Gaia Theory

The Earth photographed by Apollo 8, 1968. Wikimedia Commons.

In 2008, the composer Jonathan Dove was invited to take part in Cape Farewell – a trip to the Arctic with the aim of allowing various creative types to witness the rapid effects of global warming. As he explained in an interview with Kate Molleson, it was organised in the hope that artists might be able to communicate something to the public that climate scientists, increasingly alarmed but habitually ignored, could not.

The experience informed a number of his subsequent works. In 2014, Dove turned his creative attention to the scientist James Lovelock’s ‘Gaia Hypothesis’. First developed in the 1970s with microbiologist Lynn Margulis, Gaia posits that our planet operates like an enormous self-regulating organism, which maintains near-optimal conditions for life. Named after an ancient Greek deity of the Earth, the hippyish flavour of this influential idea has brought it attention from environmentalists outside the scientific community, and attracted criticism within it too.

James Lovelock in 2002. Wikimedia Commons.

In responding to what he saw on Cape Farewell, Dove wanted to avoid ‘finger-wagging’ – which can spell doom for any artist. In particular he was attracted to Lovelock’s remarks that the Earth’s living systems are a kind of dance, and his Gaia Theory for symphony orchestra treats this optimistic hypothesis with bright colour and rhythmic vitality. Rather than warn us directly about the degradation of the world, this work seems to encourage a child-like excitement and wonder at the magnificence of our planet, the only one in the solar system blessed with the dazzlingly complex phenomenon of life.

We begin, perhaps inevitably, with evolution. From the germ of a chirping woodwind idea, Dove builds up layers which very quickly grow into a pulsing complex of sound. But it is not complicated to listen to – this music falls easily on the ear, with a Technicolor splendour that brings to mind a very different planet: Holst’s Jupiter. Its slabs of interacting parts don’t develop so much as suddenly crack and shift, like geological eras.

In the second movement this energy evaporates, revealing an angelic paradise – all sustained strings, hovering woodwinds and twinkling tuned percussion. It is a wonderland in which we gaze around and marvel, but nothing comes to the foreground strongly enough to dominate our attention. We are left only with quiet attentiveness. Everything matters.

The third movement brings back the intensity of the first, but introduces surprising elements. Low piano riffs and a hi-hat groove move us into jazz territory. Gaia has become a kind of cosmic jam session – unpredictable, whimsical, even fun. Only at the very end do we encounter an alarming note, when the culmination of a full orchestral climax accelerates ominously, before dramatically breaking off.

In the few years since it was composed, Gaia Theory has already been recorded twice. But in the same period, the direness of the planetary crisis has established itself more clearly in the public consciousness.

In choosing to focus on the Gaia Hypothesis, Dove has created a disarmingly direct celebration of the living systems which we are damaging at such alarming speed. Some may find this choice a worthwhile reminder of the awesomeness of nature, something that can keep us mindful of the need for radical change. Others might feel that – the risk of ‘finger-wagging’ notwithstanding – it’s no longer artistically tenable to tackle this kind of topic in a way that side-steps the inherent sadness, anger and dread of our planetary crisis.

Either way, Lovelock’s idea is much grander in sweep than the timescales of human civilisations, which are to the history of life on Earth an almost infinitesimally recent development. Even if global warming accelerates humanity towards a mass extinction event – which has happened to this planet before – in the comparative blink of its ancient eye, life on Earth will have reinvented itself. Small comfort it may be, but one way or another the dance will go on.

Listen to Gaia Theory recorded by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Josep Pons or the BBC Philharmonic with Timothy Redmond.

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