By Lisa M. Ruch
Environmental topics such as climate change and pollution garner widespread attention every April, but increasingly are the focus of more and more people year-round. These crises are not recent, but much of the focus on them has come from scientific disciplines and practitioners. When faced with the unsettling and at times alarming predictions of science, many in the general public shut down, either from fear or from a lack of emotional response to hard scientific data. Musician and composer Geoffrey Hudson, co-founder of Hybrid Vigor Music, Inc., considered the dilemma of how to engage the wider public into deeper thought about the topic to inspire change and realized that music, with its power to evoke emotion, could be the perfect means. His choral oratorio A Passion for the Planet is the result.
The piece, which runs to an hour in performance time, is written for adult and children’s choirs, two soloists, and orchestra. Rather than write lyrics for the entire piece, Hudson spent months reading scientific studies, looking for passages to integrate into the work. Books such as David Orr’s Dangerous Years1, Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded2, and Bill McKibben’s Eaarth3 provided ample disturbing and stark images, while the now-famous “hockey stick” graph (Mann, et al.) made an ideal nexus point to aurally depict the extremity of crisis.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to sing in the premiere of A Passion for the Planet and went into the rehearsals curious about how this scientific prose and information would resonate in song. It was a novel experience to sing words and phrases such as “chemical sludge,” “primeval goo,” “cancer and cell mutations,” and “pollution and environmental damage.” Other singers seemed to have the same ambivalence at first, but as we became familiar with the texts and the music, acceptance and engagement came quickly. I found myself thinking more deeply about the topics, and fellow singers told me they did as well.
After an introduction that celebrates the Earth’s gifts and humanity’s place within it, the oratorio transitions to the grim depictions of pollution, abuse of natural resources, and overpopulation, rising to a literal crescendo in the seventh movement. Here Hudson composed a musical depiction of the hockey stick graph, with the planet’s average temperature over centuries represented by pitch, extinction rates represented by the number of notes per measure, and the rise in human population represented by dynamics. Over almost six minutes, the sound, steady and droning at first, builds to a cacophony in which the singers repeat phrases and deconstructed words of lament. As Hudson explained, “I didn’t need words for that—the data were enough” (Voth). The movement concludes abruptly and chillingly with a percussive crash followed by an ominous silence; it is emotional to sing and audience members reported that it was eerie and impactful to hear.
It is this ‘deer in the headlights’ fear and paralysis that prevents many people from delving deeper into these ecological issues; considering these crises in depth is frightening, and the problems seem huge and insurmountable. It is at this point in A Passion for the Planet that Hudson leverages a powerful cathartic emotional response by bringing in the children’s choir to sing, “What have you done / with what was given you, / what have you done with / the blue, beautiful world?” (Hudson, Movement VIII). This plaintive query, sung in the pure, innocent tones that only a children’s choir has, leaves listeners shaken and teary. The adult choir then joins the children, adding further details of the distressing impacts of humankind’s unchecked exploitation of natural resources.
Listeners are not left in limbo, however. A shift in tone, akin to the turn in a sonnet, opens the final portion of the oratorio, where Hudson wanted to give the audience hope and encouragement. David Orr’s trope that “hope is a verb with its sleeves rolled up” (Hudson. Movement IX) invokes purposeful action, action carried out not by individuals working piecemeal, but by people working together. The choirs and soloists combine to represent this shared effort as they sing, “Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love; therefore we are saved by faith; therefore we shall be saved by hope” (Hudson, Movement X).
To involve the audience in this communal endeavor, Hudson chose to conclude the oratorio in the time-honored fashion with a chorale to be sung by the listeners along with the choirs. For the premiere performance, the audience was taught the chorale before the oratorio began so it was familiar to them. As they rose to sing it in the final movement, the atmosphere was electric. One audience member related afterward that singing it “was one of the most moving concert experiences of my life. When it came time for the audience to join in, I found it hard to sing, I was so overwhelmed—and looking around I realized that many audience members were in the same boat” (“Passion for the Planet”), while the conductor recalled, “It was such a thrill and emotionally overwhelming when the audience joined in during the performance. Many were in tears” (Thornton).
This coming together as one group is symbolic of the potential power of people joining to address the ecological crises facing the planet and is the goal of A Passion for the Planet. Hybrid Vigor Music’s intention is to facilitate performances nationwide to encourage public involvement with climate and pollution issues and their remedies. The Covid-19 pandemic sidelined performances planned for 2020 and 2021, but in the interim the piece and its aims have been publicized by Hudson and climate scientists such as Bill McKibben and Michael Mann in webinars supported by the National Museum of Natural History, the National Endowment for the Arts, and other organizations.
Such interdisciplinary collaboration is the theme of A Passion for the Planet, showcasing both the powerful impact the humanities can have when leveraged in concert with the sciences—in this case, both literally and figuratively—and the myriad ways the humanities can benefit the public. After all, our planet’s systems are inextricably interconnected; our human endeavors must be as well.
- Orr, David W. Dangerous Years: Climate Change, the Long Emergency, and the Way Forward. Yale University Press, 2016.
- Friedman, Thomas L. Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—and How it Can Renew America. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008.
- McKibben, Bill. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Times Books, 2010.
Hudson, Geoffrey. A Passion for the Planet, 2019.
Mann, Michael E., Raymond S. Bradley, and Malcolm K. Hughes. “Global-Scale Temperature Patterns and Climate Forcing over the Past Six Centuries.” Nature, vol. 392, 23 April 1998, pp. 779-787.
“A Passion for the Planet.” Hybrid Vigor Music, www.hybridvigormusic.org/our-projects/a-passion-for-the-planet/. Accessed 11 April 2021.
Thornton, Tony. “A Passion for the Planet.” Choral Planet, www.choralplanet.com. Accessed 11 April 2021.
Voth, Ellen Gilson. Music in Response – 3. Farmington Valley Chorale. 21 February 2021. Webinar.
About the author:
Lisa M. Ruch is Professor of English and Communications and Assistant Dean of Liberal Studies at Bay Path University. She also sits on the Board of Directors of Hybrid Vigor Music, Inc. Her training in comparative literature has instilled in her a deep regard for interdisciplinary studies and the public value of the humanities.