The Making of “Concert Climat:” A Tale of Words and Music

Revelations don’t come very often, but when they do your head is never quite the same.

In the fall of 2014, a revelation came to me in the form of Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything. It confirmed what I suspected to be true about climate change, which is that no attempt to deal with it can succeed without challenging the economic system that created the problem and brought us to where we are today. Science, politics, economics, culture all had to be considered at once if there were any hope of confronting this potential apocalyse.

Her thesis is logically and brilliantly argued, and a pleasure to read. It reminded me of two other books, among many I’ve read over the past decade, which are revelations in their own right. Whereas Ms Klein’s book considers climate change through an economic and political lens, Bill McKibben’s Eaarth examines it from a cultural orientation, and Dr James Hansen’s Storms of My Grandchildren from a scientific perspective. Taken together, they’re an impressive trio.

concert-climat-trilogie-1

I’m not a scientist, not a journalist. I’m a musician – composer, pianist and trombonist, specializing primarily in jazz. There are lots of trios in music, and, for a composer, just the idea of something in three parts can be an inspiration. I noticed an interesting three-part structure in Eaarth/This Changes Everything/Storms of My Grandchildren, with the middle section a sort of fast movement vis-à-vis the other two. Medium? Symphony, or sonata, or song cycle? That would work itself out. The real dilemma was how to adapt a book on current affairs into a piece of music.

What I did have was a potential deadline. The international climate conference COP21 was taking place here in Paris in November/December 2015. It would be great to premiere a piece during the conference, but by the time I got down to really thinking about it, it was only six months away. With that time frame the simplest option would be my own jazz ensemble, the Paris Jazz Repertory Quintet (PJRQ), whose repertoire is oriented toward classic compositions from the hard bop era.

I made a few phone calls to people whom I thought might have some influence, some useful suggestions. Nothing came of it, and the summer was spent on other projects.

Then, in late September I happened to be at the Sunside, one of Paris’ major jazz clubs – the PJRQ has played there often – and I asked the owner, in an offhand remark, what he thought of a climate concert during COP. His response: “Sound’s great. Send me a proposal by email.”

Oh, shit! Now I’ve got to do it, and I only have two months.

The first thing was I knew we’d have to expand the ensemble. The quintet already had excellent soloists and a fine rhythm section, but this sort of project would need a broader orchestral pallette. Two additional horns would do it, and fortunately my first choices – trombonist and second saxophonist – were both available. We were now the Paris Jazz Repertory Septet.

But I still had to tackle this book adaptation thing. I knew I wouldn’t have to reread the books in full, but I would have to dig in to find ideas, phrases, images that were evocative musically.

First in line was Eaarth, and the book’s central premise – and it’s title – was a workable point of departure. McKibben argues that the planet we now inhabit is not the same as the one we knew during millenia of human development. The stable, welcoming, nurturing world that brought about the flourishing of human culture has already become a harder and less accommodating planet, the result of a relentless exploitation of natural resources, industrialization, and the like. For us as a species, our earth is now a different place, i. e. “Eaarth.”

The dichotomy could become the basis of a balanced musical narrative: the reality of the new planet/memories of our former world. I couldn’t resist the double-A in McKibben’s title. The opening uses those two notes as a bowed ostinato in the contrabass beneath a procession of stark, dense chords in the brass. An anguished melody in the alto saxophone – improvised – emerges from the other horns in response to threatening gestures from the percussion.

The piano, absent in the opening, is the vehicle for an over-the-shoulder glance at what used to be. The dark A-minor harmony suddenly becomes a bright, colorful E-major – again from the title – with a warm, Ellingtonian richness. But it’s only a momentary reverie that can’t reverse the inevitability of the inhospitable new planet Eaarth.

This became the first section of “Eaarth.” I could continue with a detailed account of the words to music process, but there isn’t the space here. Suffice it to say that the full program of “Eaarth” would ultimately follow a three-section narrative:

1.  The New Planet, and Memories of Our Former World

2.  Nature Pushes Back
Melting Ice Caps—Rising Oceans
Drought—Crop Failure
Migration—Resource Wars

3.  Surviving, Not Thriving
Memories of Our Former World (reprise)
A Durable, Stable, Robust Future
The New Planet (reprise).

To give a sense of scale, each of the subsections in the text is a separate jazz theme – six in all – which are connected with transitional passages. The entire suite is 45-55 minutes in length without a break.

The second suite, “This Changes Everything,” came together in much the same way, and was finished only ten days before the premiere. It had become clear a couple of weeks earlier that I’d never get around to composing the third suite, but that was fine. The music had grown into something much bigger than originally planned, and we already had enough material for a full concert.

The unfinished “Concert Climat” was premiered at the Sunside/Sunset on 1 December, shortly after COP21 opened in Paris. The house was full, and the reaction from the audience was, to say the least, positive. Next step was to complete the third suite, “Storms of My Grandchildren,” and arrange for a performance of the full trilogy. That took place in Paris on a rainy Sunday afternoon in late May. The concert lasted four hours, and the room was full from start to finish. (Video clips from the May concert are available via this link.)

The piece is scheduled to be played again by the PJR7 at the Sunside in three separate concerts this season beginning on 13 November, each concert focusing on one of the three suites. Full details are available at the club’s website as well as our own Concert Climat website.

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Jazz pianist/trombonist and composer Joseph Makholm has been active in Paris since 1982.  He currently teaches composition at the Bill Evans Piano Academy. Much of Makholm’s music draws on the rhythmic and harmonic character of modern jazz.  His “Three Impressions for Solo Piano” is listed on the syllabus of the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music in the United Kingdom. In the spring of 2013 “Five In One (Monk’s Moods),” a symphonic portrait of Thelonious Monk was premiered by the Turning Point Ensemble in Vancouver, Canada. He performs regularly in small groups and with the Paris Jazz Repertory Quintet.

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