It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that plastics are destroying the planet, since a bunch of geniuses already did. Nevertheless, the experimental electronic duo Matmos wanted to remind us of this fact earlier this year when they released Plastic Anniversary, an album where every sound is sourced from plastic materials: a Plexiglass riot shield, a discarded breast implant, a broken vinyl record. It’s all very clever musically, as Matmos’ work always is, but also slightly superfluous as far as agitprop goes. Perhaps that gratuitousness accounted for the desperately madcap air of the duo’s recent performance at Krakow, Poland’s Unsound festival, where they thwacked away at objects molded from “dead dinosaur juice” in the wholly incongruous setting of a 19th-century opera house. As beats fashioned out of fossil-fuel products flubbered their way around the hall’s velvet-and-gold-leaf contours, it felt a little like fiddling while Rome burned—or, more precisely, sampling while the ice caps melted.
Then they reached the last song. M.C. Schmidt stood center stage, crinkling a plastic shopping bag against the microphone’s metal grill, while his partner Drew Daniel did something inscrutable to the muted rustling sound on his laptop. On the screen behind them, grainy video taken by a Japanese research vessel showed a succession of plastic bags floating in the ocean or strewn across the seafloor. It went on like this for two minutes, four minutes, more, without any noticeable change. Can something be both hypnotic and soul-crushing? When my gaze returned from the video to Schmidt, his fists were stuffed with plastic bags, and there was a pile of them discarded at his feet. By now the sound was a dull gray roar, drab and undifferentiated. If the first 30-odd minutes of their set had been a hoot, this final descent into white noise and dead oceans was intentionally ugly and monotonous. But given the urgency of the subject at hand, Matmos’ refusal to make something entertaining out of the garbage that is killing us felt necessary, maybe even a little brave.
Consider Matmos’ set part of a recent wave of experimental music that responds to the growing climate emergency. The specter of global warming is increasingly pushing its way into a broad spectrum of popular music, from Lana Del Rey and Billie Eilish’s lyrics about L.A. being in flames, to Weyes Blood’s references to surging seas and disappearing coastlines in the title and cover art of her 2019 album Titanic Rising. But the strain of protest music represented by Matmos and their peers is categorically different. It prioritizes sound over lyrics, noise over signal. Abstract in form but pointed in its critique, these expressions of ecological resistance and anthropocene despair often use some element of the looming catastrophe as a key part of the music itself.
Even at Unsound, Matmos were not the only ones exploring these themes. The Icelandic musician Hildur Guðnadóttir’s performance, which took place in a rickety warehouse, was a surround-sound presentation of her score to Chernobyl, the HBO series about the 1986 nuclear meltdown that killed tens and poisoned thousands more. At first, when Guðnadóttir and her collaborators laid down crackling, rumbling tones set to flickering fluorescent bulbs overhead, the setting felt a bit too on the nose, as though we had wandered onto a Universal Studios recreation of the nuclear disaster. But gradually, my skepticism faded. As the music grew to a monumental throb, strobe lights flashed and dry-ice smoke pumped out of foil tubes; squeezing my eyes shut, I saw a disorienting blur of red and blue, and imagined atomic radiation pulsing through a human body. The physicality of it was overwhelming—and then Guðnadóttir began to sing. Barefoot, head bowed, she offered up a wordless song of almost terrible beauty, her high soprano as fine and sharp as a surgical instrument. It became clear that this was nothing less than a lament—for the dead and the sickened, for the ruined land and poisoned future, for all the human-made disasters still to come.
Last month, the Cambridge, Massachusetts, musician Sug released Music for Cycling Waste, an album meant to spotlight the growing problem of e-waste—that is, the avalanche of obsolete phones, computers, gadgets, and the assorted toxins and heavy metals that we pour into landfills across the post-colonial world. Inspired by anthropologist Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World and the work of e-waste activist Eric Lundgren, the album is intended as a speculative soundtrack to the life cycle of our discarded devices. The amorphous, highly synthetic ambient pieces suggest leaking battery acid, cracked LCDs, and arrhythmic hard drives; they represent the artist’s imagined version of the music playing in the headphones of people disassembling old Razr flip phones and Palm Pilots, separating which parts get burned, buried, or sold. It’s hard to envision downtrodden e-waste processors of the world choosing to listen to detuned bleeps reminiscent of Wall-E’s mournful chirp, but if we’re thinking about those people at all, that’s a win. The main point of the project is to make visible not just the hidden consequences of our consumer decisions but also all the forgotten workers at the tail end of the supply chain. (In a particularly clever twist, a limited-edition version of the album came packed on a recycled iPod.)
A similarly speculative project is choreographer Sergiu Matis’ 2019 performance piece Extinction Room (Hopeless). Its multi-channel soundtrack, by German musician and sound artist AGF, reworks field recordings of extinct or endangered animals into a kind of virtual forest—a biosphere populated by ghosts, teeming with loss. One piece from the show, “INDRI indri,” was excerpted in AGF’s recent album Commissioned Works; what sound like reed instruments or bowed strings are in fact the cries of the indri, a critically endangered lemur native to Madagascar. Beginning with the unprocessed sound of the animal before adding overdubs and effects that eventually approximate ambient free jazz, AGF turns the indri’s already mournful wail into a chilling requiem.
The threat of irrevocable loss lies at the heart of many recent projects that grapple with the scope of onrushing cataclysm. Extinctions, the 2018 album by St. Louis electronic musician Joseph Raglani, was inspired by the threat that humans pose to animal species around the globe; the artist calls it “a struggle against paralyzing fear and a reconnection to life.” As a work of heavily abstracted electronic composition, its core anxiety rings loud and clear: It’s shot through with buzzing insect sounds that could, within our lifetimes, become nothing but a memory. Raglani’s dissonant drones and disorienting textures are a reminder that one role artists can play is to channel the ambient dread of the cultural moment into a tangible form. I listened to the record recently while watching muted news videos of flood damage that followed recent torrential rains in Spain, where I live, and it made for an all-too-fitting soundtrack to the images of destruction.
Also released last year was Landfall, Laurie Anderson and the Kronos Quartet’s brooding meditation on the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the deadly 2012 storm that scientists say was exacerbated by global warming. Anderson’s spoken-word musings drift atop the quartet’s elegiac string work like doleful flotsam on the rising tide. “From above, Sandy was a huge swirl that looked like the galaxies whose names I didn’t know,” Anderson intones, eerily tracing the distance between the impassive stars above and our wretched lot below. British composer Richard Skelton, meanwhile, takes a more academic approach in his 2018 pieces, Front Variations (One & Two): He attempts to translate the phenomena related to Arctic ice melt into sine-wave tones, generating sonic processes that mimic physical ones. The drones are eerie, but the effect is more soothing than galvanizing.
Julia Holter’s 2018 album Aviary didn’t explicitly engage with the idea of climate change, but its bewildering excess—its towering heaps of strings, keyboards, voice, horns, percussion, even bagpipes, all slipping in and out of dissonance—felt to me like an appropriate response to the overwhelming emotions that accompany the threat of eco-collapse. That became even truer when I learned that the Los Angeles musician had been inspired by the writer and painter Etel Adnan, who once asked, “What are poets for in these destitute times?” It’s a question I keep coming back to as I think about the music of the climate emergency.
Earlier this year, in a now-deleted Instagram post, Grimes announced that her next album, Miss_Anthropocene, would be “a concept album about the anthropomorphic goddess of climate Change.” “I want to make climate change fun,” she told the WSJ. Magazine around the same time. “People don’t care about it, because we’re being guilted. I see the polar bear and want to kill myself. No one wants to look at it, you know? I want to make a reason to look at it. I want to make it beautiful.” That sounds, frankly, absurd. I keep thinking of that Matmos performance, and to the possibility that perhaps climate change isn’t something that can be made beautiful or fun—that ugliness is the only appropriate response. But ugliness is uncomfortably close to despair, a sentiment we can hardly afford.
Perhaps the best response has come from the Inuk throat singer and experimental musician Tanya Tagaq, who has tackled the topic head-on in videos like “Sulfur,” a bleak dispatch from the tar-sand fields, and “Nacreous,” about a rare meteorological phenomenon over the planet’s polar regions. Nacreous clouds shimmer with iridescence, but they also have a destructive effect on the ozone layer. The video, which pairs these clouds’ otherworldly magic with Tagaq’s hypnotic drones and growls, is intended to “bring awareness to the destruction of polar ecosystems.”
Tagaq’s music is shot through with beauty, but also warning and anger. Having grown up in the arctic territory of Nunavut in far northern Canada, she—like many Indigenous people—has lived on the front lines of the climate emergency, feeling the brunt of its effects. On her 2016 album, Retribution, Tagaq lays out the situation quite directly: “Our mother grows angry/Retribution will be swift/We squander her soil and suck out her sweet, black blood to burn it.” She knows what she’s talking about. We should heed her words—and intentional noise—however we can.
Full disclosure: The writer also DJ’ed at Unsound festival this year.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork