12 Mar 20

Interview with Sarah Nicolls


Sound News

sarah nicolls press shot

The innovative composition is inspired by activist Greta Thunberg, wild fires, melting ice and how differently people are responding to the increasingly regular news. Sarah Nicolls combines music played on her vertical Inside-Out piano with recorded speech, tracing the emotional journey of two sisters, exploring their perceptions of global warming through fact and fiction.


Tell us about the inspiration behind 12 Years.

12 Years was written in 2018 following the IPCC special report about the impact of 1.5°c global warming on the planet. Climate scientists projected that annual emissions needed to be halved by 2030 stay within this level. In the same year Greta Thunberg initiated her school strike in Sweden and subsequently publicised her call to action as a TED talk.

What effect did scientific warnings about global warming have on you?

Giving the human race 12 years to halve emissions seemed like a pretty stark deadline, and I felt compelled to bring this information into my work. I felt an urgent response to the IPCC report and as a pianist this resulted in writing a new recital. I wanted to put the piano and the environment together to see what would happen.

Can you explain the narrative of 12 Years?

This show is a journey for both the audience and my fictional characters. It begins with the deadline – what does 12 (now 10) years feel like? I weave news headlines about environmental changes into a story about Lara, an Extinction Rebellion activist and her much less political sister Fran. We listen into their phone conversations and their different responses to climate change. As the story unfolds, we go on the journey with Fran as her perceptions towards global warming begin to alter. I wanted to discuss environmental themes in a recital without being preachy.

How is 12 Years structured?

There are 12 tracks in the piece, which reflect the idea of a countdown to 2030. Each track has a different theme, and these include the Camp Fire, which blazed across California in 2018, destroying the town of Paradise. We hear the voices of survivors from this fire, which killed 85 people. One track focuses on the sound of a melting glacier and the penultimate track features Greta Thunberg. I was interested in how her voice and the urgency of her speech has changed since her first TED talk. Finally we’re urged to consider how we feel, striving for hope and action. My intention is to bring climate change into an emotional space. 1

Describe your Inside-Out piano.

It is like a grand piano tipped up, so the strings are vertical. I play the strings, strum and pluck them like a guitar or harp. I also hit the strings percussively, using a glass ball to make amazing sliding sounds or a rubber ball to get the sound of a whale underwater. I’m always thinking in pictures and 12 Years is a multi- sensory experience: I considered how to make sounds so that you would feel like you’re near a wildfire or a glacier. Fortunately, the piano is so expressive and resonant that it can do all of these things!

There are some amazing people joining you for post-show chats. Tell us more about them.

I am so thrilled with the guest speakers and their input is extremely valuable. Following an hour of listening and thinking, my audiences will be able to have an open conversation with the experts. Speakers include IPCC lead author Julia Steinberger, climate scientists Ed Hawkins (‘Show Your Stripes’), Richard Betts MBE, leader of Climate Impacts at the MET Office, and Richard Pancost, Director of the Cabot Institute. Anna Hughes leads the Flightfree campaign and Rupert Read is Extinction Rebellion’s spokesman.

‘Sounds of hope’ emerge towards the end of the performance. How hopeful are you that the global climate crisis can be averted?

I feel that it is my job as a parent of two children to be hopeful and I believe in our capacity to be empathetic and caring. If people understand what scientists are telling us, and what our options are, along with what trajectories look like, then we can change our impact on the earth. I believe that what is good for the planet is good for us: walking or cycling more, sharing more, being community-minded, thinking local in terms of food production. I do think a fairer society is possible and necessary.