Week 1 Lecture: Begin
"I decided to become a musician because music had nothing to do with oil"
For the next 12 weeks, I’m sharing my lectures from Climate Crisis: Music, Nature, Culture, a new class I’ve launched at The New School, examining music in the climate emergency. If you’re joining us now, you may wish start at the beginning.
You don’t need to identify as a “musician” to take this class. This class is for people who love music and all life on this planet.
The readings are listed in the bibliography. Where readings are in the public domain or otherwise authorized for public use, I will link to them directly. For copyrighted materials, I encourage you to use your local public library or independent bookshop.
Weekly discussions will take place on Substack’s discussion threads, posted alongside each weekly lecture. The slides for weekly lectures are here.
I’ll be sharing assignments in the weekly posts. I encourage you to use the assignments: they are for you. If you’d like to share completed assignments I’d love to read them, but I won’t likely be able to comment beyond posts on the discussion threads.
This class is an experiment in moving music from the margins to the center of our conversations on climate emergency. It’s also an experiment in translating a spoken lecture to written form. Although you’re welcome to share posts on social media and forward these to friends by email, I ask that you contact me before using any of these materials in other commercial or non-commercial context.
Thank you for your presence. Now, let’s get started!
Why I want to teach this class
In the survey that forms your first assignment for this class, I’ve asked you a question. “What made you say yes to this class, and not some other class?” I think it’s only fair that I offer you a similar story, about why I want to teach this class.
I first proposed this class at the end of 2019, out of frustration. That was the year that the phrase climate emergency rose from relative obscurity to being one of the most prominent terms in the English language media—Oxford Languages declared climate emergency to be the word of the year for 2019.
I’m a musician, and a pillar of my teaching practice is “entrepreneurship.” Usually, this boils down to my teaching younger musicians how to build resilient careers in their lives after music school. But in the climate emergency, I found it frustrating to reconcile questions of life after school wiht questions about the future of life on our planet.
I proposed this course because I wanted to leverage everything I have at my disposal—as a musician, as a historian of science, an improviser, a citizen, an ethnographer, a writer, a teacher of musical survival skills—in the service of future of life on this planet. This story of why I want to teach this class, then, is tied to my “climate journey,” the story of how I became awakened to the climate emergency, and how I make meaning out of my life in this time of crisis.
In this first lecture, I’m going to share two different versions of my climate journey story, and invite you to start sharing your own journeys. I’ll introduce you to the framing principles of this class—the frames that will guide our journey, the ways we’ll work together, and what work we’ll actually do together—and set you up with your first readings and assignments.
My Climate Journey: Version One
In October 2018, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (UN IPCC) issued a report highlighting the severe climate change impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels; and showing that the time to act is rapidly closing.
As it was widely reported at the time, the window was just 12 years (or, the year 2030). The news reports were terrifying.
More news reports followed, each bringing more dire scientific evidence. One million plant and animal species face extinction by 2050. Humans might face extinction, too. In December of that year, the teenaged Swedish activist Greta Thunberg addressed the panel at COP 241 with a steady gaze and a searing indictment.
How do you teach musicians compound interest and retirement savings when the 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 assumed. I told my students 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.
I needed something more—I wanted to build a solid argument for why it made sense for my students to be musicians, now. Why music, and not something else? Why them, and not someone else? Why now?
My Climate Journey: Version Two
When I was 13 years old, 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 the world's largest oil sands deposit. I was a child of oil country. My father, stepfather, uncles, cousins all worked in oil. Practically everyone did: they worked in oil, around oil, or in some way because of it.
My decision to become a musician was informed by my awareness of global warming.
On January 24, 1984, Canadian journalist Peter Kent broke the story about the relationship between fossil fuels and global warming on CBC Television’s flagship news magazine, The Journal. The full edition documentary, called “The Greenhouse Effect and Planet Earth,” was one of the first major media reports on the warming trend in global climates.
Kent began his program with these sobering words:
“We are devoting the full program tonight to something called the greenhouse effect—a phenomenon which will eventually cause the greatest global climatic change since prehistoric times. The full effect won’t be felt for a century or more. But younger members of our audience may well live to experience the first changes.”
I was 13 years old. As one of his younger viewers, I was listening closely. I was relieved. I figured the truth was out, and it was only a matter of time before the people in charge would do the right thing.2 In the meanwhile, I’d be doing music: an essential human element renewed with each breath and bow stroke.3
I was convinced that music had nothing to do with oil. They were two separate things; immiscible. That’s how I let it stay for a long time.
By the time I finished high school, I thought anything was possible. In was 1988. The Berlin Wall was about to fall, the Cold War was about to end and I got into Juilliard.
The career I built was idiosyncratic. I blazed a path into jazz at a time when there were few role models for women and fewer still for violists. I took long detours into research in the history of science and ethnomusicology. I became preoccupied with how music could speak to social issues, and carried out projects in India, Siberia, Turkey, and Afghanistan.
My concepts of professional success, however, were marked by the conventional thinking of colonialism and capitalism. Music had taken me from “the middle of nowhere” to “the center of everything.” I got into the “best” school, studying with the “best” teacher. I “toured the world” playing “great” music in “great halls” with “great” musicians. I studied how music could address the “biggest problems in the world.”
It took two events for me to see that the biggest problems in the world were right here, at home.
The first of these took place on October 29, 2012, when Superstorm Sandy turned my Brooklyn neighborhood into a disaster zone overnight. National Guard trucks rumbled down Van Brunt. IKEA became the FEMA response center.
I awakened to the other disaster more gradually. Around the same time, I began to notice Fort McMurray appearing in the international 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. It took a couple of years for it to really soak in: when they were talking about “tar sands” they were talking about Fort McMurray, the place where I was born, the place that convened the people and forces that shaped my life. They were talking about me.
Gradually, those two parts of my life—oil and music, Alberta and New York—were pushed back together again.
It was oil that fueled my family’s move into the middle class. It was oil that funded my music lessons and my teachers’ salaries. It was the oil that funded the international arts center in the Canadian Rockies where I first met the teacher who brought me to Juilliard.
In the arts education world, they call this “a pipeline”.4
Tar Sands Songbook
What do you do when your hometown turns into “the largest—and most destructive—industrial project in human history?”
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. I perform my relationship to the place that gave me my life. I remember what I’ve been taught, and what I’ve had to unlearn, and I do it so that others may do the same.
In 2020, I launched an open-ended, multi-year project performing this piece along the pipeline and rail routes that carry crude oil from Alberta into the global market. Pipelines are everywhere—an invisible circulatory system connecting us all, whether we know it or not—and it will take a long time to cover the route. I’ll be doing this show for the rest of my life.
That makes sense to me. It’s the story of my life.
What are we doing in this class?
This course is a thought experiment
Music is typically held on the margins of conversations about climate change. What would happen if we moved music from the margins, to the center?
Music is a human universal; a crucial component of every healthy society.
Music is not a noun, but a verb. Not a thing; but something people do.
We are all musicians. We use music to describe and define the spaces we’re in.
What happens when we shift music from the margins of the climate emergency, to the center?
If everyone is a musician, could music move the needle on climate action?
In my use of “What if?” I’m deliberately invoking the American poet Adrienne Rich, who wrote,
A revolutionary poem will not tell you who or when to kill, what and when to burn, or even how to theorize. It reminds you (for you have known, somehow, all along, maybe lost track) where and when and how you are living and might live—it is a wick of desire … Any truly revolutionary art is an alchemy through which waste, greed, brutality, frozen indifference, “blind sorrow,” and anger are transmitted into some drenching recognition of the What if—?—the possible. What if—?—the first revolutionary question, the question the dying forces don’t know how to ask.5
—Adrienne Rich, “What If?” in What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics
This class is for you, and the assignments are yours
Throughout this class, I’m going to ask you to engage in “reflective practice”—a process of actively making meaning from your own experiences.
The Start of Semester survey asks you to explore your learning goals and needs, and your climate journey. In weekly online discussions, I’ll ask you to apply themes from our readings onto the level of your own life. (Readers, keep an eye out for the week one discussion thread—I’ll link to the survey there.)
One way or another, all of the assignments are about reflective practice—the ability to reflect on one's experience so as to engage in a process of continuous learning; so as to open more choices. It’s vital that we do so. We internalize dominant narratives and worldviews of our society, and if we want to change the world, we have to start with ourselves.
Start where you are
I’ve assigned two “post-class” readings. You can find all the readings and resources for our class linked at the end of this piece.
The first of these is a brief essay, “Calling In,” by youth climate justice activist Xiye Bastida, published in the anthology, All We Can Save (2020, WorldCat). Bastida offers ten tips for activists, framed by her own climate awakening, teachings from her ancestors, and her awareness of the urgent need to halve global CO2 emissions.
Bastida reminds us that we don’t need to be scientists before we can begin climate action.
“Some people feel like they have to know the science inside out before they can talk about it or do something about it. But here’s what I have learned: You don’t have to know the details of the science to be part of the solution. And if you wait until you know everything, it will be too late for you to do anything.” —Xiye Bastida, “Calling In,” in All We Can Save (5)
The second reading comes from a fridge magnet I found at Whole Foods near Boston’s Symphony Hall, which reads, simply:
"Begin anywhere.” — John Cage
The point I’m making is this: you don’t need to be a scholar, or a scientist, or a musician to do this class. Anyway, you are already a musician: it’s your birthright. (More on that in next week’s readings by Dylan Robinson and Christopher Small.)
You don’t have to do this alone
We’re going to work on these questions together, over 15 weeks. We can form a community to support us. (The All We Can Save Project has an excellent (free!) curriculum guide by Dr. Katherine Wilkinson, for people hungry for deeper dialogue and community.)
We can strengthen the “we” though discussions on the newsletter threads, and by remembering words like these ones,
“Wherever there is a problem, there are already people acting on the problem in some fashion. Understanding those actions is the starting point for developing effective strategies to resolve the problem, so we focus on the solutions, not the problems.”
and these ones,
“My mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers—so many caring people in this world.”
— Fred “Mister” Rogers, fact-checked by snopes.com
The nuts and bolts
Weekly posts (adapted from lecture sessions) will expand your thinking through diverse topics, case studies, and guests speakers
The discussion threads offer a chance to apply course content to the level of your own life.
If there’s enough demand, I might open a live Zoom discussions for newsletter readers.
The class assignments are grounded in reflective practice. I’ll make these assignments open to you for your exploration. I won’t be grading your work! Apart from the weekly discussions, the assignments include
Reflection assignments at the beginning, middle and end of the semester. The first is the Start of Semester Survey.
A personal project: use your voice (a protest song, an Op-Ed, a TED-style talk) or spark action on the level of your community (build a campaign for a policy change, organize your workplace or community)
Learning Portfolio and Climate Declaration: choose what you’ll keep from our course to carry forward into your future, and articulate your own declaration of the climate emergency.
Each week’s lecture will feature a song, a positive story with a lever of change, and a reason to laugh.
For Week 2
Here are the post-class reading and assignments for Week One:
Week One Discussion Thread: If “what we pay attention to grows,” what do you want to pay attention to and grow over these next 15 weeks together?
Start of Semester Survey, available on Google Forms.
The week 2 readings center of themes of extractivism and reciprocity. Some of our guiding questions: What is music, and who counts as a musician? Where can we see the logic of capitalism and colonialism in music? Is music a universal language? Is music an automatic good?
Dylan Robinson, Excerpt from “Introduction,” Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies (2020), pages 1-25. [WorldCat]
Christopher Small, “Prelude” in Musicking, Hanover: University Press of New England, (1998), pages 1-13. [WorldCat]
The last thought goes to Adrienne Rich, from her poem “Natural Resources”. We’ll revisit this poem next week, in its entirety.
My heart is moved by all I cannot save: so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.
—Adrienne Rich, from “Natural Resources” in The Dream of a Common Language (1977)
Xiye Bastida, “Calling In” from All We Can Save: Truth, Courage and Solutions for the Climate Crisis, Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katherine K. Wilkinson, Eds. New York, One World, (2020), pages 3-7. [Publisher] [WorldCat]
Adrienne Rich, “What If?” in What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics, New York: W. W. Norton (2003), pages 241-242. [WorldCat]
Dylan Robinson, Excerpt from “Introduction,” Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (2020), pages 1-25. [WorldCat]
Christopher Small, “Prelude” in Musicking, Hanover: University Press of New England, (1998), pages 1-13. [WorldCat]
COP = diplomatic speak for “Conference of the Parties”, or the 197 nations that agreed to the environmental pact at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, at a meeting in 1992. (I had to look it up.)
In science communications, my assumption is known as the “Information Deficit Model” of social change. More on that in Week Three.
In a way, it might have been anything—poetry, dance, soccer—but I played the viola, and classical music had the kind of international infrastructure that could allow an independently-minded, clear-sighted, working-class girl to climb her way up the face of the 20th century.
As for Peter Kent, the journalist who wrote, narrated, and hosted the 1984 documentary that broke the story on the connection between fossil fuels and global warming—the piece that convinced me I should be a musician, because music had nothing to do with oil? He became a Conservative politician, and served as Canada’s Minister of the Environment under Prime Minister Steven Harper. Harper was a staunch supporter of oil sands development and Peter Kent carried out his policies—becoming the man environmentalist Rick Smith described as “Canada’s Worst Environment Minister Ever.”
Adrienne Rich, “What If?” in What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (241-242)