – performed by four singers and percussionist.

‘Music itself, though, is the ultimate carbon-free, self-sustaining and endlessly recyclable art form’

How can music-making become sustainable? Will globetrotting tours be a thing of the past?

On the one hand, touring does gives us the opportunity to see the world. But as the world is becoming increasingly and rapidly similar everywhere perhaps that allure is rubbing off. In the past few months I’ve been to Orkney, the Faroe Islands, and Iceland – and next year Theatre of Voices will go to Greenland. Each and every one of these concert visits gives me profound pleasure and I consider myself very lucky. But, yes, the reason we have to travel so much is because a group like ours cannot even begin to subsist only on local work. So while most of us probably feel that we would like to travel less, we also feel that the way the concert world functions has to change as well. In Denmark we are trying to establish a modus operandi where we can in fact work within a given area, and the prospects are, cautiously, looking good. Music itself, though, is the ultimate carbon-free, self-sustaining and endlessly recyclable art form!


© Ditte Capion

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