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The 1930s were a dark time for America. With widespread droughts causing devastating environmental collapse, many of America’s working classes were forced to undertake mass migrations through a dead landscape known as ‘the dustbowl’ to find whatever scraps of work were still available. Leaving their families and loved ones behind, these workers were trapped in a cycle of ill-health and poverty, faced with deadly ‘black blizzards’ of toxic dust, and abandoned by their government at the very time they needed them most. Amidst this backdrop, the songwriter Woody Guthrie documented the conditions he faced in a huge number of songs that became collectively known as ‘Dustbowl Ballads’, giving a voice to the thousands of workers who journeyed with him through such hostile terrain. When it would have been so easy to lose hope - as sadly so many did - Guthrie provided a platform by which to articulate and challenge the actions of his government, almost single-handily spearheading a musical protest movement that exists to this day. Occupying a communist position - whilst notably avoiding becoming a signed-up member of the party - he played upon the ‘hill-billy’ connotations ascribed to the working class, using his position as a working-class Oklahoman to imbue the largely middle-class American folk scene with some much-needed authenticity. In addition to music, Guthrie was a prolific writer and sloganeer - his guitar famously emblazoned with the message ‘This machine kills fascists’ - even playing a part in the interwar communal living scene that would act as a direct precursor to the post-war ‘hippy’ movement.

By the 1950s, plagued by both ill-health and the propagation of a strong anti-communist sentiment, Guthrie fell into a professional and personal decline - culminating in a tragic gasoline accident that damaged his arm and prevented him from ever playing the guitar again. He died in 1967 after a nearly twenty-year battle with Huntington's disease - but even in death, he was an inspirational figure. Not only did his renown help to raise awareness of the previously little-known disease - with his second wife, Marjorie Greenblatt Mazia, founding the Huntington's Disease Society of America - but his true-to-life, political songwriting inspired a whole new generation of composers, including a young Bob Dylan who befriended Guthrie in the final years of his life. By turning tragedy into a living document of workers conditions, Guthrie was able to galvanise generations of workers, activists, and song-writers to challenge the actions of their government. As Dylan would later suggest, Guthrie's songs ‘were really beyond category. They had the infinite sweep of humanity in them’.

Check out out our new web-series: Process! We'll be working with other contemporary artists to tell their stories in the near-future, so watch this space :)


The first episode of 7000 Trees online series exploring contemporary artists and their processes. This episode features the digital artist Lee Copleston discussing his use of the scanner in artistic creation.






These are dark times. Whilst reticent to add my voice to the liturgy of scientific commentary - both informed and otherwise - It is perhaps interesting to think about how the arts have dealt with such periods of crisis in the past. Indeed, for all the horrors of disease, famine, and war, the arts have often shown that they can provide a remarkable resilience for the human spirit, turning despair into something beautiful, powerful even. As we face the unfolding reality of the Coronavirus pandemic, it seems increasingly important that we look to the future with some semblance of positivity - focussing not just on the spiralling and hard-to-untangle statistics, but upon the ingenuity and capacity of the human spirit in times of toil. With that in mind, I wanted to look at some historic examples of artists responding to crisis - it is perhaps better for our collective mental health to consider what is born of such situations, not only what dies.


Messiaen and the Quartet for the End of Time


Perhaps one of the most famous examples, would be the iconic ‘Quatuor pour la fin du temps’ - or, in English, Quartet For the End of Time. Written by the French composer Oliver Messiaen in 1941, it serves as a sonic documentation of his time at Stalag VIII-A, a German prisoner of war camp. Gathering together the few musicians he could find, Messiaen constructed an unusual quartet of piano, violin, clarinet and cello - and composed a work that is defined by a sense of palpable longing, disunity, and even boredom. With few sections containing the whole quartet - and the final 10 minutes losing the cello and clarinet completely - the composition reflects more than the sorrow of the times. Often, one or more of its players are reduced to simply sitting at the sidelines, waiting for their turn, whilst the music suddenly jumps between mournful, lonely passages and almost chirpy trios that seem to recall the now distant echoes of a lost European culture. Arguably, its strange arrangement and predisposition for violent, clashing textures of sound (even if framed by the prism that is Messiaen’s signature lyricism), points to not only the horrors of the internment camp, but a self-evident sense of cautious hope for humanity, a sensibility perhaps wrung from Messiaen’s unwavering Catholicism. In 1941 - 2 years into the war and with no end insight - the world could not have appeared more desolate, more doomed. But Messiaen, for all that horror, was able to imagine a future that appeared to accept the unimaginable changes that society had incurred, and to articulate the possibility of beauty and joy to come, however sorrowful such imaginings must have have felt at the time.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zYpBHc8px_U

Chronochromie


Messiaen's experiences during the war would shape his creative output throughout the rest of his life. After the war ended, he began to explore radical new approaches to composition that have fundamentally influenced contemporary music ever since. After his release, he was made professor at the Paris Conservatoire - a position he would hold until his retirement. His students read like a whos-who of contemporary experimental composition - Pierre Boulez, Karel Goeyvaerts, Karlheinz Stockhausen, George Benjamin, Iannis Xenakis - with Messiaen's unique approach shaping entire disciplines of contemporary composition. His work with proto-serialism arguable kickstarted the movement, whilst his forays in Musique Concrete and bird-song serves as precursors to the field-recording and sampling practices that would inspire experimental and popular music alike. For me, it is his 1960's composition Chronochromie that is the best example of his evolved practice. Exploring the use of colour as a fundamental aspect of musical composition, as well as underscoring the complexity of the natural world as found in his fascination with bird-song, here Messiaen derives an unprecedented and powerful emotion that seems to stem directly from his wartime experiences. It is at times uncomfortably arrhythmic (to the ear at least), and draws upon a sense of unresolved tension that would later inspire countless film composers. Most of all, however, it is a work that seems to speak a new and developed language, almost completely shedding pre-war romanticism in favour of a more impassioned, more complex, and more beautiful sonic reality.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0b7mpiz-xc&list=RD_0b7mpiz-xc&start_radio=1



Future Music


Perhaps in our current period of strife we can learn valuable lessons from composers like Messiaen. We don't know what the future holds, only that the coming weeks will be hard on us all, and that there is no clear end in sight. But that doesn't need to be a reason for unmitigated despair. Now, more than ever, artists and creatives will need to bolster humanities beleaguered frame - as our loved ones, our families, and our communities face periods of self isolation, and major disruption to not only their health but their livelihoods, the arts can provide some much need relief. For all the age old criticisms of 'art for arts sake', creative expression gains its power precisely because it points beyond the present - it underscores the challenges of the past and potentiality of the future. On our darkest days - and there is every reason to believe there are many to come - arts capacity to remind us that there will be light again, that we will, as a community make it through this, seems of the upmost importance. It might not be able to offer pragmatic solutions to the visible problems we face, but all the same, art can provide us - as it did for Messiaen - with power to continue fighting in the face of adversity.

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