Meet the Artist Behind “The Last Stand,” an Opera for Trees
If trees could talk, what would they say? That’s the premise of Creative Time’s new experimental opera by artist Kamala Sankaram titled, “The Last Stand” (on view September 18 – October 10 in Prospect Park, Brooklyn). Sankaram, a New York City-based performing artist, singer and composer who has worked with the likes of Anthony Braxton, John Zorn and The Philip Glass Ensemble, tells the life of a 300-year-old tree in the Black Rock Forest through live field recordings, original music and repeated themes—think animal sounds, airplanes and revving car engines. At the beginning of the 10 hour-long opera, listeners will hear the voice of the Lenape, the indigenous peoples who once lived in the forest. “You think of the forest as removed, and that we’re not part of nature, but I think that's one of the big lessons that came out of this,” says Sankaram over the phone from her apartment in Riverdale. “We really are part of the natural world. It’s when we think of ourselves as removed from it that we begin to run into trouble.”
Here, Sankaram shares her inspiration for the piece, and what she got out of spending months in the forest during the pandemic, which was nothing short of sanity.
You have an extensive musical background, but you also have a PhD in Cognitive Science from the New School. How did the latter play a role in this project for Creative Time?
I'm not a biologist, but I think having a familiarity with science gave me a vocabulary to talk with the different tree researchers we worked with for this project. Other times, when I’ve done cross disciplinary work and collaboration, there’s a working out of the language that has to take place before I can do anything. For this, it was easy to get at the nugget of what I wanted to ask.
And that’s what this piece is all about, right? The language of trees.
Yes. And when I first started working on the piece, I had an idea about doing something around mycorrhizal communication, which is the way trees talk to each other through their fungi and roots. But as I began talking to more and more researchers, I realized there's no real way to represent these electrochemical signals through sound. So, the piece changed to become more about the sounds that surround the tree, and how trees are not really individuals—they're members of a community. Just like the animals in the forest are also part of that community.
Tell me about your inspiration and process.
I had read a book called “The Hidden Life of Trees,” and I had been talking with my sister about making a piece inspired by the book because she was a visual artist and lighting designer, but she passed away in the fall of 2019. We never got to make the piece together. And so, when the opportunity to propose this piece to Creative Time came up, I thought it would be a way to continue what we had been talking about.
I knew that I wanted to make a piece about a very old tree but through the conversations with Creative Time and the researchers, the story presented itself in the form of this specific famous tree in the Black Rock Forest. Constructing the story was about looking at the history of this tree and how I might represent that sonically.
What was the most interesting aspect about this tree’s history to you?
Originally, the [indigenous peoples, known as the] Lenape were in the forest. There were always people around this tree. You think of the forest as removed, and that we’re not part of nature, but I think that's one of the big lessons that came out of this: We really are part of the natural world. It's when we think of ourselves as removed from it that we begin to run into trouble.
Also, this forest is by West Point, and there's a road that goes by the tree that has been there since the Revolutionary War. The forest historian told me it’s likely that George Washington walked past this tree often.
The track you have is 10 hours long. Why?
I knew it had to be 10 hours because if you take the ratio of time you spend in a theater piece, say it's like an hour and a half, as compared to how long a typical person's life is, 10 hours is a similar ratio of time for a tree. So that was where the number originally came from. And then, it's sort of loosely broken down into seasons, so each season lasts about 30 seconds. And so, each year is two minutes so then 300 years becomes about 10 hours.
It’s interesting that you chose 10 hours not for the audience's sake but for the tree’s sake.
I knew I wanted to make something that is true to what might actually be resonant for a tree as a living being. Music is how we make sense of these patterns of vibration that come into our ears, and trees definitely send vibrations and sound. So, I asked, what could be a musical sound for a tree? The answer that I got back was, the sound of community, the sound of the healthy forest, all of the other creatures in the forest. So that's what became the music: the creatures in the forest.
At COSTA BRAZIL, we strongly believe beauty should be on the side of nature just like nature is on the side of beauty. You could say the same thing about music. Have you worked with nature prior to this project?
It’s interesting, because I have used found sounds for pieces before, but they have tended to be more industrial sounds like radiators and fans and things like that. My work is very much about technology, rather than nature, and so the pieces that I've written about nature have been more metaphorical. This piece has kind of changed my thinking in a lot of ways. I've been asked to write a string quintet piece for a group here in New York City and I thinking I'm going to use the recordings that I made as the starting point, you know, how could I translate the frogs into a piece for strings. There's a whole long history of composers doing this, like, Olivier Messiaen, for example, has all these pieces based around bird song. But I can't think of anyone that's used frogs….
What’s nice about working with nature is that you have to work in nature. Can you share how your time in the forest impacted you?
I think it was really important. I was in New York City all through the beginning of the pandemic and it was difficult. And then I began to make repeated trips up to the forest and other places around upstate New York. Being able to go outside and connect with nature was the thing that kept me sane.
COSTA BRAZIL is proudly supporting Opera for Trees, presented by Creative Time. Without the wisdom and generosity of trees such as the Almacega and Baobab, among others, our products would simply not exist. We believe you’ll find them to be as transformative as a day spent in nature. For more details, visit Creative Time.