Travel is a vital part of most musicians’ careers, but as the climate crisis grows more acute, flying is becoming problematic. Tabita Berglund, who lives in the heart of nature, explains the conflict that many feel.
I live in Røros, a little mining town in the mountains of Norway, which was founded in 1644 and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a Sustainable Designation. It has only 3,000 inhabitants and is full of little wooden houses, and nature is literally around the corner. I hike as much as I can – when I’m at home, that’s almost every day, walking up to five hours. There’s snow now and soon I will go skiing.
It may sound strange, but my favourite place in the regionis a bog an hour’s walk from home. It is surrounded by trees and heaps of moss, which make it seem like a fairy-tale landscape. The light is beautiful and when the snow has fallen, it’s stunning. You feel like you’re on top of the world, even though you’re in the middle of a bog.
It would be an exaggeration to say that living in this environment gives me inner peace, because conducting life doesn’t allow for much of that most of the time, but it does make me feel at one with something that is bigger than myself. Of course, as a conductor you always feel part of the music, but it’s comforting and reassuring to belong to something even greater than that – it makes me feel safe.
Nordic music is a major part of my repertoire, and so much of it is inspired by nature, so being close to the landscape makes it much easier to perform this music. It would be impossible for me to perform Grieg or Sibelius without having this connection. For example, when I get on the podium before performing Sibelius’s First Symphony, I imagine a specific landscape I discovered this autumn. It’s a huge bog, where nothing was moving – not a single bird – other than the wind slightly catching what was left of the leaves on the trees. The symphony opens with exactly that feeling and recalling that image before I go on stage helps me get the right atmosphere.
I sometimes explain these images to the players. For instance, in the second movement of that symphony, there is a place where I feel we’re in the middle of a massive snowstorm. The basses have magnificent pizzicatos that repeat and repeat on the same note and I have a clear sense that this is how you walk in a snowstorm. It’s dangerous and if you stand still you might freeze to death. These pizzicatos are like the motion when you walk. It’s heavy because of the snow, you have the wind in your face and it’s a life or death situation. Once I realised this, it was easy for me to figure out how I wanted it to be played. I described it to the orchestra, and even if they hadn’t experienced a snowstorm, they could imagine it. This sort of imagery provides a powerful tool.
In general, Norwegians are aware of nature and most of us spend time either hiking, camping or just on the road to work. Many are increasingly concerned with environmental issues and, like me, feel hypocritical, as we are an extremely rich country because of our oil. We don’t want to sacrifice our standard of living, but at the same time we don’t want to pollute the environment. These two don’t sit well together and many Norwegians have this dilemma.
I’m scared because we are definitely not heading in the right direction. I fear that we are ruining our chances of living peacefully on this planet. In the end, the earth will survive us and be fine, but before we get that farclimate change is causing pain in other parts of the planet that we don’t necessarily see. Because we don’t meet it on a daily basis it’s hard to feel responsible. But it’s getting more and more difficult to close one’s eyes and say ‘we are not part of this’. People are realising that we share the guilt and need to do something. It might be too late, and that worries me.
I try to make tiny choices in everyday life to help as best I can. I eat very little meat, buy from local producers, sort my garbage and use clothes for as long as possible, but in comparison to flying almost every week as part of my job, it’s very little. For musicians, most of the environmental impact is specifically due to travel. I am part of the problem – living where I do means I have to fly often in order to do my job. That’s the way the business is organised at the moment. There’s no way I can be a conductor without polluting.
In order to do something about this, the whole business would have to be organised differently. Only a hundred years ago, people didn’t fly. They travelled, but it took a long time and they stayed longer in the places they went. For example, Grieg toured to Italy every year by train and horse, and sometimes even on foot. That was the one trip abroad he made and he stayed there for months. It’s been done before, so it is possible.
Travelling back and forth, visiting a new orchestra every week, is not ultimately sustainable. There are other inventive ways of organising ourselves, and these might bring new perspectives and values to our musical life. They might even create possibilities that we haven’t even thought about.