Nora York performing “It Rained for One Thousand Years” at Joe’s Pub in New York, November 10, 2013. Part of the song cycle Water Water Everywhere, composed by Jamie Lawrence and Nora York.
HAMILTON FISH: Nora, for the Marfa Dialogues program this past fall, you composed (together with Jamie Lawrence) Water Water Everywhere, an original piece about water and climate change that you performed for a live audience. What struck me about that whole process was that it had such evident relevance and meaning for you, and I’ve wanted to ask you why that was true.
NORA YORK: I think, first of all, because while I’ve been making socially engaged art for the last 20 years of my career, this piece is my first work about nature and our place within it.
HF: What form has your past work taken? What themes did you channel?
NY: I’ve been writing a variety of song cycles that aim to connect the personal with the broader social landscape. Soon after 9/11 I began a song cycle titled Power/Play that explored our rush to war. Then, as the financial crises hit, it became clear to me that the piece had to evolve to reflect shifts in the nature of labor and class that had become central to the American narrative. I wanted to explore the confusions that abound in our shared relationship to power, work, vulnerability and liberty.
HF: Do these impulses to incorporate social or political subject matter in your work come from your own curiosity as a citizen or have you been a part of more established social movements or artistic traditions?
NY: I have always been around artists whose work is considered social. My husband is the painter Jerry Kearns, who was a member of Political Art Documentation and Distribution (PAD/D) and participated in the Artists’ Call Against Intervention in Central America. Through him I met and collaborated with Nancy Spero on a piece for the first season of the virtual Franklin Furnace. But I think it’s more my own concern as a citizen that drives my political engagement. That said, I know that my audience appreciates what I do, but I am not so sure how much effect it has on the larger issues, other than maybe just adding momentum. I find music historically—and presently—inspirational. I mean, that’s what it does—
HF: Everything matters.
NY: Everything matters.
Nora York performing “Water Water Everywhere” at Joe’s Pub in New York, November 10, 2013. Part of the song cycle Water Water Everywhere, composed by Jamie Lawrence and Nora York.
HF: You and I are, in a sense, mirror images of citizens working from the same premise. We both wanted to find avenues to communicate social and political values outside of a stagnant public discourse, and in different ways we each found out what others have known for a long time, that through art you can engage the public on an emotional and visceral level and broaden the values conversation at the same time.
NY: One thing that music can do, and that my music has done, is to give people a place to put their emotional and if you will spiritual intentions, so that they feel buoyed up.
HF: You’ve mentioned that part of your preparation and your creative process was to have conversations with climate scientists.
NY: Yes. I began with research and conversation and by connecting to my own memories of water and place. This helped me develop a profound personal connection to the scientific material, which was very interesting to me. My song cycle became about memories of my mother and her hometown along Ontario’s Georgian Bay, where the shale beaches are filled with the fossils of prehistoric creatures that died in a mass extinction millions of years ago. This distant event captured my imagination when I was younger, and as we presently face another wave of extinctions, it began to figure in this piece. Many climate scientists study the past in order to predict the future, by taking core samples of the earth. Those core samples seem to me like memory.
HF: You developed knowledge and expertise in new areas. Yet so much of that would be reflected in language and words—
NY: What I tried to do is tap where the words sent me emotionally and to find the music by listening to that emotional state. I took initial inspiration from melodic and harmonic themes in Handel’s Water Music, but then at a certain point I just started writing ideas, and then I would send them to my co-composer, Jamie Lawrence, and say to him, let’s leave the Handel and simply respond to my text. So it became like a series of responses, and that’s when we started to write these more personal things.
HF: How would you describe what happens when you have an idea that is expressed largely in words? How does that morph? Or if that’s the wrong term, how does it then—
NY: Turn into music.
HF: Yes. What is it about your process or your intent that’s different from the way a journalist develops a story?
NY: I did all this scientific research and reading and then I had to write a song! I was stuck, so I read the Coleridge poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, when suddenly I remembered that I had had this cab ride with this Tibetan guy who started talking to me about water and privatization, and then it sort of flowed—I had this motion and this melody. I had a song.
Nora York performing “Tiny Blue Green Creature” at Joe’s Pub in New York, November 10, 2013. Part of the song cycle Water Water Everywhere, composed by Jamie Lawrence and Nora York.
The next one came from reading an Elizabeth Kolbert piece about these little creatures that don’t exist anymore. There was this beautiful, very melancholic section of the Handel, and I thought, tiny blue-green creature, your world is a flower, your life span an hour and now where are you? It was based in the Handel, but it came out like a little folk song. I then have the problem with rhyming and finding some way of expressing the pith of this. Between the mighty rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates, a 1000-year-old city vanished in a day—and it didn’t, it took about three years, but you know, poetic license. To quote my husband, “Art is not something we look at; art is a place we look from.” A song is different from an article; the facts can be stretched.
HF: We struggle a little with the issue of expertise. Obviously we need expertise and scholarship and knowledge. But in our public conversation expertise can become an unwitting impediment and people often have a hard time finding their way in.
NY: Try having a conversation with the paleoclimatologist Dr. Howard Spero, who’s at UC Davis studying foraminifera, and translating it into a song that you can tap your foot to! Fun stuff.
Often with the arts, it’s like you’re slightly ahead of the game and you sort of telegraph what is about to happen. So hopefully, onward ho.
Musicians: Nora York, vocals; Jamie Lawrence, piano; Charles McCracken, bassoon; Diane Lesser, oboe; Steve Tarshis, guitar; Dave Hofstra, bass; Peter Grant, drums.
Visual Artists: Jerry Kearns, Kate Teale, Ann Messner, Christy Rupp, Kiki Smith, Amanda Tiller.
Climate Reports is made possible by the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation. This series is produced in conjunction with the 2013 Marfa Dialogues/NY organized by Ballroom Marfa, the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation and the Public Concern Foundation.