Set against this living, physical experience, the instrument itself is monolithic and historical, significantly unchanged since 1886. Pianos are reminiscent of aristocracy, they need space to exist and dwarf modern lounges. Piano recitals often feel like historical re-enactments: clothes and behaviour borrowed from previous eras so that as an audience member, you are sent backwards in time. Why is this? Mainly because the repertoire is incredible, beautiful, poignant, familiar. All of the ‘greatest’ most revered composers wrote the largest bulk of their pieces for piano. Most were pianists themselves. The piano serves as a one-person orchestra for composers to explore texture, range and dynamics. So Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy all feature on repeat. And it is wonderful music.
But my strong belief is that as a pianist living in the here and now, I need to use the piano as my tool to express this age, this time; to leave the stuffiness of repeated ceremonies and instead search for what sounds and feels like the present.
As a pianist living in the here and now, I need to use the piano as my tool to express this age, this time; to leave the stuffiness of repeated ceremonies and instead search for what sounds and feels like the present.
It is on this trajectory that I began reinventing the piano. I currently play on an old grand piano re-made in a unique shape, with the strings made to go vertically upwards from the keys – so that I can play on them directly, whilst also playing the keys. The inside of a grand piano is a huge, resonant chamber full of sonic possibilities. To pluck a piano bass string is to feel deep vibrations and see a string turned to blur whilst it rings out with rich sound. At the other extreme, a fast plectrum glissando on the very taut unpitched end of the high strings bursts out like a screamer firework. In between, plucked middle strings can sound muted and doleful (done with fingertips) or bright and metallic (done with nails) and all kinds of incredible effects can be found by scraping, strumming, rubbing, holding and even hitting the strings.
And alongside that, I began making work about my life experiences. A show called ‘Moments of Weightlessness’ was the result of a burning lack of resolution after my first precarious experience of birth, my son (now aged seven). Several things came together in that show: the experience of seeing seagulls flying in and out of the mist as I lay in my hospital bed wondering if he would survive his first day, and the fact that my new piano could swing from side to side like an enormous pendulum. Motion, movement, the chaos of new mothering, the fundamental joy of life itself. The moments of weightlessness as the pendulum turns at the end of its arc and we don’t yet experience the gravity of the new direction.
In 2018 I had been working for an environmental arts charity and had been reading increasingly about the state of the Earth, so I could write the narratives for funding bids. In August that year, reading about luxury bunkers which people were buying up in case of the apocalypse and the absurdity of this as a ‘solution’ to major planetary issues, made me obsess as to who these people were. Everything seemed to be accelerating: terrifying headlines began to emerge ‘Plummeting insect numbers threaten collapse of nature’; the Camp Fire which raged through Paradise in California burned 27,000 homes and elicited devastating interviews with survivors; finally, the international rallying cry from scientists: the IPCC published their ‘Special Report Global Warming of 1.5℃’ saying we had only 12 years to halve global emissions, to have a 67% chance of keeping global warming under 1.5 degrees.
Meanwhile a new group, Extinction Rebellion, held a local die-in in Brighton’s Churchill Square shopping centre and then suddenly took over five bridges in London, and a Swedish girl began sitting on the steps of her Parliament. There was a stark moment of clarity where I realised I had to become involved in this calling out and bring it into my artistic work. My son would turn 18 in the designated tipping point year: what gift would I give him as he became an adult?
So it is on the canvas of the ‘inside piano’ that I started writing ’12 Years’, my one-hour ‘recital-story’. The twelve movements combine original music with text from different sources, both real and imagined. Each time I started to create a track, I was humbled as to how ready the piano was to create the organic sounds. It seemed to grow with me and the piece, or I with it. To have my head right in front of the pounding, ringing strings feels like I am literally placing myself inside a world, a microcosm of organic sounds and structures which mirror our emotional ranges.
The opening is simply my first response to the IPCC report: ‘12 Years?’ shouted out repeatedly over my shoulders whilst playing an undulating phrase, with the immediate joke at the end that of course that track is old and it’s now only 10 years. This raises a laugh with the audience who then realise what they’re laughing at. We jump straight into my own version of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (I played piano for the live ballet years ago), to accompany the terrifying headlines we read with increasing regularity, interjected by pithy insights from David Wallace-Wells (author of The Uninhabitable Earth): ‘We have now done more damage to the planet knowingly than we ever managed to do in ignorance’.
Next, opposite textures of openness and warmth, deep plucks and muted major thirds, underpin the good news also emerging – the amazing efforts of individuals or particular policies, or even just the simple ideas that define the issue: ‘Immediate fossil fuel phaseout could arrest climate change’.
During ‘The News is on Fire’, the Paradise Fire track, I hit the resounding bass strings percussively in a repeating rhythm which drives the music incessantly on, as recordings of survivors trying to escape are heard. In ‘Greenland Ice Melting’, I attempt to create the sound inside a glacier, using magnets on the strings, bolts stuck between them and a sanded piece of slate dragged very slowly across the wound bass strings to elicit high multi-phonic shards of sound.
Greta Thunberg is featured in her own track which is accompanied by me playing the organ, sampled from her TEDx Stockholm talk and speeches from the first DAVOS World Economic Forum and recently to the UN (‘How dare you?’). The change in the tone of her voice is stark and unsettling.
But in amongst all of this, I needed to avoid preaching. Beyond presenting the news and reality, I wanted to get inside people’s heads through everyday conversation. Meanwhile that article about luxury bunkers in summer 2018 and the thought ‘who is buying these?’ wouldn’t leave my brain. My imagination gradually started answering this and in the intervening tracks to those described above, the fictional characters – a married couple and the woman’s sister – began to appear, phoning each other, urging each other to worry less or do more about the climate crisis.
My two main characters, sisters, could be informal, offhand and spiky and this combination gave me a good range for teasing out some of the stickier personal issues for people. Should you really be flying on that mini-break? As an audience member, listening to the one-sided conversations, you are not only filling in the gaps of what is not being said, you’re also placing yourself on a spectrum and hopefully questioning, empathising with other viewpoints. I also realised I was exploring the bizarre ‘affinity groups’ of families. How hugely different lifestyles can emerge between siblings from the same childhood, the same original value systems.
I invited a small team of mentors to help me make ‘12 years’: a climate scientist from the MET Office, Inika Taylor, film writer/director Nic Mills and an environmental campaigner Atlanta Cook. It was vital to me that there was humour in the mix – I rarely get anywhere without being made to laugh first – so I also invited a comic actress/theatre deviser, Emma Edwards.
My main aim of the concert is to make people think, to raise questions, to jolt the audience out of their comfort and to offer a tangible thread to hold.
My main aim of the concert is to make people think, to raise questions, to jolt the audience out of their comfort and to offer a tangible thread to hold. The first performances were given in March 2019 before the big April Extinction Rebellion uprising, so climate wasn’t at that time front and centre of the news. The audience’s responses explained how they felt it useful and powerful to experience this narrative with the emotional exploration of music, rather than just the more intellectual reading the news by itself. One audience member said: ‘Unlike reading about climate change, this was the first time I actually felt it’.
But now, in the time of Corona, the usefulness of bringing fear to people is less necessary: the audience is already in a state of ‘emergency’. At first, I thought (and yes, I freely admit this is a wholly self-centred problem!) that Coronavirus had ruined my show. My characters are talking about flying on holiday which obviously no-one is now doing. But feedback so far – from the now digital tour – is that because my characters don’t mention the Covid-19 crisis, the piece allows us to take time to focus on the much bigger, more long term and more fundamental crisis of the climate and ecological emergency. It allows us to think back to only two months ago to how things were, to look more objectively at our fossil-fuelled lifestyles.
We are now experiencing, as a society, what else life could look like and it is a shocking and amazing change. The more optimistic among us hope for longer term transformation in line with what we’re currently seeing: less intensive globalised travel and more community connectedness. Everything has been turned on its head and this includes the idea, developed in an esssy by Dougald Hine and in Rupert Read’s forthcoming ‘Theses on Corona’, that the pandemic crisis is generationally the opposite of global warming: for now, the young have to protect the old but for the planet, the old now must think primarily of the young.
Ultimately, we do only have this world, each other and our ideas. We can envision so much but are we bold and brave enough to make it reality? It feels to me that everything has to start with conversation, with connecting with our neighbours and those we don’t have so much in common with. Practising empathy is really hard across value divides but in the concert hall, as in the local community, there is a possibility of political neutrality. If with my show I’ve been able at all to soften preconceptions, open up vulnerabilities, even simply remind an audience of what they already thought, then that feels useful. And after raising questions in people’s minds, hopefully the extra layers of unusual and beautiful sounds from the piano give the listener space and time to be moved.
Sarah’s ’12 Years’ will be viewable for Dark Mountain newsletter subscribers at 5pm (UK time) on Saturday 18th April – when Sarah would have been performing at our weekend event ‘How We Walk through the Fire’. She will continue with live gigs in October – please see sarahnicolls.com/the-musical-activist for more on the project.
LISTEN: Engine is a previously unreleased new track from 2020, for Sarah’s forthcoming album ‘Everything in Black and White’ – playing just on the keys! And ‘Aidan Reassuring’ is track 7 from ‘12 Years’, featuring one of the fictional characters of the show, Fran’s husband.