Bethan Hall reviews the new experimental musical performance piece from Sarah Nicolls, 12 Years, which explores the imminent threat of the climate crisis.
Inspired by the IPCC’s 2018 report which put a stark twelve-year deadline on saving the planet, Sarah Nicolls’ innovative composition 12 Years explores reactions to and perceptions of the climate crisis. Through the interaction of music and fictional phone calls between two adversely minded sisters, 12 Years transcends the listener into a fictional narrative built from the uncomfortable truths of the real world. Its 12 movements see Fran, the nonchalant, blind-eye turning sister gradually become more perceptive and increasingly concerned as her conversations with Extinction Rebellion activist Lara develop. Over the course of an hour, Nicolls communicates the urgency of the crisis to the audience and raises awareness of the importance of action whilst delivering a thoroughly engaging and impressive musical performance.
12 Years was performed on Nicolls’ extraordinary ‘Inside-Out Piano’, an adapted 1900 Erard which offered a small sense of irony in its contribution to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama’s ‘Grand Weekend’, a celebration of their newly acquired status as Europe’s first ‘Steinway exclusive conservatoire’. The unique, vertical instrument, donned with the Extinction Rebellion logo, enabled Nicolls to reach all parts of the piano with ease and allowed her to sweep seemingly effortlessly across it, utilising numerous extended techniques to produce an expansive array of sounds one would be surprised to hear from just one instrument. In fact, the use of electronics to layer sounds through loops and playback created the aural impression of a small ensemble, with each organic sound contributing to a unique polyphonic texture. The extended techniques used included moving a glass paperweight along the length of strings, rattling bolts and dragging a piece of slate across the bass strings amongst many, many others.
There was a strong connection between the narrative and the music, with the latter often seeming to respond to the former; as alarming facts about the crisis were revealed in the second movement, rapid note repetitions with irregular emphases reminiscent of The Rite of Spring conveyed a sense of panic. In the sixth movement, the cohesion was even stronger: the serene melody accompanying Fran’s dreamy recollection of her tropical holiday was interrupted by Nicolls aggressively strumming the piano’s strings, an action which seemed to represent the anger felt specifically by Lara after Fran told her that she ‘spoil[s] everything’ through her concern for the environment. Interestingly, Lara’s voice was not actually heard until the tenth movement, when Fran started to pay more attention to the impact of her actions, suggesting that she was only just beginning to really hear Lara.
The addition of recorded voices was not limited to the fictional phone calls, but also included real news headlines, recordings of survivors of the Paradise fire and Greta Thunberg’s 2018 speech; seeing Nicolls’ connection to these recordings made her performance even more emotional and thought provoking. In this sense, the delivery of the performance online, recorded ‘as live’ by Lee Matthews, allowed for an enhanced sense of intimacy. The variety of camera angles used allowed the audience to appreciate Nicolls’ impressive technical skills as well as her emotional connection to the work, which was channelled not only through the music but also through her contemplative and concerned facial expressions; this was certainly an aspect of the performance which would not have been as effective in a traditional concert setting, where audience members would only see the performance from one visual perspective.
The post-performance Zoom call hosted by RWCMD offered attendees the opportunity to talk about 12 Years and the climate crisis with Nicolls and Liz Bagshaw, a glaciologist from Cardiff University. Nicolls suggested that this was essentially the second half of the event, just as important as the performance itself. Raising questions about what the music industry can do to help and how the perception of success affects the environment through the value often attributed to worldwide travel, the talk attracted more than half of the concert goers and served well to round off the ecologically-motivated performance. By exhibiting the development of Fran’s understanding of the climate crisis and providing a space to learn, Nicolls’ 12 Years persuaded audience members that they too should take the issues our world faces seriously, not only raising awareness, but also inspiring action.
Bethan Hall is an assistant editor at Wales Arts Review.