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The aesthetics of anxiety by Jini Maxwell

The aesthetics of anxiety by Jini Maxwell

An immersive performance experience designed and performed by the Ad Lib Collective, Music for our Changing Climate asked listeners to consider what climate change sounds and feels like. One of our brilliant 2018 Writers-in-Residence, Jini Maxwell, was there and she captures her thoughts and musings on the concert below.

I enter the Salon knowing, like everyone else here, I would guess, that I have a thinkpiece-level of knowledge of climate change. I know it’s bad, and urgent. I mostly take public transport—though I catch a taxi to this performance, finding myself running a little behind schedule—I don’t buy leather—except for special pieces, Scanlan and Theodore boots I found on sale, a suede shift from Japan—I don’t eat meat. I remind myself that I do my best. I’ve been to #stopadani rallies; I recycle. Objectively, I engage with this issue.

Ad Lib collective are an experimental chamber music collective with a focus on creating and curating new Australian chamber music. Music for our Changing Climate is a piece devised in 2017 during their residency in Banff. For this performance, Ally Smither, soprano soloist from Banff, has flown over to work with the collective. When I enter the room, I see a small group of artists framed by hanging cylinders of ice, illuminated and dripping into wide bowls of water below. The quietly melting ice, the dark, diffused purple light, and the gravity that comes with any classical performance in an institution like the Recital Centre, come together to create an intimate, ethereal setting that I feel myself connecting to and disconnecting from at intervals.

The performance follows five movements, each composed from a combination of arrangements for strings, voice and percussion with found sounds—plastic bags, the stutter and disruption of falling water, falling stones and seeds, as heat and time release them from the frozen columns. In my head, the sounds pair off; the hysterical edge of the strings with crinkling plastic, the ambient, insistent marimba with melting ice. The final piece, Sometimes Knowing is Not Enough, premiers at the Recital Centre, featuring a vocal soloist flown in from Banff.

Animals are learning to adapt to our drastically changing climate. A study published in February this year suggested that Mexican free-tailed bats now from make their migration from Mexico to the monitored North American colony, Bracken Cave an average of two weeks earlier. Here, they use echolocation to hunt noctuid moths, and corn earworm, pests that plague the local farms.

There are times I feel transported; at others, I keep thinking very human and uncharitable thoughts like: Why not get a poet to write your libretti, instead of trilling all over lines like ‘it makes me sad and scares me.’

And: How many carbon miles does it take to fly from Banff to Melbourne?

And: Why do I feel like such an asshole for demanding political rigour from an art piece that presents itself as political?

For the first time, scientists monitoring Bracken Cave observed some bats remaining in Texas for the entire winter instead of making their seasonal return to Mexico. The insects are growing thicker and more plentiful every season, in the humid air. The bats have made sense of the space around them, and adapted to it. They don’t care about climate change; they only care about sound, and what sound reacts to.

Art is usually not effective activism. It risks packaging its ethics as a consumable product; at worst, it performs its politics exclusively as an act, and not an action. Chamber music is a particularly rarified art form, and I know, and everyone in this space knows, that everyone here is here because they already care about climate change. Annoyance is also usually not effective activism. I start thinking about the source of my discomfort, and what this reflexive anger is protecting me from. 

Like echolocation, I often find my words reaching limits; that is how I have come to understand some of my anxieties around climate change. I know this fear atmospherically, by the way I start talking about it, and the point at which I only hear my own anxiety bounce back. Something unseen is interrupting soundwaves; the echoes gesture towards some kind of perimeter. We know that knowing is not enough. Climate disaster feels unspeakable, disempowering; there is just so little an individual can do. I feel my tote bag against my leg, the gentle, animal shifting of a room full of people all trying to be still. I feel annoyed. I don’t feel comfortable or righteous in my annoyance, either. 

If we accept that irrevocable, human-engineered climate change is imminent and disastrous, and we also understand that individuals can’t meaningfully affect our climate future, how on earth do we proceed? Thea Rossen, co-founder of Ad Lib Collective, tells The Age that she understands the performance will be largely “preaching to the converted.” She describes the piece not as an activist work, but as a show of support to a “community [that] needs as much support as it can get.”

I resent this piece its inability to navigate in a soundscape the anxious space that I can’t articulate with words. I react with knee-jerk discomfort to this performance, the questions it raises without answering. As I listen to the soloist gasp and stutter, knowing that however jarring or clever or transcendent her performance, the ice is still, always melting in the background, I hear my discomfort, my wordlessness, echoing back to me. I’m not sure it’s the job of art to offer me an answer.

There are moments when this performance feels like a living body. I hear discord flow unbroken into accord, like an animal kicking itself loose from a trap. What really strikes me are the moments of silence, the ambient echo of melting ice. As the performance goes on, I keep waiting for a crack or a crash, but the ice never breaks, there’s no disaster; I find myself thinking: not with a bang, but a whimper. One one hand, I find myself wishing these unsystematic, natural sounds are given more space. On the other, I can think of few things more human than responding to an amorphous, disempowering, all-encompassing fear by anxiously filling silence.

Pulitzer prize winning poet Charles Simic described poetry as an orphan of silence. The words never quite equal the experience behind them. The magnitude of impending climate disaster is so entirely outside our comprehension, that every conversation feels orphaned by it. So I think about the bats, and about soundscapes as a way of knowing. This performance doesn’t seek to articulate an answer—or even a direction—to the problem of personal action and responsibility in the face of climate disaster, but it does give a shape to that anxiety, through its anxious layering of sounds. Maybe that’s enough.

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