What do energy, slavery, and classical music have in common?

Quite a bit actually.

I’m currently undertaking an interdisciplinary study of sustainability, renewables, life, death & music in Colorado. One tiny portion of an assignment for it is to draw conclusion from a piece of classical composition. I chose a Chinese born composer who recently won a music Pulitzer for an opera called Angel’s Bone. The piece I chose by her is called (if you say so…) (Du Yun & Gareth Flowers). The piece did not appear in the award winning opera but that is an important detail, if you could keep it on the back burner.

The following are my brief notes for my presentation. They’re choppy, but you might find them interesting.

The song I am discussing is linked: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6IMPDyyTRA0

Du Yun is extremely skilled and in an interview with Pulitzer she discussed her upbringing speaking english in shanghai and playing the piano throughout childhood and its influence on her today. She described trying to challenge herself in a new way with every piece — she tries to avoid piano completely through the entire process in order to avoid ‘falling back’ into habits and comfortable ways.

Angel’s Bone

On the music:

(if you say so…) has a solid underlying chord sequence that rapidly unfolds and maintains its consistency through the song. This chord sounds synthetic but the more I looked into Du Yun the more apparent it became to me that she likely used some exotic instrument and can replicate the sound live. It is quickly layered under a soft melody complimented by a horn sound which weighs in every so often. The lyrics are likely cantonese or mandarin. Slowing down the rate of the song has an effect of amplifying the echo of the soft whispers that provide lyrics and drawing out the effects that the drum beat has. In conjunction these elements create a sort of city scene ambiance with sounds bounce off one another. The initial synthetic beat regains prominence at certain points and fades back in others.

Why am I writing about this/ why do I think you would care (besides a love of opera):

All of this makes me think of a scene hustle and bustle, much like a crowded urban area but the horn brings about a nostalgic quality to it too. It invokes in my mind the scene of the Great Gatsby where Nick finds himself in the City flat owned by Tom Buchanan and makes a note of looking out into the cite feeling both inside the apartment and outside.

The music makes me feel that way too, after a few takes (especially after messing with the speed) one can immerse into the different facets and become easily distracted by many recurring themes popping back up, it is almost difficult to focus on the lyrics, if it weren’t for the tendency of the verbs to bounce back and forth amongst the melody. A layer which is particularly difficult to discern is the gentle strumming of a stringed instrument hidden deep underneath the other hustling aspects, it has a soft slow bluegrass feel to it. It is incredibly difficult to pick up on at most points in the song at normal speed and probably won’t be noticed on the first listen. The stringed beat seems to fade in favor of the horned accompaniment but that should not be considered a hard and fast rule.

Overall this music and its busy feeling makes me think of our extremely busy and over indulgent economy. We mindlessly over consume our resources around us with little thought given to the implications or greater effects of our actions much like the economist Herman Daly describes in his writings. This is an observation of the macro level, just like how as a whole the song seems overly busy and possibly indulgent in its many seemingly conflicting layers of sounds.

The song has layers, as does our economy. We can zoom in on different facets of our economy and see how our negligent indulgence affects us negatively. Similarly a very negative externality of our thoughtless consumption is the decline in value of humans — in fact there are more enslaved now than ever before (BBC). Our tendency to put our heads down in the comfortable nexus of our lives and not consider the effects of the systems we live in; be it enslavement, sex trafficking, destructive greenhouse gas emissions, a near genocide in Syria, etc, is we don’t notice the terrible effects. That is the inherent nature of an ‘externality’ — we fail to ‘internalize the costs. You don’t pay for the fact that your typical coal power plant causes 13,000 premature deaths a year (CATF). In fact you would probably just prefer to act like you never read that (looking at you Cincinnati friends). After all, it’s not like you or me can change municipal power distribution methods.

What does this have to do with the bloody song though??

This song lends credibility to the idea that we need to slow down, stop to smell the roses (while they still exist), and consider the effects happening around us. The minute is a reflection of the large and the ‘micro economy’ often can act like a mirror to the macro. If there is a legitimate argument that we are having a problem with human trafficking, there is a legitimate argument that our greater economy is having many other negative effects and that this is another symptom of a greater problem.

Consider this, if you’re experiencing chest pains, plaque build up, and numb legs your doctor might diagnose you with high colesterol. That isn’t the actual problem. The actual problem might be that your cholesterol intake is too high.

Similarly, if we live in a world ravaged by terrorists caging and torching their prisoners like ISIS does, or greenhouse gas emmisions that will doom the entire nation now known as the Malidives to be underwater in maybe 20 years and rampant human enslavement, maybe these are symptoms of a much larger, systemic problem. And maybe that problem starts with you. And maybe that problem starts with me.