Sunday, 30 March 2014

Climate Change and the Arts: The Great Turning

Hello all! After a long break (necessitated by looming composition deadline) I am back to blog about climate change/Transition/finding solutions to pressing world issues and the arts.

Winchester Cathedral nave
Last Thursday, I took the train down to Winchester, because that evening was the world premiere of The Great Turning, a massive musical work for a choir of 120+ and orchestra, composed by June Boyce-Tillman. The Great Turning is based on Stories of the Great Turning, edited by Peter Reason and Melanie Newman: a collection of stories of ordinary people doing extraordinary things to help a planet in peril.

The contributors to 'Stories of the Great Turning' include a former businessman, brought to a personal crisis by the sudden death of his wife and seeking a new direction in life; a PhD student turned whale-saving activist; a Frome-based poet who organised a Funeral for Extinct Species ceremony;  a married couple who install an innovative hydroelectric scheme at their property in Wales; a woman who launches a project to help disadvantaged young people grow vegetables in skips by King's Cross station; and a young woman who makes beautiful lingerie out of old clothes, amongst many others.

While the achievements of the contributors were not always flashy (nor always obviously 'achievements' or 'successes'), what was most heartening was that they changed the direction of the contributors' lives from life-draining to life-sustaining - a personal transformation we can see occurring planet-wide amongst individuals and communities.

Back to the music, and to Winchester Cathedral. June Boyce-Tillman is one of those fantastic contemporary composers you've never heard of (rather like all contemporary composers. New composition didn't stop with Vaughan Williams, by the way). Her specialism is in writing music that can be performed by everyone: children and singers who couldn't read music were all present in the 120+ singers who performed The Great Turning. Unlike much contemporary music, Boyce-Tillman's musical language is lyrical and accessible, while retaining emotional depth and sincerity.

The Great Turning was written for eight children's choirs, six community choirs and the Southern Sinfonia ( a professional orchestra). The work was structured in five sections, borrowing from the philosophy of one Joanna Macy: Act Your Age, Gratitude, Encountering the Darkness, Dare to Dream and Join Hands Across the World. The words were also written by Boyce-Tillman, who often lifted passages straight from the book and reworded them.

At around 8.20pm the sound of a gong resonated through the cathedral, followed by sombre, awe-inspiring chords in the heavy brass. What happened next had an extraordinary sonic effect: the children all processed down the nave,  beating together two pebbles. The sound of all the pebbles merged together into a hissing sound that swept along the cathedral, echoing into the all the recesses and up to the distant roof. As the children reached the quire, all voices were raised: 'Come, Gaian beings, we form parts of the earth. In honouring and sharing we bring new life to birth...'

The musical scope of the piece is too epic to sum up in a blog post. A high point for me was the distinctly pagan 'Glory be to Gaia', which owed much to renaissance liturgical music. There were also catchy sing-alongs for the children, such as 'Growth, *boom* growth *bang* economic growth *crash* more and more and more and more and more....' which I was humming all the way home. Probably the most succinct description of that particular economic ideology I've yet heard...

See here for Vala Publishers, the super co-operative who published Stories of the Great Turning!

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