Gaia Theory - an Arctic warning

Image: 'Gaia's surrender' by Jef Sadi via Flickr.
Image: 'Gaia's surrender' by Jef Sadi via Flickr.

Image: 'Gaia's surrender' by Jef Safi via Flickr.

As composer Jonathan Dove prepares for the premiere of his 'Gaia Theory' at the BBC Proms this month, he explains to Laurence Rose how his recent work has been inspired by a wake-up call - right from the very top of the world.
I was gazing at landscapes of mysterious beauty, but gradually the message was sinking in that nothing was as it should be.

Jonathan Dove is perhaps best known for his popular and family operas on a diverse range of subjects from Pinocchio to the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.

He writes music with immediate broad appeal, but a cupboard full of awards testifies to the high regard in which he is held across the music industry.

A voyage to the Arctic in 2008 made him realise that artists may be able to connect with audiences that had largely ignored scientists' warnings about climate change.

When I spoke to him he was taking a breather from "a frantic bout of writing - a piece on World War One." A timely and characteristic Dove subject, I thought. But when did the environment start to figure in his work?

Beautiful - but something wasn't right

"In September 2008, I found myself on the Grigory Micheev, sailing among icebergs and glaciers off the west coast of Greenland, in the company of a diverse group of musicians, artists and scientists.

"I was gazing at landscapes of mysterious beauty, but gradually the message was sinking in that nothing was as it should be."

He had been invited by David Buckland, artist and founder of Cape Farewell, to witness the effects of climate change at first hand. He found himself sharing the experience with other well-known artists including Jarvis Cocker, Marcus Brigstocke and KT Tunstall.

"I suppose I was averagely aware of the issues up to that point, as much as anyone who watched the news, say", explains Dove.

On-board scientists were available with their expert accounts of how the glaciers were retreating, wildlife was disappearing, and local people could no longer cross the sea-ice to hunt.

For many of the artists on board, the songs, exhibitions and stand-up routines were being made there and then, and quickly found their way into albums and shows. As the only classical composer on board, Dove took his time over finding the right response.

A lost Eden

The first work to emerge was The Walk from the Garden, premiered at the Ageas Salisbury International Arts Festival in 2012. Ostensibly about the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden, Dove conceived it as "an allegory for our present state - a lost Eden."



Works inspired by the Cape Farewell expedition continue. In June next year, Holland Opera will stage The Day After. It, too, takes a story from the past to illustrate the present, that of Phaethon and his calamitous attempt to take control of the sun-chariot, placing life on Earth at risk. 

"I saw in the hubris of the boy much that I see in post-industrial man", says Dove.

I was gazing at landscapes of mysterious beauty, but gradually the message was sinking in that nothing was as it should be.

I uttered the words 'climate change' and the shutters came down

Despite the popularity of his work, and the usual enthusiasm of collaborators to explore his ideas, Jonathan has detected a distinct cooling towards too overt an environmental stance.

At one meeting, he says, "as soon as I uttered the words 'climate change' the shutters came down." Hence the allegories? He cites Arthur Miller's Crucible and Britten's Noye's Fludde as precedents.

Dove started wondering if it is possible to write about global environmental issues without finger-wagging. He picked up a book by James Lovelock and found in his Gaia hypothesis "ideas that music could celebrate and explore."

Gaia Theory is an orchestral work of some 20 minutes. He is cautious about saying too much about the music itself ahead of the premiere. But he was struck by Lovelock's own description of life on Earth being "locked in a sort of dance in which everything changes together."

How often does the Earth breathe?

We talked about the compositional challenges of representing the simultaneous vastness and tininess of things. "Take respiration," he suggests.

"Some organisms breathe many times a second, a forest has a daily respiratory cycle, while recent research suggests the Earth itself ‘breathes' once a year."

I wondered if Gaia Theory would carry an explicit environmental message as The Walk from the Garden did, or was it more a reflection on an elegant theory for audiences to make of what they will. And would it matter if they didn't get the message?

"I have no pretentions that my music can change the world..."

But can it change the way people feel about the world?

"If someone comes away thinking more deeply about these things after hearing my own response, that would be perfect."

Dove is still mining the vein of ideas that sprang from the 2008 expedition. Long-term plans include an ambitious large-scale work that will be more overtly topical - "to do with climate migrants". It has been, and will be, many years in the making.



Laurence Rose is a naturalist, conservationist, composer and writer. He works for the RSPB in Norfolk and blogs at

Gaia Theory by Jonathan Dove will be premiered at the BBC Proms on 28th July and broadcast live on Radio 3. It will be broadcast on BBC4 TV on 1st August and both broadcasts will be available online for 7 days.

Image: Jef Safi via Flickr.

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