a reservoir impacted by climate change and forest fires.

fire break

2 2 2 2 / 2 2 / timp / str [13′] 2020.

Commissioner: The Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra

Funder: The Genesis Project

Premiere: The Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra with conductor Patrick Dupré Quigley, FirstOntario Concert Hall, Hamilton, Canada, May 14, 2022.

Program note:

fire break is my song for the forests burned by the climate crisis — fires amplified by a heating planet, and by over a hundred years of colonial suppression of Indigenous cultural burning. fire break was inspired by a creative residency at LTER or Long Term Ecological Residency in Andrews Forest, a two hundred year-long program for scientists and artists.

In the barren landscape of a gigantic reservoir in Oregon, silvery stumps of a dead cedar forest dot the red earth slopes. While I hold a contact microphone to the wood, my friend Darion draws a dusty stick back and forth like a bow across a spindly root. Through my headphones the voice of this long dead tree starts to sing: raucous moans and shudders, like an unhinged saxophone solo.

Over the following weeks, other trees speak to me: booming thuds as I “woodpecker” a fallen old- growth Douglas fir; cascading dry twigs snap and tumble; marimba notes ring as I strike the limbs of an ancient cedar in a lava field; my fingernails scrape hollow whispers from the charred trunk of a burnt lodgepole pine. Since the summer, I keep thinking about those trees — their rich and complicated lives; their deaths from flooding, old age and fire; and the howl of those spruce roots.

Traditional fire techniques increase biodiversity and reduce wildfire risk, strengthening the land for all species. Models such as the Indigenous-led Western Klamath Restoration Partnership (WKRP) in California build trust and a shared vision for restoring fire resilience on the land. In northern Australia, cultural burning on Aboriginal lands have halved destructive wildfires and reduced greenhouse-gas emissions from wildfires by 40 per cent.

Learn more:

The art of fire: reviving the Indigenous craft of cultural burning

I am grateful to Carla Bengtson who invited me to the Andrews Forest and LTER, and to Darion Smith for dancing the sounds in the landscape with me. Thanks to the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra for commissioning this work and to the Genesis Project for funding it.

Video stills: Jessie Rose Vala