Sub mari: the music project that grew out of an avocado

Ahead of COP26, a multimedia performance devised by the Red Note Ensemble will bring together artists from Scotland and Chile to send an urgent message about climate change. David Kettle reports

The Red Note Ensemble PIC: Julie Howden
The Red Note Ensemble PIC: Julie Howden

“It started with a conversation about avocados. I was shopping with my friend Manuel and I picked one up, but he said, ‘Don’t get it if it’s from Chile.’ So I asked why.”

Despite their apocryphal popularity with millennials, avocados might seem like an unlikely starting point for a musical project. But for composer Martina Corsini, Red Note Ensemble’s Creative Music Maker, they provided early inspiration for Sub mari, a new multimedia work she’s created alongside the friend she mentions, Chilean composer and conductor Manuel Figueroa-Bolvarán.

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Written for Red Note, Sub mari brings together music, film and performers in both Chile and Scotland, and gets its premiere in Perth on 4 November, with future performances planned for Glasgow and Fife, all coinciding with the COP26 climate summit. For what Corsini and Figueroa-Bolvarán had focused on were the fruit’s ties with our current climate crisis:

“Manuel explained how avocados in Chile are linked with the scarcity of water in the country,” says Corsini, “how it takes a lot of water to produce them, and they’re then exported anyway.”

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Perhaps inevitably, Corsini and Figueroa-Bolvarán soon broadened their focus to the bigger issue behind avocado production: water. And, specifically, its scarcity in Chile, and its contrasting abundance in Scotland. And it’s with an issue like water, Corsini feels, that the greater urgency of climate problems in a country like Chile becomes powerfully apparent.

“Here in the West we don’t really get to see what’s happening, but extreme events have already started to hit hard in other parts of the world,” she explains. “Those populations know what it means for them, and they often don’t have a voice. So, for example, we’re including a poem in Mapudungan, which is the language of the indigenous Mapuche people of Chile: populations like this are in danger already.”

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The work’s multimedia format – melding together Red Note’s musicians live in Scotland and singers and instrumentalists recorded in Chile, alongside a specially produced documentary film and a choir of young singers from Scotland – is all part of getting its climate message across, says Corsini.

“Often in a new piece of music, you don’t necessarily want to be too direct in what you’re saying. But here we wanted the message to be as clear as possible, and we felt that using as many different tools as we could would help deliver that.”

Sub mari is just one of several classical projects taking place across Scotland to coincide with COP26. Elsewhere, on 31 October the Scottish Chamber Orchestra unveils an online performance of Symbiosis, a new ecologically themed work for strings by composer Greg Lawson that aims to make a musical case for urgent action. Violinist Patricia Kopatchinskaja, something of a force of nature herself, takes a far darker perspective on the issue when she joins the Royal Scottish National Orchestra on 10 November for Dies irae, a lament for a threatened world complete with musical images of the Last Judgement by Crumb and Ustvolskaya.

Nobody can deny that the climate emergency is the central issue of our times, and one that will impact on the very future of life on our planet. But what can classical musicians contribute? Is it a case of raising awareness, spurring action, even screaming in impotent fury at the losses we’re set to experience? In devising an entirely new work, these questions become all the more immediate, and they’re issues that Sub mari’s creators grappled with, as Corsini explains. “Our initial idea was to give people hope at the end of the piece. But we realised that if we implied everything was going to be fine, we’re not delivering the message that we need to do something about this. So we have almost a double ending, and one that – to be honest – might make people feel rather uncomfortable. We do end with hope, but we also want to convey that, if we want that hope, we need to do something.”

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The Red Note Ensemble performs Sub mari at Perth Concert Hall on 4 November, www.rednoteensemble.com

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