The Delusion of Separation: An opera about trees. Workshop reflection 31/10/2020 – 01/11/2020

The idea for this workshops was to spend the whole weekend trying to find out who these trees are and how they can be expressed through various different artistic and expressive outcomes. The main focus was to understand the network of roots that is found in a rainforest. My main inspiration for pursuing this area of science are the biologists Dr. Suzanne Simard and Dr. Monica Gagliano. Both have given many talks on their work and Dr. Gagliano has written a book called “Thus Spoke the Plant”. In her book Dr. Gagliano describes her journey to understanding and connecting with different plants, and how they have communicated to her that it is important that the scientific research into plant sentience be done and made a respected part of the scientific cannon. Dr. Gagliano has many opinions on how science has become too prescriptive and objective, relying on an establishment of rationalism that is quickly becoming outdated, and encouraging a lack of imagination among the scientific community. This is a whole other topic that I will not go into on this post, but I do encourage readers to spend more time listening to these two remarkable women.

Both Oliver and I were at this workshop. As composer and librettist it is important that we generate a joint understanding of the topic in order to create a unified work. Prior to this work we had already created the text/music for the first scene, and had begun recording it (even with other musicians). However we both knew that we had started this process too early, before really allowing the topic to sit with us, and so we were both open to reworking the material we already had in place.

Day 1

Task 1 – physical visualisation

The first task of the workshop was to start by drawing what the representation root networks was to us. This helped to get both of our perceptions out of our heads and on to paper, there for all to see.

Figure 1. Roxanne’s visual representation of Forest root networks
Fig 2. Oliver’s forest network 1.
Fig 3. Oliver’s forest network 2
Fig 4. Oliver’s forest network 3
Fig 5. Oliver’s root signal

It was interesting to see that we both approached the topic from very different perspectives in our drawings. Mine was a focused, but messy depiction of the many voices that are passing across synaptic bridges. This exercise clarified a lot of how we were both looking at the network and showed us that there a three clearly different viewpoints which we should be reflecting in the musical expression of it.

  1. The forest as a whole. This can be seen in Oliver’s drawings of the whole forest/network (Fig 2, 3, 4). Here the network is viewed in a column as a whole, and would therefore be acting as one overall voice.
  2. The cacophony of voices. This is visible in my visualisation (Fig 1) as it shows the many different signals which would be passing across microscopic barriers, from plant to plant to mycelium etc. These are all voices carrying separate messages (shown but they yellow highlighter), travelling along complex paths. Each axon has the ability to generate several different nodes and so connect to many other organisms in the network.
  3. The individual voice. This is shown in Oliver’s drawing Fig 5. Here we see a representation of a single voice – it emulates an electronic signal that is distorting and travelling along a wire.

Task 2 – mental exercise

The second part of the first workshop involved making use of a mental exercise to try to put ourselves in the mindset of the trees. The first scene involved a traumatic experience within the forest. The main (mother) tree which supplies a lot of the forest with nutrients and support is hit by lightning.

At first I asked Ollie to stand against a wall. I then asked him to imagine being a tree by imagining that he had roots which were extending into the other rooms next to and below ours. I then went to stand at the opposite side of the room and did the same thing. I then told him to imagine that his roots were meeting my roots in the room underneath us. I then told him that I would be hit by lightning and the electrical impulse would travel all the way through my roots to his. I instructed him that in a moment this would happen and then we would have to describe how this made both of us feel.

Oliver experiences Roxanne struck by lightning:

  • I experienced this as a feeling of going from a solid form to a feeling of powerlessness and jelly. After the strike it was like I had gone from being fully conscious to being half asleep. The strike itself was extremely fast – much faster than anything I had experienced before and very bright then very dark.
  • Oliver reacted to this strike as by feeling a sensation of going from red to blue. Almost like becoming white hot – a heat without actual heat, reflected as colour. The nodes on my (Roxanne’s) roots had gone blue and inaccessible. Oliver also felt a sensation of being drained of energy and warmth, as if there was suddenly a leak that needed to be fixed. This did not happen straight away but was a slow sensation.

Roxanne experience Oliver struck by lightning:

  • When Oliver was struck he described feeling euphoric. There was a moment of intense energy which was scary and lead to a sensation of laughter and terror all at once – almost like being tickled to death. After the euphoria and immense energy began the comedown. This was a sensation of throbbing, like a horrible hangover.
  • I reacted to this by feeling instantly nauseous. I felt a kind of internal recoiling, trying to get away from the trauma but not being able to move. It felt like a sickness was entering my roots, I was also becoming damaged from the lightning strike.

This was as close as we could safely get to understanding the experience of a forest network being attacked by an electrical storm. From this we decided that along with the three viewpoints (whole forest, cacophony and individual voice) there would also be three chronological sections to the scene. These are; 1. Before the impact 2. During the impact and 3. The hangover.

Developing this understanding and sensory vocabulary for the events of the scene was very useful and would help us in the second day of the workshop.

Task 3 – research into mythology

The last part of the workshop involved reading about Philippino mythologies that are connected with forests. There are many of these and many different creatures who reside in the forest. The mythology that I found most connected to our experience in the rest of the workshop was that of Santelmo. This is the existence of two balls of fire in places where there have been accidents, arguments or on land borders. Santelmo also comes from the term St. Elmo which describes an electrical weather phenomenon which turns the sky violet during a lightning storm.

Fig 6. Santelmo balls of fire in the forest

After reading about this I quickly sketched out the image above where we can see two interlinked balls of fire at the centre of the forest, underneath the largest tree. These signify the “throobing” trauma experienced by the tree after being struck by lightning. It also occurred to me that as Santelmo were found at land boundaries and places of argument, it would make sense for there to be Santelmo present where the rainforest had been cut down to make way for plantation. In this sketch I have encircled the rainforest in Santelmo as well. Whilst I did this Oliver began drawing some depictions of the trees in the plantations.

Fig 7. Root balls in the plantation becoming increasingly distorted

As we can see from these sketches he has depicted the plantation trees as a root ball hanging in a room of mirrors. As the image is reflected back on itself it becomes more and more distorted. This will reflect how the trees in the plantation see themsleves. I will discuss this more after the next workshop on scene 2 (The Plantation).

After reading about Santelmo and seeing Oliver’s depiction of the plantation trees I went on to make one more depiction of the forest.

Fig 8. The rainforest encircled by trauma.

In this depiction of the rainforest (Fig 8.) I experimented with different ways to show the way the network connected the trees together, but also that the central tree was connected to them all. Around the edge of the picture is the plantation. This area of land is inaccessible to the rainforest tree roots. They cannot communicate with the trees there and when they try to it is almost just like a white noise signal (the distorted reflection).

We also discussed the difference between the network in trees and similar networks in our human societies. It seemed that the most striking difference was that the network for the forest was one of giving and support, whereas the networks in our western socieities, being based around consumerism and a capitalistic structure, often feel more like taking than giving. The altruistic act of giving is seen to us as charitable – something of the ordinary and something special to be done infrequently, not as a daily part of life. Of course some of the trees in a rainforest won’t be able to give in the same way as others, however there is a balance in the amount of giving and taking that we could learn from in our societies.

Day 2

On the second day of the workshop we put aside the tasks for generating an expressive language. We started by listening to our pre written material. With a score in hand we both circled sections which we felt were relevant and reflective of the work from the previous day. Many of the sections that I felt were representative of the network were those that showed a kind of dissemination of information through a repeated motif, or a call and response. I felt that each tree would have a single message. This message would then be sent through all of the roots, meaning that one tree could say the same thing many times (through many different roots), in different distorted ways and directions.

After doing this we discussed our choices and decided which sections of the music now seemed irrelevant in light of our recent work and discoveries.

Fig 9. Roxanne analysing the score in light of recent work

Next we listened again and went through the score labelling sections A, B and C. These numbers corresponded to whether we thought that section represented A. Before the impact B. The impact or C. The hangover. After doing this we again discussed our choices, this allowed for us both to have conflicting opinions about the value or meaning of certain parts of the music. These were resolved and the sections were written out onto three sheets of paper. Each sheet of paper adressed one of the sectiosn (A, B or C) and contained a table splitting the score into three further sections; whole forest, the cacophony and the individual voice. Having decided on which parts of the score related to specifically which part of the scene I cut up a score, and we stuck the different parts of the piece on the wall in three columns corresponding to sections A, B and C (Fig 9).

Fig 9. Columns of material from sections A, B and C

From there we made more refinement and started to develop a timeline for the scene. Whilst sticking and arranging the sections of score on the wall Oliver also rearranged the score in the Sibelius file on the computer. We decided that some sections would act as a background, representing the viewpoint of the whole forest. Thene on top of and within that there are moments of single voice and moments of cacophony.

During this process we also started to get to know some of the characters in the piece. The text I had orginally written for this scene was very broad and could be used to indicate characterisations in a number of ways. Through analysing the score, and understanding more about the different sections and viewpoints of the scene some characters started to emerge.

Fig 10. Cut up score arranged in the timeline of Scene 1

The next task for myself and Oliver is to recompose the first scene in light of this new timeline. and develop the emerging characterisations.

The original version of Scene 1 can be heard here. Note that this version will now be completely altered based on the outcome of the above workshop.

Below is the initial libretto for scene 1 and 2.

For more information on this project see the doc below

About The Author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *