pieces use ‘inside’ techniques, often layered on my computer to create a kind of ‘backing track’ on which I can build. There are rhythmic ideas (like a timpani beater knocking on the metal struts of the piano frame) and harmonic ‘clouds’ (produced by strumming chords on the strings while silently holding down the keys), plus what I call literal or organic movements. The movement called ‘Wildfire’ begins with me hitting the bass strings in a fast, punchy rhythm that builds and builds; added to this are high, screaming sounds made with a plectrum on the ‘dead’ end of the strings (the bit running up to the hitch pins), or a glass ball used to create slides or percussive, resonant ‘hits’. ‘Greenland Ice Melting’ uses nuts and bolts (a technique pioneered by John Cage in the ’60s) and magnets on the highest strings to create an ice cave atmosphere, with plucking and a sliding piece of slate to add texture and suggest ice breaking. The huge resonance of the piano lends itself perfectly to these experiments and discoveries – it all felt very natural in the making. People have commented that the result is like a live film score which powerfully transports us to other worlds. The characters in the piece have evolved over time. Everyone is now more aware of climate change – including me – so instead of being blissfully ignorant of the challenges, they might have moved on to talking about offsetting, or buying eco brands. It’s a tussle between radical change and being able to carry on as normal.
I feel that it is my job as a parent to be hopeful. There is no way I can give up, or avoid making radical changes myself. I believe in our capacity to be empathetic and caring, so if people understand our options and potential trajectories, we can achieve a revolution in our impact without forfeiting the benefits. I believe that what is good for the planet is good for us: walking or cycling more, sharing more, being communityminded, thinking local in terms of food production. So many people work too hard, running to stand still and barely seeing their children. I do think a fairer society is possible and necessary, so I try to do my bit to go towards that.
12 Years ends with a track called ‘I find it hard to be hopeful but…’. It came to me one day when I was feeling very down about climate change, though I knew I needed to carry on working. The piece begins with stuttering and searching, then gradually finds its way to something positive and affirmative. When I play the very end in the concert hall, I feel as if I’m projecting hope and action out into the room, into the audience. IP
Sarah Nicolls will tour 12 Years to 12 venues across the UK between 21 March and 24 October 2020. sarahnicolls.com/the-musical-activist
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