A Sustainable Orchestra

Published by: Jonathan Hargreaves
About: The Nevis Ensemble

The climate crisis is complex. At times overwhelmingly so. For some, its effects can feel far off. Something like COVID-19 feels very real and immediate, but climate change can feel unrelated to our personal circumstances. A bridge that will be crossed when we get there. But we’ve reached that bridge now. Actually, many years ago. In fact, that bridge is going to lead us to a future that is very different from the world we know. The reality is scary, but fear doesn’t enact positive change. And neither does enforced change. It is too late to be passengers. Real societal change must happen from both within and above, at all levels.

But how can music help to stimulate a conversation? Connect us with our natural world? Make change? I think music, art and culture occupies a really special space when it comes to creating change. A way of communicating. A vital exchange. A means to inspire hearts and minds. It features throughout our daily lives. Our connection and reliance on it to express human emotion is universal. It can move us and excite us. Help us and challenge us. We wouldn’t be human without music. Nevis Ensemble is an orchestra that brings music toeveryone everywhere, reaching people from all aspects of our society. When music is such a universal language, I think this puts us in a unique position to communicate a message and start conversations.

In my new role as Sustainability Manager, I have been tasked with overseeing the practical elements of running a sustainable orchestra. There is always more we can be doing, but over the last couple of years we’ve taken a big step in the right direction. Our main tour to the Outer Hebrides last summer began with a massive orchestral bake-off to stock up with snacks fueling us for the 40 odd concerts ahead of us. We equipped all our musicians with reusable water bottles and keep-cups, helping them adhere to our ‘no plastic water bottles on the bus’ rule. Before we set out on tour, we try to source local food from both our departure and destination points as much as possible, something I am hoping to develop further. We also recycle all waste when we are on tour. I’m not sure how happy the musicians were to be driving around significant parts of the Outer Hebrides with a bucket full of banana skins… But I really hope that the practices we follow when on tour inspire our musicians to make changes in their own lives, away from Nevis Ensemble.

Our tour bus is our biggest contributor to carbon emissions, but doing 40 concerts within a week or so, travelling to our audiences, and moving in a large circle means each concert has a relatively low carbon footprint. I am soon going to be looking into ways we can reduce this even further. Of course, being diligent recyclers, zero wasters or plastic free doesn’t satisfy our collective responsibility to act on climate change. But I truly believe that we need music more than ever. And we need to take music to people to inspire action and create change.

Being a sustainable orchestra isn’t just about running ourselves in a sustainable way. I will also be working with our Chief Executive (Jamie Munn) and Artistic Directors (Holly Mathieson and Jon Hargreaves) to find new ways we can address the climate emergency in our artistic output. As part of the 2020 Year of Coasts and Waters, Nevis Ensemble had several projects planned, or just starting to get underway, all around Scotland. Members of the orchestra were going to be working with communities on the Isle of Eigg, Aberdeen, Saltcoats and Stevenston, and Dunbar, along with composers from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, to create new orchestral music inspired by the relationship of each place with the sea.

Unfortunately, all of these projects have been postponed due to COVID-19, but we’re continuing to celebrate Scotland’s rivers, lochs, beaches and islands through a new Lochans project (lochans being small lochs, and these being mini compositions). Each of the composers working on the YCW2020 projects, as well as an additional six composers, have been asked to write a short piece for solo instrument, drawing inspiration from Scotland’s coasts and waters with material submitted by the public and our community partners. Initially these will be shared online, but also included in our programming when we’re touring again. I think music which engages with the natural world like this can be really valuable in reaching our emotional senses, reminding us of the beauty of the natural world which we are now losing. Since the very first musical sounds were made thousands of years ago, music has been inspired by and has strived to reflect our natural environments. Yet we now face an increase in huge natural disasters and a heightened depletion and loss of this nature. Can music remind us of the importance of and threat to our natural world? What will happen to our music without a natural world to inspire it?

As a personal project, and thanks to the support of Nevis Ensemble, I am soon going to be launching a new podcast. I will invite an individual to join me for an informal chat about the climate emergency, to hear their personal thoughts and stories, and to listen to and discuss a selection of music relating to our natural world and climate crisis. So often, the voices we hear on the topic of the climate emergency are those of politicians, activists and scientists. Through this podcast I hope to create a platform to share the thoughts and stories of individuals and members of society who are perhaps not heard in relation to the climate crisis. But more than that, I hope to start a discussion – a discussion that we all need to be having. Through music, to draw the threads together, make the facts more accessible, the voices more visible – to connect people and nature.

Our earth is severely suffering. We’re severely suffering. It’s too late to stop it. But at least we can slow it. We can find positives in the challenges. Find new ways of existence. The truth of the situation is that we must, all of us, take into consideration the climate emergency in everything we do. On a practical level, but also on an artistic level. I think we have a responsibility as musicians, as artists, to translate and humanise the facts. To make the overwhelming truth feel more understandable. Live performance is a meeting point, an exchange, the sharing of stories and ideas. In our hands and hearts we hold a very precious thing. A thing that can offer a personal experience, stimulate an emotional response, and reaches us all. It can inspire our audiences, our communities, our colleagues, our families. It can make change.

Georgina MacDonell Finlayson (Nevis Ensemble, Sustainability Manager)

Nevis Ensemble won the Environmental Sustainablity award at the Scottish Awards for New Music 2020.

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