Climate change emergency inspires Inside-Out performance at Sage Gateshead

Tamzin Mackie talks to North-East-born musician and composer, Sarah Nicolls ahead of a tour-opening gig which is shining out from the Gateshead Jazz 2020 programme.

Experimental pianist Sarah Nicolls who will perform 12 Years at Sage Gateshead as part of Gateshead Jazz 2020

Experimental pianist Sarah Nicolls in her studio in Brighton

Powerful new recital-story 12 Years, written and performed by Newcastle-born Sarah Nicolls, opens at The Sage Gateshead on March 21, before touring nationwide. The innovative composition is inspired by climate change: activist Greta Thunberg, wild fires, melting ice and how people respond to news.

In 12 Years, Sarah will combine music played on her vertical Inside-Out piano with recorded speech, tracing the emotional journey of two sisters and exploring their perceptions of global warming through fact and fiction.

For this homecoming concert, which is part of Gateshead Jazz 2020, Sarah, who now lives in Brighton, will be joined by Professor Hayley J. Fowler from Newcastle University’s School of Engineering. Sarah and Hayley will invite the audience to share their thoughts about climate change after the show.

Sarah Nicolls will perform 12 Years at Sage Gateshead as part of Gateshead Jazz 2020

Sarah Nicolls will perform 12 Years at Sage Gateshead

Tell us about the inspiration behind 12 Years.
12 Years was written in 2018 following the IPCC special report about the impact of 1.5°c global warming on the planet. Climate scientists projected that annual emissions needed to be halved by 2030 stay within this level. In the same year Greta Thunberg initiated her school strike in Sweden and subsequently publicised her call to action as a TED talk.

What effect did scientific warnings about global warming have on you?
Giving the human race 12 years to halve emissions seemed like a pretty stark deadline, and I felt compelled to bring this information into my work. I felt an urgent response to the IPCC report and as a pianist this resulted in writing a new recital. I wanted to put the piano and the environment together to see what would happen.

Can you explain the narrative of 12 Years?
This show is a journey for both the audience and my fictional characters. It begins with the deadline – what does 12 (now 10) years feel like? I weave news headlines about environmental changes into a story about Lara, an Extinction Rebellion activist and her much less political sister Fran.

We listen into their phone conversations and their different responses to climate change. As the story unfolds, we go on the journey with Fran as her perceptions towards global warming begin to alter. I wanted to discuss environmental themes in a recital without being preachy.

How is 12 Years structured?
There are 12 tracks in the piece, which reflect the idea of a countdown to 2030. Each track has a different theme, and these include the Camp Fire, which blazed across California in 2018, destroying the town of Paradise. We hear the voices of survivors from this fire, which killed 85 people. One track focuses on the sound of a melting glacier and the penultimate track features Greta Thunberg.

I was interested in how her voice and the urgency of her speech has changed since her first TED talk. Finally we’re urged to consider how we feel, striving for hope and action. My intention is to bring climate change into an emotional space.

Sarah's inside out piano

Sarah’s inside out piano

Describe your Inside-Out piano.
It is like a grand piano tipped up, so the strings are vertical. I play the strings, strum and pluck them like a guitar or harp. I also hit the strings percussively, using a glass ball to make amazing sliding sounds or a rubber ball to get the sound of a whale underwater.

I’m always thinking in pictures and 12 Years is a multi-sensory experience: I considered how to make sounds so that you would feel like you’re near a wildfire or a glacier. Fortunately, the piano is so expressive and resonant that it can do all of these things!

‘Sounds of hope’ emerge towards the end of the performance. How hopeful are you that the global climate crisis can be averted?
I feel that it is my job as a parent of two children to be hopeful and I believe in our capacity to be empathetic and caring. If people understand what scientists are telling us, and what our options are, along with what trajectories look like, then we can change our impact on the earth.

I believe that what is good for the planet is good for us: walking or cycling more, sharing more, being community-minded, thinking local in terms of food production. I do think a fairer society is possible and necessary.

Tell us about your Future Piano.
This is an amazing lightweight piano that will be built this year. It will be the same shape as the ‘Inside-Out Piano’ but an entirely new piano constructed from lightweight materials with the help of extraordinary engineering.

It will still be able to be played as a normal piano and give the sound of a grand piano, but in the space of an upright piano. What is revolutionary about Future Piano is that it will weigh less than 100kg and it will be possible to split it in half and easily reassemble it. I will be able to carry it upstairs with a friend!

It will make touring so much easier but also means the amount of venues where live piano can be played suddenly opens up.

It also means people can choose to move a piano to different rooms in their home. My fantasy is that I will be able to put it in the guard’s van of a train someday: so touring has a much lower carbon footprint. I see my role as trying to make the piano less cumbersome and less historic. To keep this amazing instrument alive and acoustic – with strings – is my dream.

12 Years as part of Gateshead Jazz 2020 is at The Sage Gateshead on March 21 at 5pm. Tickets are available here.

Tamzin Mackie

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