Christopher Stark is associate professor of composition in the Department of Music.
Fire Ecologies began in the late summer of 2020 when I packed up my car and spent a month traveling in central California, Oregon and Montana, documenting the catastrophic wildfires that were ravaging the American West that year. Nature has always been a central theme in my work because I grew up in western Montana in a very small town at the base of the Rocky Mountains and on the southern shore of a large glacial lake. But in recent years the inspiration I take from nature has become more complicated as climate change has begun to haunt our planet.
In the Mountain West — a rapidly warming region — the landscape and air quality have dramatically changed in the past 10 years. The summertime, which used to be a serene and welcome respite from the long winters, is now an eerie, uncomfortable and dangerous season marked by smoke-filled skies, news of evacuations and ash falling like snow. This new reality has deeply affected me as a person and as an artist. It is important to express that in my work, both by being present to the disasters of climate change through video and audio documentation, and by creating music that makes commentary on it and tries to communicate the emotional complexities of this fraught moment in history.
The result of this new approach is an hour-long live music and video experience commissioned by Chamber Music America for the New York-based group Unheard-of Ensemble. I began collaborating with this ensemble in 2017 because they specialize in an area that overlaps with my own research: the combination of acoustic instrumental performance, electronic audio production and video.
For the video component of this project, the ensemble and I commissioned St. Louis-based video artist Zlatko Ćosić to create accompanying visuals to further enhance the concept of the work. Zlatko and I shared many long walks during the pandemic where we discussed the inspiration behind the work and how we might be able to best realize our concepts. We settled on a kind of art-making that is based in deep observation of the natural world. We collected hours of field recordings from around the United States, using them as a through line around which we built seven scenes. The scenes evoke many contrasting moods, and they take their titles from pre-existing, nature-inspired music in an attempt to recontextualize these old pieces through the contemporary lens of global warming. For example, the second scene is called Jeux d’eau (Playing Water) after Maurice Ravel, and the fifth scene is called “Dypt inne i barskogen” (“Deep in the Forest”) after Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt.
The work has now been performed several times around the United States, and most recently, and perhaps most notably, at two EPA Superfund sites in New York City in an attempt to move the conversation outside the confines of the concert hall and into nature, ultimately drawing more attention to the places that need our immediate efforts to preserve.
Headline image: The charred remains of the El Dorado Fire near Los Angeles. The fire burned 22,744 acres in September to November 2020. Photo by Christopher Stark.