Here in the 21st Century, well into the Anthropocene, there is probably no greater existential crisis than the rapid degradation of the Earth’s ecosystems and biodiversity due to human causes. For millennia, living as small bands of hunter gatherers, our hominid species had a relatively minor impact across the Earth. Our ancestors lived precariously, but in an ecological balance with the natural world. We learned to thrive through agriculture, industry, and technology, but the consequences of our dominion over nature grew devastating. The ecosystems on which complex lifeforms on Earth depend, including us, are on the verge of collapse. Gaia, the Earth’s web of life, is rapidly unraveling.
Despite this stark context that is the reality of our time, the musical, poetic, and sonic journeys of When Gaia Falls are not intended to invoke despair, but to instead provide a hopeful exhortation for positive social change. There is no better time to save the future than the present…this is the central message of the work. It is a call for action manifested through musical, literary, and sonic eclecticism, as a medium of universality.
Within this cycle of music, poetry, and sound, there is a trio of narrative subtexts that emerge. Firstly, by simplifying our needs and desires, we may return to a time when we lived in harmony with Gaia. Secondly, when we persist with life choices that are not ecologically sustainable, we are accomplices in Gaia’s undoing. Thirdly, without making changes to become ecologically sustainable, organic life and diverse ecosystems on Earth will decline and perish. The first two subtexts are articulated by the speaker (performed here by Bob González, Associate Professor Emeritus of Theatre at The University of Tampa), who conveys our human experience with nature. The sung vocal parts in the work portray the third subtext about an apocalyptic future. They are composed and performed from the perspective of future A.I. protagonists existing in a post-apocalyptic world, who figuratively reach back across time to implore human beings in the Anthropocene to save the natural world while they still can. The operatic tenor soloist — performed here by guest artist Cody Austin — represents a noble version of humanity, who at first laments the destruction of Gaia, but then heroically rises to save it through conservation.
Most of the field recordings in the work were recorded at Myakka River State Park in Sarasota FL in August 2022. The park, with its lake, marshes, meadows, and woodlands, stands out as a jewel for wildlife soundscapes on Florida’s Gulf Coast. A particular highlight of these sessions is featured in the track Call and Response, where a poetic interspecies dialogue between a raven and an army of frogs took place. The recordings were made with an Ambisonic microphone and mixed down to a binaural stereo format to preserve a sense of immersion in a wild landscape for the listener, when listening on headphones. Similarly, the music on the album was mixed in binaural stereo to simulate the experience of being within a musical landscape, when listening on headphones, or a greater sense of clarity when listening on speakers.
A recurring musical structure throughout the cycle of pieces is a prolonged build-up of volume and dissonance, followed by a precipitous drop, and or a period of entropic decay. This structure is meant to be symbolic of humanity’s growing environmental impact, and the dramatic collapse and or decline of ecosystems that will result if humanity is unable to choose a sustainable path.
In Gaia’s Twilight and Broken Records were both written for the Ben Rosenblum Trio and were recorded during their Southeast United States tours in 2022, while they were visiting The University of Tampa. In Gaia’s Twilight is a contemplative nocturne for an analog jazz trio, while Broken Records is an up-tempo metaphor for the normalization of apathy in response to ever more shocking statistics about environmental degradation in the news, in an ever more digital world.
Spread throughout the album is a cycle of ecopoems by Bradford Blackburn. The Last of the Survivors is a meditation on the plight of whales, and by extension, the aquatic life on Earth that humanity does not yet fully understand or appreciate. The Woodlands Are Quieter reflects how our developing world sacrifices wildlife habitat for ceaseless growth and convenience. Outraged in Silence is a piece, expressed through angst, that questions complacency and hesitation, presenting them as obstacles that must be overcome for positive change to occur. No Bugs is an ironic litany, portraying the paradox of ridding the world of insects for being a nuisance, while considering their necessity and value. Before the Fall is ambiguously narrated from the perspective of either a human at the end of civilization, or a future A.I. recalling an organic world it never knew, except through the data of its memory.
Several electroacoustic pieces appear on the album as abstractions of the narrative ideas presented in the ecopoetry. Canticum Avium (Song of the Wilderness) features a field recording of a mockingbird, coupled with an 8-channel additive synthesis piece created with Max, that responds to it antiphonally. Vox Insecta begins with a field recording of cicadas, and then morphs into an electroacoustic, densely microtonal composition reflecting the polyphony of insect swarms. Trance-Figuration is an electroacoustic work performed on bassoon and processed through a vocoder. The piece includes march-like sections reflecting the hypnotic momentum of development that is propelling us toward environmental catastrophe and chaos, leaving behind a transfigured world. Additionally, the progressive rock piece Eleventh Hour is a musical metaphor for the urgency of acting now, made palpable through its tolling conclusion.
The choral pieces on the album all utilize the same exhortative texts, but with very different musical settings. The texts are sung in Latin as a metaphor for the universality of the messages they convey. Lament for the Earth is a funeral dirge, written for male vocal quartet and tenor soloist, accompanied by a drone-like electronic accompaniment symbolizing entropy. Hymn to the Earth is a gamelan inspired composition for a contemporary music, improvisation ensemble with soprano and alto voice soloists. Message from the Future is the dramatic conclusion of the cycle and portrays a call from a future A.I. to present day humanity, to remind us of the future we are heading toward, before we create it.
Funding for this album was provided by a Research Innovation and Scholarly Excellence Award from The University of Tampa.
— Bradford Blackburn