5 Apr 2024

Global warning

From Three to Seven, 4:00 pm on 5 April 2024
US elevated house stranded in US Megastorm Sandy in 2012.

US elevated house stranded in US Megastorm Sandy in 2012. Photo: NOVA

The tide's coming in.

Problem is, no one knows where the new high-water mark will be.

"Losing Earth" is the title of a percussion concerto by the US composer Adam Schoenberg (no relation to Arnold, although he has a distant connection to the Gershwin family), which is getting its New Zealand premiere this weekend. 

Schoenberg is in Aotearoa to see and hear it along with his friend and soloist Jacob (Jake) Nissly, who Schoenberg wrote the concerto for. 

Percussionist Jacob Nissly and composer Adam Schoenberg - interview at RNZ

Percussionist Jacob Nissly and composer Adam Schoenberg Photo: Tom Cardy

The friends joined RNZ Concert host Bryan Crump ahead of the performance.

Schoenberg says he wrote the piece at about the same time he became a father.

Its title is both literal and metaphorical. On one level, there's the inevitable loss of land if sea levels begins to rise significantly as global warming melts the planet's ice sheets.

But it also refers to an article Schoenberg read in The New York Times Magazine about a missed opportunity global leaders had to take action on climate change in the 1980s: "when we lost Earth".

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Graphic: Royal Society of New Zealand

While "Losing Earth" is Schoenberg's response to world events, the piece is also the result of his close friendship with Nissly.

Their first meeting was anything but auspicious. The pair were both students at the Julliard School of Music in New York City. Nissly was preparing to play new music by a group of composition students. He noticed a 'Schoenberg, A.' in the list and assumed it must be a piece by the Second Viennese School master, Arnold.

Odd, Nissly thought, that Arnold should end up in a list of student works, but at least the percussion part was likely to be straightforward.

Oxygen cylinders on sale at a store as cylinders demand rise up causes of the Covid-19 patients increasing rapidly across the country, in Dhaka, Bangladesh on June 5, 2020.

Oxygen tanks: one composer's dream, a percussionist's nightmare. Photo: Rehman Asad / NurPhoto / AFP

Wrong on both counts. Adam Schoenberg's percussion part demanded lots of notes, and included an array of five oxygen tanks.

Luckily (or maybe unfortunately for Nissly), there were a bunch of them in Julliard's percussion storeroom. But then there was the matter of hauling them up to the auditorium, by which time Nissly was over this Schoenberg piece.

Sometimes bad first impressions are the best way to begin a strong friendship, which eventually lead Schoenberg to write pieces especially for Nissly like "Losing Earth" (which don't need oxygen tanks).

But it is loud. The piece begins with the thud of six bass drums, and that's before the soloist joins in. And there's plenty of thunder in the 'beast mode' third and final section.

Schoenberg and Nissly are just as proud of the lyrical middle section, though, the 'underwater world'.

"It's gorgeous, it's lush," says Nissly.  "I can identify it from a mile away - oh, that's Adam! I think it accentuates the aspect of percussion that isn't plugging your ears."

And a decade or so on from its first performance, are the two musicians any more optimistic about the Earth we may be losing?

"No," says Schoenberg. If anything, recent experience of "atmospheric rivers" over his home base of Southern California has left him more pessimistic.

Turns out we might need more oxygen after all.