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Strong sound on thin ice

Tanja Tetzlaff actively promotes climate action projects. Here she is playing music for the Aletsch Glacier in Switzerland as part of her ‘Suites for a suffering world’ film project.
Photo: Stephan Aubé

From the very beginning, WALA has gone its own way by emphasising nature, creativity and innovation. The desire to play a part in saving the planet motivates you as much as it does us. What drove you to actively engage with current issues, and climate action projects in particular?

Tanja Tetzlaff:

I was determined to do my bit as a musician. When the overall picture continues to get out of balance, when existing conflicts surrounding water and resources intensify, when wars and diminishing democracy threaten our livelihoods, it is always a catastrophe for cultural events.

Instead of simply creating beautiful music, I want to combine it with the real burning issues. For example, I have often played pieces from modern composers who aim to wake people up and hold a mirror up to contemporary events that may not always be comfortable, beautiful or sophisticated.

In your opinion, what do music – classical music – and nature have in common?

Tanja Tetzlaff:

Music is, in essence, nature. The physical vibrations that make our music what it is are a natural phenomenon. When I’m outside listening to birds, the wind, a stream or the buzz of insects, that is also music. Playing music outdoors is a wonderful experience. Any ambition, perfectionism or fear fades away, and you become fully focused on listening and trying to become one with the surrounding environment.

Being rooted in nature, vulnerable and intimate, classical music in particular has the potential to touch people, to galvanise and urge caution, such as when trying to promote increased awareness and care in our treatment of nature and others.

When I was working on my film project, ‘Suites for a suffering world’, I had an idea: I want to play outside for nature and in doing so ask for its forgiveness, given that I, as a travelling musician, have a hand in its destruction. Now is the time to be humble in order to take stock of where we currently stand. And it is time to make collective efforts, as we can, in fact, still change a lot of things. So many of us are gradually waking up and realising that we have a problem.

For decades, cellist Tanja Tetzlaff has ranked among the most influential musicians of her generation – both as a soloist and a chamber musician.
Photo: Georgia Bertazzi

At WALA, we also believe that people in general, and our global client base in particular, are becoming increasingly empowered. The company’s overall focus, both when handling resources and as a foundation, is on culture. Can culture get through to people in these challenging times or have an impact on our future?

Tanja Tetzlaff:

Scientists I collaborate with in the context of climate concerts (see below) ask me to work with them for this reason. They say that we can only succeed in reaching people via culture, via art, as here there are emotions in play – facts and figures alone do not work. And it is only when we experience something at this emotional proximity that we feel affected by it and can start to shift our behaviour in terms of our travel patterns, consumption habits and lifestyle.

In your film project, you make a musical statement by playing Bach’s Cello Suites in places where nature is noticeably suffering – how did you bring this plan to fruition? Where did you and your team find resonance in the process?

Tanja Tetzlaff:

When applying for the Glenn Gould Bach Fellowship awarded by the city of Weimar, I needed to bring together old music and new mediums. The fellowship allowed me, together with my excellent team from Apollofilm SARL, to implement my idea of relating Bach’s Cello Suites to nature and the effects of climate change.

Although we initially considered filming locations in places ranging from the Arctic to the rainforest, we quite quickly discarded these ideas, as it is in no way sustainable to travel to another continent for a Bach movement. But we also did so because we don’t need to travel far any more to see the effects of climate change; it is also taking place here in Germany. In the Ahr valley, it’s impact is dramatic, while in the Harz Mountains, where mild winters, drought and bark beetles have led to the death of almost the entire forest, the toll it has taken is unmistakeable. At this rate, we will soon have problems growing food here in Germany.

I have conducted many interviews with local affected people in order to bridge the gap between the experience of music performed amid nature and real life. Their accounts demonstrate that the effects of climate change are already tangible in Germany. For each composition, we selected a place that felt fitting in terms of its character and acoustics. For example, I played a lively courante to the sound of the water flowing at a small glacial stream, while a dried-up river bed offered acoustics similar to those in a concert hall. It was eerie to sit on the crumbling Atlantic coastline and watch the tide rise rapidly in the space of an afternoon.

The acoustics were also completely diminished in a burnt forest in France – nothing living was left. There I played a very sad piece, the saraband from the Suite in C minor, and afterwards I couldn’t help but cry. The whole team felt numb after that because it was incredibly emotional. The highlight was our trip to the Swiss glaciers. The beauty of the mountains is shifting rapidly and significantly. We performed research there in 2021 before filming in the same place a year later. When we returned, white ice had been replaced with grey residues, the lake was larger, and the edges of the glacier had moved markedly upwards. This is a horrific development that spells the loss of these glaciers – for the region and the water supply of the entire planet.

In the film, two modern pieces from Thorsten Enkhe provide a contrast to Bach’s classical Cello Suites.

Tanja Tetzlaff:

We included the two modern ‘Black Ice’ compositions in the film to pull the audience away from the stunning natural soundscapes – and to get across the danger posed by continuing to tread on the thinnest of ice. Both pieces are unsettling. They were filmed not amid nature, but in a completely black studio with reduced lighting effects. This is intended to make the film multi-layered and dramatic, so that people do not sit back and relax in the way that is still sometimes associated with the enjoyment of classical music.

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The complexity of dealing with these burning issues can be daunting and very demanding. Dr. Rudolph Hauschka, founder of WALA, coined the still-relevant phrase, ‘Have trust in all your actions.’ Where do you find the trust, courage and enthusiasm needed to explore these debates?

Tanja Tetzlaff:

Despite the sense of grief about what has already been lost, we need to be aware of what we still have. It might sometimes be suggested to us that we are completely powerless, even if we try to take sustainable, environmentally friendly actions, what with the large picture being so horrible and overwhelming. The mindset that ‘the world will be destroyed anyway, and all we can do is watch’ is very dangerous and must not take over. We can influence and have a say in lots of things, maybe even far more than we think. We have to keep that in mind.

You once said: ‘Especially in times of crisis, we humans need energising art so that we can transcend our own limits in difficult times.’ – do you therefore believe that art and culture are an effective tool?!

Tanja Tetzlaff:

That is why I now often team up with the ‘Orchestras of Change’ (‘Orchester des Wandels’), an initiative developed by German symphony orchestras that have joined forces to collaborate on climate projects in an attempt to make their own work more sustainable. For example, they hold ‘climate concerts’ featuring scientists, and one time I improvised a piece based on climatic curves. People make sense of these sorts of things in a completely different way than mere facts about global warming. That is why we need art and culture that evokes emotions that make us receptive and open enough to understand where we currently stand and where the world stands. And in order to take appropriate action, we use the energy released to make a difference. We just cannot give up.