Critical Essay by E.C. Woodley

If Nature then, by her solidarity with Man, attains in Man her consciousness, and if Man’s life is the very activation of this consciousness—as it were, the portraiture in brief of Nature,—so does man’s Life itself gain understanding by means of Science, which makes this human life in turn an object of experience. But the activation of the consciousness attained by Science, the portrayal of the Life that it has learnt to know, the impress of this life’s Necessity and Truth, is—Art.

Richard Wagner, The Artwork of the Future


“The beautiful is that which we desire without wishing to devour it. We desire that it should be.”  Simone Weil



It has always been difficult for humans to understand, on a grand scale, what it is they are really doing. The present is not much understood. For example, I’m writing this on a laptop whose agency I don’t fully understand. Beside it is a glass filled with water. I don’t know how the glass was made or exactly how it is that the water arrives at my tap.

The fictional characters whose exploits I follow before sleeping know little more about the world in which they inhabit. Driving from Lausanne to his uncle Edelweiss’s chalet a thousand meters higher in the mountains, Nabokov’s Martin sits in the front seat of a motorcar ahead of his uncle and his mother, Sophia. The two wear “large motoring googles” and hold “their hands in their laps clasped the same way”. Do they know any more about their early 1920’s motorcar than we do about our own, fabulously more numerous models? And what about the delicate ecology of the mountain that the chalet sits upon? Perhaps it is not necessary to understand a mountain but only to behave respectfully towards it.

A few summers ago, walking with my girlfriend on a marvellous, impeccably cloudless afternoon in Toronto’s High Park, I strayed onto the edge of a grassy mound. The mound seemed to be a modest moment of landscaping, oddly placed, not up to the bucolic invention of good nineteenth century parks design. At the top we found a man, kneeling before a patchy crown of bare earth. When I asked him what he was doing, he explained that this was a native burial mound and that he was attempting to prevent the issuing forth of bones from the earth. There were, in fact, fragments of bone at the small dusty opening in the grass, forced to the surface by the traffic of unsuspecting park visitors. This section of anodyne parkland was really more like the bluntly prodded belly of a body, alive and troubled, rejecting the dead.

In Canada we seem to know even less about the past, that geologic form underlying our present, than we know about our laptops and cars. It causes us to stumble (deaf to those who might be telling us something about it) across the bones of native dead on our leisure walks in parks and resorts. As the poet, George Faludy, once put it: “Here everyone walks like Adam in Eden”. Public parks are at least, one imagines, planned without malicious intent. But when it comes an enterprise like the proposed Jumbo Glacier Resort, a $900-million, 6500-bed resort on the Farnham Glacier, part of Qat’muk, the Ktunaxa people’s traditional sacred territory, one can’t help but add greed to the usual mix of ignorance and lack of respect. The resort would likely speed the melting of the glacier while it disrupts the region’s grizzly bear habitat. It is a matter of selling sacred native land and initiating the loss of over 6000 hectares of public land in an environmentally sensitive mountain area. To paraphrase the Brazilian artist and writer, Nuno Ramos, the last (and ongoing) privatization is that of the infinite.

With Requiem for a Glacier, Paul Walde has organized an elaborate and beautiful protest. Perhaps it is a plea to allow the glacier its infinite mystery. At the same time, certain cultural adornments have lent themselves to the structure of Requiem’s music: the glacier’s English name, JUMBO, decades of annual temperature readings from the area and the chemical name for carbon dioxide, the gas associated with climate change. The central act in the multiform work is a requiem written by Walde and performed on the site of the glacier by a citizen orchestra and choir. Mostly amateur musicians, unpaid, as befits a protest, and assembled via newspaper ads and word of mouth, the performer-protesters range in age from a boy of 12 to an 84 year old woman. Over the course of the year in which he prepared the project locally, Walde found that the small towns in the region of glacier possessed a natural crossover between their activist and music communities, and between amateur and professional musicians. “Music” he says, “is integrated into their lives rather than deferring to professionals.”

When Walde jokes that the ensemble’s “struggle to play the music was almost indicative of the struggle to get up the glacier” it is difficult not to think of Requiem for a Glacier as an antidote to the hyper-specialist athletics demanded by Wagner’s Gesamptkunstwerk. Wagner’s ‘total work of art’, his ‘art work of the future’ was also conceived as a protest, although of what, one is not entirely sure. The performance of Requiem for a Glacier is an impassioned and humble offering up of something humane and sane. It is perhaps another type of Gesamptkunstwerk for the future, performed for no audience but the infinite itself and underwritten by a genuinely thoughtful local and global politics. Perhaps the artwork of the future will insist, as Walde’s Requiem insists, that an artwork’s conceptual basis be inseparable from its emotional component.

Walde’s work is beautiful rather than picturesque. It takes a central element, or “sign” as Walde puts it, of western culture, the requiem performed by orchestra and chorus, and asks this element to mourn both for itself and for something greater than itself. It puts forth a mindful desire for the continuity of both nature and culture. Walde’s critique has always insisted on the inseparable relationship between nature and that human phenomenon known as art. (This was, of course, even if far less self reflexively so, also one of Wagner’s obsessions.) Note the lovely pedal note of running water throughout Requiem. This is reminiscent of Walde’s ‘nature making culture’ pieces such as Indeterminacy (for John Cage), Composition for Solo Piano No. 2, and his collaboration with composer Tina Pearson, Music for Natural History.

Walde’s libretto, a Latin translation of the British Columbia government’s press release announcing its decision to allow the construction of the resort, might be thought of as kind of sophisticated punk gesture. A paragraph of the release reads:

The resort could be North America’s only year-round, glacier-based ski resort. The resort will be in the Purcell Mountains, 57 km west of Invermere, on the site of an old sawmill. The completed ski resort will feature up to 23 lifts, a 3,000 metre-high gondola and spectacular world-class views.

The Latin version of this paragraph occupies a similar place in Walde’s libretto as the following traditional text of the requiem mass:

Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord :
And let perpetual light shine upon them.
He shall be justified in everlasting memory,
And shall not fear of evil reports.

As an earthly demonstration of mourning for the dead, a requiem has always been a form of protest. It runs counter to death as it marks it. At the very least, it is an act of resistance against suffering and oblivion. Requiem for a Glacier insists on the necessity of conceiving of a future disfigured by our recent past and present. It proposes that the imagination is essential to exercise if we have any chance of saving ourselves.

~ E.C. Woodley

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