Fred Mikardo-Greaves on music, sound and the threat of extinction in a new work by composer and sound designer Xavier Velastin.
As you’ll be aware if you’ve spent any time with a newspaper/on a news website/not under a rock in the past few years, we have an ecological crisis on our hands. An environmental clusterfuck of truly terrifying magnitude is but a few short years away and the chances of us being able to do anything about it are … let’s go with ‘slim’.
However, a lot of people are trying their best to raise their voices and speak truth to power around the planet’s future. Extinction Rebellion and the international student climate protests have forced the issue to the frontline of global politics – something evidenced by substantial gains for green parties across Europe in the recent EU elections. The ‘Green New Deal’, a stimulus package designed to tackle climate change and economic problems in the U.S.A., has been one of the hot topics of Congress in 2019. There is, it seems, a growing consensus that humanity needs to fundamentally rework its relationship with the natural world.
As is always the case when issues of the day reach crisis-proportions, artists have started to respond to the situation in their work. Creatives making ecologically-engaged pieces is nothing new of course, and the sound artist XVelastín certainly isn’t the first practitioner to come up with a show based around the ocean blue. Nor is Me & My Whale – the show Velastín has created alongside Manchester-based practitioner Hannah Mook – alone in freeing whalesong from its purgatory of meditation soundtracks. Musician Jayda G used recordings of orcas prominently on her excellent recent LP Significant Changes (Jayda G, it is worth noting here, has a masters in Resource and Environmental Management specialising in environmental toxicology).
However, where Me & My Whale breaks new ground is the dialogue it creates with natural materials. Rather than approaching matters of ecological import from a human-centric perspective Velastín lets nature take the lead. Bowls of water are miced-up and sung into; contact microphones are stuck to all manner of surfaces, the fresh sounds then manipulated in real time; even the air around the stage becomes an instrument – rattling sub-bass or celestial harmonies appear from nowhere when Velastín or Mook walk into different areas.
The high seas, as you will have found out from your time with the newspaper/website/away from the rock, are dreadfully polluted. The dangerous plastic content of our waters is now common knowledge, but something that’s less widely-known is the detrimental effect sound pollution can have on the oceans. Noises caused by human activity – everything from sonar and underwater drilling to beachside music festivals – have become increasingly disruptive to marine life, confusing animals and interfering with their day-to-day life.
Me & My Whale has a loose narrative – a submarine captain stumbles across a whale’s call while wandering the ocean in the wake of a man-made ecological disaster. Within this context Velastín’s sound-experiments take on even greater ecological pertinence. In this light, something like a sudden burst of alien sound can be seen as Velastín putting the audience in the position of an animal whose welfare is being risked by human excess. The effects of our actions come back to unsettle us, and how one uses, cares for and gives back to nature suddenly becomes a question that we have to tackle from the same position as the animals.
Me & My Whale will be performed on 22nd June at The Vaults, Waterloo, London. Tickets are available for purchase here.