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Cultural Capital

Splendor and Destruction on the Gowanus

A floating barge on the Gowanus becomes the unlikely but inevitable site for a musical meditation on climate change and what comes after.

9:38 AM EDT on August 3, 2022

(Scott Heins)

On a recent Saturday, right after the sun set and dusk descended upon New York, a quartet called Unheard-of//Ensemble took the stage—the stage being a floating dock in the middle of the Gowanus Canal. The best seat in the house is on a canoe courtesy of the Gowanus Dredgers, bobbing next to the musicians as they strike their first pensive notes.

If a Superfund site seems like a surprising, and somewhat pungent, location for a contemporary classical music concert, that’s because it is. But for "Fire Ecologies," the evening’s centerpiece, it makes sense. The piece, which made its full New York premiere on that steamy July night, is written by Chrisopher Stark. It blends recorded nature sounds with violin, cello, keyboard, and clarinet to meditate on the effects of climate change across America. Accompanying the music is a film by Zlatko Ćosić that shows Earth’s splendor and the places where that splendor has been destroyed. In the Gowanus—which is currently being dredged in an attempt to turn the Superfund site into a Venice-like condo village—that splendor and destruction and the awful problem of what comes after is a tear through nature ripe for musical meditation.

(Scott Heins)

“Fire Ecologies” is another in a long lineage of works that make use of nature, from the climate-oriented music of John Luther Adams to works like Ellen Reid’s Central Park "Soundwalk" to ambient music that incorporates bird calls and cicada hums. Works like these often get us to listen closer, to notice more about our surroundings. “Fire Ecologies” does the same, letting the sounds and smells of the Gowanus Canal become part of the performance. Bridging art with nature is also a big part of the Dredgers’s work, who often brings art to the Gowanus Canal to get people to learn a little more about it (and maybe care more about it, too). 

(Scott Heins)

As we sat in canoes in the middle of the canal, cars and factories bustled along on one side of us; on the other, open water and sky stretched for miles—the wide-open possibility of New York Harbor. The contrasts in the scenery mimic those in the music, which teeters between moments of grating dissonance; frantic rhythms; and lush, heart-wrenching melodies. The film, too, deals in contrasts, often morphing images of landscapes razed by fires into images of flowing rivers. 

(Scott Heins)

Everything became music—even passing garbage trucks. During the piece’s climactic point, cellist Iva Casian-Lakoš takes the spotlight, performing a poignant solo that seems to be suspended in time. It’s a nod to Olivier Messiaen’s “Quartet for the End of Time,” a piece the French composer wrote while a prisoner of war during World War II that also features a piercing, mournful cello solo. Here, cello bursts with melancholy and hope, playing a somber, pleading tune as a deer pops on screen and peers longingly into the camera. I’ll admit—it’s a little cheesy, but in that moment, as I felt the gentle bobs of the canoe and watched the city lights flicker, it worked; I was in the highway median, nature completely surrounded by industry, but still breaking through. Projects like these may not reverse the course of climate change, but they do have the power to help us look deeper into places we may overlook.

As Corinne Brenner, one of the volunteers with the Dredgers told me, “You have to get people interested in a place in order to make them care about it.”

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