Kamala Sankaram: The Last Stand
On ViewProspect Park
September 18 – October 10, 2021
The Last Stand is an experimental opera in three acts that uses field recordings as libretto and score. A 10 hour epic in which the hero is a White Oak tree, its intended audience includes human visitors as well as the grove of trees in Prospect Park where it is installed. It was composed by Kamala Sankaram, known for her experimental work in theater and opera, and the contemporary stories she gives voice to. For example, in Thumbprint (2014), which Sankaram wrote the music for, she portrayed Mukhtar Mai, a rape victim who became the first woman in Pakistan to bring her rapists to court, ultimately winning a settlement and emerging as a major voice and activist for women’s rights.
In The Last Stand, presented by Creative Time, Sankaram explores the history of human exploitation of nature, mapped onto the life of a 300-year old White Oak tree in Black Rock Forest. One year in the tree’s lifespan corresponds to two minutes of the composition—thus the lengthy duration of the opera, which is still a mere blink of an eye to a tree. Using only the raw material of sounds, Sankaram has created a compelling narrative. We hear forest denizens communicate in hoots, chirps and croaks. All “speak” in their own voices, and their pitch and timing has been left intact. Their otherness is magnified as we focus on listening closely. Some environmental sounds have also been transformed into subsonic vibrations, but none have been translated into instrumental equivalents. Wooden structures positioned around the multi-channel sound system allow visitors to perch or lean back and look up into the trees, but the structures are quite uncomfortable, sending a message that while we are welcome, we are not privileged in this space. The Last Stand is not only centered on the human experience.
In Act One: Youth (1750–1840), an invocation to nature is spoken in the Munsee Lenape language. The words are integrated comfortably with the forest sounds that accompany them. As time goes on, other human sounds can be heard, unmistakably intrusive: footsteps, cannons, the sawing and felling of trees followed by the jarring bleats of farm animals and herders’ calls. One set of sounds replaces another, like an unnatural succession. By Act Two, (1840–1970), cowbells and pig grunts dominate. Occasional breaks allow birds and trees moving in the wind to be heard again. By the 1920s, when Black Rock became a managed forest, the agricultural sounds fade and forest sounds return, albeit without wolves and Lenape speakers. By Act Three (1970–2050), sounds of technology become ever more prevalent, and birdsong less so. Throughout all three acts, a rhythmic frog chorus seems to comment on each new development.
We know that trees clean the air and water while providing homes for multitudes of other species. They help to keep the climate stable and prevent erosion. It turns out they also communicate with each other. Sankaram was inspired by research on tree-to-tree communication pioneered by forest ecologist Dr. Suzanne Simard. Simard’s conclusions, initially dismissed but now widely accepted, revise a prior understanding of the forest as competitive. The forest is now understood as a symbiotic ecosystem where trees, fungi, and plants help each other to survive and to support a rich biodiversity. The biggest, oldest trees, the “Mother” trees, nurture regeneration and are connected through intricate underground fungal networks. With The Last Stand, Sankaram acts on the trees’ behalf, wordlessly conveying a sense of interspecies collaboration and harmony. By opening up a space in which the forest can speak for itself, she inspires empathy for the more-than-human world. The sounds of human intervention throughout the opera are nearly uniformly the sounds associated with environmental destruction. One comes away wondering if another story, where humans are more integrated into the world of the forest, is still possible.
Sankaram’s installation is considerate of the trees in Prospect Park, including them too as potential listeners. She has placed a recording of the White Oak moving in the wind next to a maple tree in the grove so that it might experience the vibrations of a tree in a forest. Humans can experience some of these vibrations as well: the benches vibrate with Sankaram’s recorded forest sounds, on low frequency. The Last Stand encourages the visitor to become more aware of all ambient sounds—sirens, dogs, voices in conversation, music reverberating from speakers mounted onto passing bikes—and weave them into any point in the narrative. This heightened awareness of the soundscape we inhabit lasts long after walking away from the benches. Few people will sit for the entire performance, but that is beside the point. Walking away while The Last Stand continues on, serves as a potent reminder that the problems of the Anthropocene are not going to go away simply because we’re not paying attention to them.