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One of the larger crises we face right now is actually a crisis of failure of imagination and one of the biggest things we can do in artistic practice is to nurture imagination. It is what we do. It’s our job. We know how to do that. We know how to trade in uncertainty and complexity. We understand the content inside a silence, it’s unlocking and speaking to ways of knowing and being and doing that when you start to try to talk about them in words, it is really challenging because it ends up sounding like bumper stickers, like ‘Music Builds Bridges’. I have a big problem with universalizing discourses in the arts, as concealing structures of imperialism and colonialism.dr. tanya kalmanovitch, conscient podcast, june 3, 2021, new york city
Dr. Tanya Kalmanovitch is a Canadian violist, ethnomusicologist, and author known for her breadth of inquiry and restless sense of adventure (our conversation confirms this!) who lives in Brooklyn, NY. Tanya’s uncommonly diverse interests converge, among others, in the fields of improvisation, social entrepreneurship, and social action with projects that explore the provocative cultural geography of locations around the world. Tanya’s career has become a broad platform for artistry and many forms of advocacy. For example, she was drawn to ethnomusicology as a way to explore the ways in which music can speak to the world’s biggest problems and earned her doctorate at the University of Alberta. She is currently developing and touring the Tar Sands Songbook, a documentary theatre play that tells the stories of people whose lives been shaped by living near oil development and its effects.
I first heard about Tanya’s work through Teika Newton (see https://www.conscient.ca/podcast/e50-newton/) and heard her speak at Experience the Power of Art to Inspire Climate Action. I was impressed by her convictions about the Tar Sands project but also by her insights as a performer, educator and ethnomusicologist on the role of music in the climate emergency,
Here are some quotes from our conversation that caught my attention:
Normal life in North America does not leave us room for grief. We do not know how to handle grief. We don’t know what to do with it. We push it away. We channel it, we contain it, we compartmentalize it. We ignore it. We believe that it’s something that has an end, that it’s linear or there are stages. We believe it’s something we can get through. Whereas I’ve come to think a lot about the idea of living with loss, living with indeterminacy, living with uncertainty, as a way of awakening to the radical sort of care and love for ourselves, for our fellow living creatures for the life on the planet. I think about how to transform a performance space or a classroom or any other environment into a community of care. How can I create the conditions by which people can bear to be present to what they have lost, to name and to know what we have lost and from there to grieve, to heal and to act in the fullest awareness of loss? Seeing love and loss as intimately intertwined.
My idea is that there’s a performance, which is sort of my offering, but then there’s also a series of participatory workshops where community members can sound their own stories about where we’ve come from, how they’re living today and the future in which they wish to live, what their needs are, what their griefs are. So here, I’m thinking about using oral history and storytelling as a practice that promotes ways of knowing, doing and healing … with storytelling as a sort of a participatory and circulatory mechanism that promotes healing. I have so much to learn from indigenous storytelling practices.
On nature as music
We are all every one of us musicians. When you choose what song you wake up to on your alarm or use music to set a mood. You sing a catchy phrase to yourself or you sing a child asleep: you’re making musical acts. Then extend that a little bit beyond that anthropocentric lens and hear a bird as a musician, a creek as a musician and that puts us into that intimate relationship with the environment again.
I guess this is plea for people to not think about oil sands issues as being Alberta issues, but as those being everyone everywhere issues, and not just because of the ecological ethical consequences of the contamination of the aquifer, what might happen if 1.4 trillion liters of toxic process water, if the ponds holding those rupture, what might happen next…That the story will still be there, that land and the people, the animals and the plants, all those relationships will still be imperilled, right? So to remember, first of all, that it’s not just an Alberta thing and that the story doesn’t end just because Teck pulled it’s Frontier mining proposal in February, 2020. The story always goes on. I want to honour the particular and the power of place and at the same time I want to uplift the idea that we all belong to that place.
As I have done in all episodes in season 2 so far, I have integrated excerpts from soundscape compositions and quotations drawn from e19 reality, as well as moments of silence and new field recordings, in this episode.
I would like to thank Tanya for taking the time to speak with me and for sharing her deep knowledge of music and arts education, her passion for music, her love of her home province of Alberta and her sharp, lucid and strategic mind.