Vocalist and musician City Counselor is one of six 2017-18 Cedar Commissions artists. Their project “Questions & Lies” debuting on February 9th (get tickets here), is a collection of avant-pop songs on political themes. Performed live by an 8-piece orchestra pulled from the corners of the Minneapolis DIY scene, the songs prominently feature Nicky’s soaring mezzo-soprano voice. The body of work draws on current events and their emotional toll: the advance of climate change, the growing audacity of unabashed white supremacy, ongoing attempts to rewrite our constitution, and more. Questions & Lies processes the last year of news through classically influenced contemporary pop – think “camp counselor” but for your feelings about laws.
Slow Burn opens with frenetic cello and an ascending bassoon line. Five vocalists, harp, bass guitar, and drums join. I sing the first line, “It’s still summer in November, and it’s burning in my brain. Whether you believe it doesn’t supercede that it’s changing.” The following essay accompanies that song in a booklet I’ve created for my new body of work, Questions & Lies, as part of the 2018 Cedar Commissions.
My phone buzzed with an alert that the high today would be in the upper 60s, unusual for the week of Thanksgiving. I was reading an article about the wildfires blazing in California and the Rockies, witnessing the Michael Bay imagery of flames ripping around an interstate streaming with cars. The sky in Minnesota was a hazy yellow from the smoke, a glow that underscored the lack of autumnal nostalgia I normally feel around the holidays. It’s still summer.
The 2017 California wildfire season was the most destructive on record
Even after getting a degree in environmental studies, the scale of climate change evades me. I can’t grasp the immense system at play in both cause and effect. I fall back on the same simplified talking points — global warming makes weather more irregular and powerful; glaciers melting causes sea level rise; the climate simply changes. The cause feels easier to name — carbon dioxide comes from burning fossil fuels. Compressed dinosaurs and tropical forests, a gift from our 4.5-billion-year-old planet to subsidize the development of modern civilization. To subsidize my laziness and comfort.
But that comfort is usually short-lived, as we are in no shortage of reminders of planetary destabilization. Droughts domestically and internationally are upending food systems that feed millions of people. Entire cities are disappearing into the ocean — sea level rise, erosion from human development, and intensified tropical storms. The Great Barrier Reef has all but died while polar bears starve on shockingly green hills. It makes me think of their newly-temperate home when my own can’t seem to remember how to make it winter until the Polar Vortex deforms into my backyard.
And just as quickly, my faith that we have any chance to fix this evaporates like seawater into Maria. Yes, we are replacing coal-fired power plants at unprecedented rates. Yes, solar and wind are some of the cheapest forms of electricity. But I open my door to see a street lined with cars, which cause a quarter of carbon emissions. I bite into an apple and remember that the food I eat causes another quarter of those emissions. (Oh, plus the methane it creates when decomposing in a landfill if I don’t throw it in a compost bin.) (Which reminds me, did I mention how all that CO2 is making plants significantly less healthy, too?) I exhale and remember that I’m a standalone CO2 factory, too, converting our atmospheric oxygen into global warming with every breath.
Walter Benjamin’s “Angel of History”
I can almost start to accept climate disaster as humanity’s inevitability: we were born to emit carbon. We would always get to this point, and perhaps we would also fail to get past it. We struggle to recognize how our past has limited our future. We are Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History.
His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
But sometimes, in those brief shining moments of optimism, the immensity seems less great than the imperative to overcome it. A majority of humans believe in the necessity to end our addiction to carbon. Even fossil fuel companies have incorporated climate change into their long-term planning (albeit to plan when the ice caps have melted enough to allow for offshore drilling). We have the science on our side — when are we going to act in scale?
The Cedar Commissions is The Cedar’s flagship program for emerging artists made possible with a grant from the Jerome Foundation. Since its launch in 2011, The Cedar has commissioned and showcased new work by almost 40 local, emerging composers and musicians. Buy tickets for the 2017-18 Cedar Commissions here.