In Conversation with Gemma New: June, 2021

Composer Juliet Palmer talks about her new orchestral work fire break, dedicated to forests past and future. Commissioned and premiered by the Hamilton Philharmonic with conductor Gemma New.


“At the end of 2019 there were raging forest fires in many parts of the world. At that point there were huge fires in Australia, in the Amazon… We had fires on the west coast of North America. And it happened that I had also been on an artistic residency with a wonderful visual artist Carla Bengtson.  She’s American and this was in Oregon — the summer of 2019. And we were at research place called Andrews Forest, which is running a 200 year long residency for artists and scientists. We were really lucky to be there to work on another project called Every Word was Once an Animal. I was  really struck interacting with these trees: they’re huge ancient douglas firs. And just the the richness of the forest.

But also we went to some sites where there had been in the last few years very serious forest fires. You see these lodge pole pines that are silhouetted against the sky. They’re charred and blackened and the ground around them is bereft of life. I was doing a lot of field recording when I was there, working with a choreographer Darion Smith on the score for that other project. But I was listening again to those recordings and there’s some beautiful sounds that I thought I really want to dig deeper into them. Some of them were stumps of old cedar trees in a reservoir. The level of the water would rise up and that forest had died and so when the water recedes you’re left with these silvery cedar stumps. I started bowing them with a stick and picking up the sounds with a contact microphone. It sounds like crazy saxophones. Or you can you can imagine what kinds of instruments they are. But that harmonic material informs this piece fire break. As well as rhythmic  improvisations that we did on other huge trees, massive trees that are lying down in the forest. You know they’re dead, but they’re actually full of life for the next generation of plants, animals, trees that are going to rise up from the forest. So it’s a piece that’s a tribute to two forests.”