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  • Writer's pictureMartha Neugarten

Sustainability and Music: wider connections

In examining the connection between nature and the arts for our Every Tree Speaks to Me! concert, we interviewed two individuals working in different sectors of sustainability and music, discovering their thoughts on the role of music in driving change, and what inspires them in their work. 

John Warner

John Warner is the Founder and Artistic Director of the Orchestra for the Earth and the Music Director of Oxford Opera. His 2023-24 season includes engagements with Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Beijing Music Festival, Berlin Symphony Orchestra, Slovak State Philharmonic, and the Armenian State Philharmonic, working alongside soloists such as James Ehnes, Wu Wei and Camille Thomas. 

His pioneering work with Orchestra for the Earth, which he founded in 2017, takes him around Europe with a wide variety of concerts that bring together music and nature, collaborating with leading environmental artists, scientists and charities, as well as soloists such as Thomas Hampson.

What is the role of music in inspiring societal change? 

Music is very good at bringing people together, often from different areas of society. It gives people with different political views something to bond over, helping them see that people they might disagree with politically share similarities in being human. Statistics and rational arguments often don’t get to people’s hearts and minds in the way that a musical experience does.

What advice do you have for musicians wanting to drive change?

I would say that you can use what you do to make an impact. Music has an incredibly long and impressive history of initiating social change - just look at the 1985 Live Aid campaign! Probably the biggest turning point in the AIDS crisis was a music event. We can feel guilty that as musicians we travel a lot, and are in an industry that doesn’t have much money, so are slow to decarbonise. But it is ok to accept that and use the thing you are good at to inspire people and connect with people, because it really works.  

What makes you feel inspired? 

Working with other people! That is part of the reason that I am a conductor rather than a concert pianist. Every time I speak to an audience member or get a positive reaction about a climate change project, I find it motivating. Music itself is motivating, since it helps you organise and understand your emotions, and we need a lot of that when it comes to climate change, because it is a very confusing and upsetting thing.

Rebecca Abbot

Rebecca is a Sustainability and Business MSc graduate who has spent the last four years undertaking interdisciplinary research between environmental sustainability and the creative industries. Recent research work with York St John University and the University of Leeds (on the Critical Sustainability Storytelling Tool) has led to working with numerous creative industry organisations across the UK including Opera North. In the future, she aims to undertake further work as a sustainability consultant for touring symphony orchestras and creative industry organisations.

What is the role of music in inspiring societal change? 

My main thought would be that music creates space for people to think. It creates an open and safe space for people of diverse cultures to discuss and share different perspectives. Music can also be used to create a sense of community cohesion, because it is something that everyone has in common. It can be used as a common agent to communicate a vision, and also act as a catalyst, because of its emotive impact. Humans aren’t linear, we are very organic, and live our everyday lives through stories, so we can use music to act as a narrative platform to bridge the gap between research and people’s lives.

What advice do you have for musicians wanting to drive change?

We need the arts to support environmental messages from the STEM sector, because music connects with people so directly. I would say to take your aims step by step. Create small goals which can help you reach an overarching bigger goal - the power of collaboration is huge and never underestimate the power of cross-sector conversations. 

What makes you feel inspired? 

I feel most inspired when I am collaborating with people on a project. You can’t really explain the feeling of playing in an orchestra, or being in something bigger than yourself. A cohesive community with a shared vision is what inspires me! 

Our next concert will be at Cadogan Hall on the 11th of January and will explore how the natural world has influenced artists, particularly through the Industrial Revolution. With narration from Sir Thomas Allen and Roger McGough, the programme includes Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, interspersed with poetry by the poet John Clare, reflecting on the idyllic rural life before exploring Wagner and Janacek's reflections on nature. Wagner's epic Ring Cycle has, at its heart, a plea to respect the natural environment whilst Janacek presented a more hopeful vision of man and nature living in harmony in his opera Cunning Little Vixen. Wagner's Forest Murmurs and the Suite from Cunning Little Vixen will form the second half of the concert, along with readings from the composers themselves. See you there!

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