08 Jul 21

20 Artists for 20 Years: Sarah Nicolls

Sarah Nicolls Inside Out Piano

We worked with acclaimed pianist and composer Sarah Nicolls’ in 2020 on 12 Years, her new Inside-Out Piano project, inspired by the 2018 IPCC Special report that said we had just 12 years to radically change our behaviour to save the planet.

Continuing our interview series, celebrating 20 Artists for 20 Years, Polly recently caught up with Sarah for a chat over the new café table that is Zoom.

Polly: Tell us about your experience of delivering ‘12 Years’ during the pandemic?

Sarah: So it was quite an unusual year last year, wasn't it? We were about to embark on our 12 Years 2020 tour and suddenly we’re dealing with the pandemic.

I think the tour was originally going to happen around the 18th March and it was around the 16th March that things started collapsing. And I remember we were having conversations like, will the gig happen tomorrow? Will the gig happen on Saturday? I think we basically jumped straight into it. And I made a film of the show and we got it out there. And you were great. You just went with me. We just sort of thought, right. The show must go on. We’ll do it.

And then I think in around May, we felt that it was just getting too hard for venues. Staff were going on furlough. It was really becoming very difficult for venues, as it still is. And we collectively had the courage to say, yeah, let's do a digital tour. Let's pull that together in a completely different form. And in the October, it was great. We had 12 dates coinciding with the second anniversary of the IPCC report.

The title of 12 Years comes from the IPCC report, which actually came out in 2018 telling us we had 12 years to halve emissions. I'd actually already revised the piece for 2020. So now it was not 12 years, but 10 years. But the interesting thing about having to revise it for the tour was, of course, once the tour dissolved into the pandemic, we then had to revise it again. But this time all the characters had to mention lockdown and COVID. And so there was actually three revisions that went on with the piece.

But the piece, I feel stood up to those. And what was brilliant was that Sound UK was able to go with me on the journey of quick - how do you make a digital tour?

Polly: How did you manage to feel a connection with your audience while delivering online?

Sarah: We had all the climate scientists on the Q&A's. And I feel like we kept hold of a sense of place so that even though the gigs were digital, what we were able to do was connect people. For example, with the Exeter audiences, we were talking about Exeter and how it is there, what are the local issues and the same in Bristol and all the different places that we were hosting talks in.

It was amazing. Watching Richard Betts, who's the Head of Climate Impact at the Met office, talking with an Extinction Rebellion protester from Exeter, an older lady who had actually gone out and sat on the road and been arrested. He’d been called as an expert witness in a similar court case, to comment on whether these protests were saving lives. And Richard Betts had to concur that actually she was saving lives because the situation is so serious. That was kind of extraordinary, just watching those people meet and talk from really different ends of the spectrum.

For a lot of protesters, there's a kind of intuitive response to the science, I mean, for me, 12 Years was a kind of personal emergency response. It’s like wow, we’ve really got to do something. And then somebody like Richard, who's been researching his whole life and has dedicated his entire work to learning more about it. It's fascinating to see those two things coming together in a Q&A after a show.

I think what the show did was to open up that space and to open up the kind of emotional journey for people to feel like they could be honest and ask questions. I mean, I felt in a lot of the Q&As, the audience were able to use those expert climate scientists to ask, what should we do? What's happening? And they became almost quite therapeutic spaces.

Certainly for me, I think what's important about doing digital work is to create that sense of connection live in the moment. So that after the show - and we did go for a film show, because I think we felt that sound and film wise, you could create something better than attempting a live stream - but that afterwards we come together with the Q&A and talk to each other in the moment and exist there together at that moment. So I think we did a good job and thank you very much for supporting me through that.
We had so many conversations, didn't we, about what to do. And I feel like by committing to our decision, we did the right thing.

Polly: Yes definitely. I think it was interesting, we were going out into a no man's land, how are we going to do this? But actually, by lots of discussion and shared ideas and thinking and then more discussions, I think we got to the very best possible point. And actually, a lot of really interesting things have happened that may not have happened. And people that may not have managed to get to gigs could attend. So that was another thing. The audience reach became far wider.

How did you feel about working with Sound UK for the first time?

Sarah: In terms of what sound UK was able to do, obviously, all of the production, but also the press, was outstanding. Maija got some astonishing press. I was really humbled and quite proud as well, if you can be those at the same time! To be one of the Guardian’s top pic selections. It was London Jazz Festival, the Royal Ballet Season, something else and Sarah Nicolls, 12 Years – for me, alongside all these enormous institutions. That was brilliant to feel that recognition for a piece that is challenging. I am positing a challenge to the audience with the piece.

Polly: In a way that works as a piece of art. It’s that wonderful thing that it’s fantastic music, it’s beautiful, it’s poignant and it’s a whole gamut of human emotion, which is what all artists are striving towards.

Sarah: And certainly what music can afford an issue like that where you can actually take an audience by the hand and go through those different emotional states. That’s what feels really powerful to me about making music shows about climate change and about the biodiversity loss and so on. That actually you can journey together through that. Rather than having to create a picture that says it all.

Polly: Did delivering the project during the extreme circumstances have any impact on your artistic practice? If so what / how? What might you take forward for the future?

Sarah: I think what has been amazing as well is how I’ve taken the learning from ’12 Years’ and straight away applied it instantly to the next show. ‘Ballad of a Changing World’ is my show with cellist Maja Bugge and we’re talking with two scientists, 1 in Newcastle (where I’m from) and 1 in the very north of Norway (where Maja’s from) and it’s about Kittiwakes (a seabird species) moving into cities.

Kittiwakes are an indicator of ocean warming and increased summer storms. They are moving into the cities because they can’t survive out at sea anymore. There is this very interesting problem where people think that there must be too many Kittiwakes because they’re in their city but actually it’s just because the species are moving in land from their natural habitats.

Through this story we managed to make a show while I stayed in Stroud and Maja stayed in Lancaster. We worked out how to do remote duo improvising, which was quite a feat in itself – through various different methods, recording and using live improv software. And then we’ve actually taken the things that I learnt from the Q&A of 12 Years, and we’ve brought that into the show.

So the scientists are in the show now and they’re talking with us. Hopefully we’ve done the same sort of weaving through a story and it’s a digital show – it’s a film. I edited it so that was a pretty massive learning curve – and now we have a beautiful film that has been played in Norway and was at Cheltenham Festival on 7th July. Again we were able to create a high quality film followed by a live Q&A.

Polly: And what else have you got coming up later on this year?

Sarah: Well I’ve also been creating an opera. I’m on stage with the singer. It’s small scale, but the inside out piano is the set, which will be quite fun. It’s about a lady in an asylum, who left her life story stitched into samplers that still exist today. The show is asking ‘why did this woman get locked up? Was she fairly treated?’ That is going to be at Tête à Tête in August to a tiny audience. You can find more details here.

And I’m going to be doing 12 Years at Dartington, so that will now be 9 years at Dartington and then hopefully a rerun of ‘Belonging Here’ – which is a big piece that I did while I was on the Oxford Contemporary Music scheme at the Ashmolean Museum. It’s a big interactive work – up to 3,000 people can answer questions while we play music and project their answers.

Gigs are coming back – it’s an interesting time – but I think we should hold on to what we’ve learnt really strongly and also think about people who can’t get to gigs and how do we support both. As creative people we can totally run with this and there’s many benefits – environmental benefits, changes to ways of touring. Somebody said recently to me that we’ve completely disrupted the model and it’s up to us to put it back together how we feel it should be put back together.

I feel like it’s a huge opportunity for us to think about all of the crises facing the world and to find solutions that cover everything. It’s exciting to me that we can do that. We’re in a place of privilege I suppose that in our creative jobs we can find new ways of doing stuff. I’m sure that in the next 20 years Sound UK will continue innovating in the same way it has been.

Polly: Well you’ll certainly be part of our story in rechanging our model.

Sarah: We were together during the trauma year of COVID-19! I felt very supported, so thank you! And it was great that we were able to change our course, as Sound UK were agile enough to say, let’s do this. Creative, agile and willing to take risks.

COVID and climate change - they’re both universal problems – and in a way it’s time for us as a society to grow up and to say, yes, we are one world, find the solutions, and say this is what we need to do. Hopefully there’s been a maturing in our basic approach to solving problems together.

I would encourage people to listen to my podcast with Richard Betts – it’s only about half an hour. At the end I ask him what he would do with a 1-minute prime time TV advert and I really like what he says. People can listen if they are interested here. And 12 Years is actually online now – if you’d like to watch it you can do so here.

Visit Sarah Nicolls' website to find out more about her work.

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