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Nature in Action: COP26 and the Anderson Center

(L to R: Mallika Balakrishnan, author of text and Marshall Scholar '19, myself, and Leah Trotman, our friend and Marshall Scholar '21)

For the performing arts industry, planning during COVID has been complicated - to put it lightly. Schedules have been discarded, reconstructed, adapted, partially executed, and hybridized, only to be canceled again. What does it mean to plan a concert season when the situation changes hourly?

This past fall, however, I also got to experience the flip side of this uncertainty, when new opportunities arose suddenly - and the only question was whether I was courageous enough to grab them and hold on. My privilege in doing so is owed to the blessing of good health and the unerring support of my loved ones. But as we enter a new year and another possible season of postponements, I think it's important to highlight that even in this nebulous time of very little agency, we've all had a few (maybe very few, but a few, nonetheless!) moments of unexpected magic. For me, two such situations were attending the United Nations COP26 (Glasgow, UK) and a residency at the Anderson Center (Red Wing, MN, USA).

In 2020, I wrote a children's song for the Royal Scottish National Orchestra's Junior Chorus. This special project was aimed at creating contemporary Scottish anthems (school-wide songs for students in state-funded schools) that would emphasize the natural beauty of Scotland and highlight the importance of protecting its environment. I commissioned my friend and collaborator, poet Mallika Balakrishnan, to write the text. She wrote these moving words from her view of the northeast coast of Scotland. Here are a few excerpts:

In all of our lungs the same air 􏰙flows to forge us into unity The breath we draw, the hopes we share, make comrades and community from gentle breeze to tempest storm and skies from blue to grey

diversity’s among the lessons learned from nature’s way

and so we ask how we may build a better world to share we learn to treat our neighbors with compassion and with care

This song, titled "We Sing to Breathe Together", had its rescheduled premiere by the RSNO Junior Chorus (director: Patrick Barrett) during the UN Climate Change Conference aka COP26, which was hosted jointly by the UK and Italy in Glasgow (a city known for its forward-looking environmental solutions). Circumstances with other UK projects allowed me to attend the climate awareness performance live, which was so awesome.

Here we are in the atrium of the Glasgow Science Museum, where the COP26 Green Zone events were held. L to R, front row: conductor Patrick Barrett, Mallika, myself, and fellow composer Claire McCue.

In between the morning and afternoon programs, I had a terrific time wandering around the exhibitions, talking to activists, organizers, and policy-makers from around the globe, and attending fascinating lectures and discussions. Yes, members of the British royalty - of the literal and parliamentary variety - were there; Prince William was presenting a prize, and I almost dropped my vegan haggis on the former Prime Minister Theresa May as she casually loped by our lunch spot. But what was most energizing was a talk I attended from youth activists: high school students from around the world who have protested regularly for immediate action to address the climate emergency. Their dedication, underscored by the hunger strikes and similar measures they frequently take, was humbling and incredibly inspiring. Like many, I wish our political leaders had gone further - but I met so many people who are tirelessly working on the ground that my belief in what we can achieve as regular humans was revitalized.

Earlier in the autumn, I also had the chance to participate in a residency at the Anderson Center, right in my home state of Minnesota. Located near the Minnesota-Wisconsin border outside the town of Red Wing, the Anderson Center at Tower View is the former estate of the creator of Quaker Oats, and now hosts an alternative high school, permanent studios, a sculpture garden, talks from leading artists, and community events, including the Minnesota Children's Book Fest that overlapped with our residency.

The gorgeous residence at the Anderson Center aka where we lucky artists got to stay

In my case, the opportunity to be an artist-in-residence came the day before - and despite being a typically indecisive person, I seized it with both arms wide open. Just that week, I'd been scratching my head wondering how I was going to finish my autumn projects (briefly: two band pieces, two choral pieces, a solo marimba work, some educational solo instrument pieces, and editing my big project of the year!) so time and space at this beautiful residency was a gift from the heavens. In those two weeks, there were four artists: myself, visual artist Annie Hejny, poet, writer, and scholar Dr. Denise Lajimodiere, and musician and sound artist Zain Alam/Humeysha; I can't encourage you enough to check out their work. I learned so much from our conversations, whether it was about their speciality or larger discussions on artistic process.

In the case of Denise Lajimodiere's work, there was a particular timeliness to what I was learning: for many years, she has been one of the foremost experts on the boarding schools that the North American governments forced indigenous children to attend in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; with the heartbreaking finds from the Canada radar project, the world is currently waking up to this decades-long tragedy. While we were there, different news outlets were interviewing Denise. I greatly appreciated her sharing her immense knowledge with us, and it's vital that the full truth comes to light - but I wonder what it means for native communities to relive these horrors again and again. It certainly made us, as settlers, reconsider the land we were on.

During the residency, most of my time was spent immersed in my projects. I worked in the natural light filtering through the Center's Barn, the beautiful open deck, different nooks across the grounds, and, at night, in my room at the Center's historic residence.

But I also got to explore the nearby Cannon Valley trail on one of the Center's bikes, and eat many meals under the shade of trees and on the freshly mown grass.

The residency was a combination of rejuvenation and creative pushing; with the current season of an intense Minnesota winter combined with the ongoing pandemic forcing us inside and away from others, I'm so grateful that I had this idyllic time.

So, these are some of the pockets of joy from my professional life that kept me going this year. Other highlights include a handful of cherished live performances and in-person rehearsals in the Twin Cities, Boston, and Aldeburgh (UK). 2022 is a year that I've really been waiting for, with the world premiere of Sarojini by Hertfordshire Chorus scheduled to take place. It's hard not to wonder whether next year will even remotely resemble our plans. But amidst all of the uncertainty, loss, and hardship, I want to thank my colleagues and dear friends for making moments of this year so incredibly special, and precious.

Cheers to moments of unexpected magic, and here's to a future of, hopefully, many more opportunities to gather -- laughing, quaffing, all together --


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