Creative Time is pleased to present The Last Stand by Kamala Sankaram, an experimental opera and sound installation for trees heightening awareness of the complex expanse of multi-species kinship surrounding us.
In the lineage of musique concrète, a composition created from recorded sounds rather than instrumentation and vocals, The Last Stand chronicles the lifespan of a 300-year-old White Oak from the years 1750 – 2050. The “Mother Tree” lives in Black Rock Forest, a nearly 4,000 acre diverse ecosystem in upstate New York. The story spans the Mother Tree’s life from acorn to its “last stand,” the final burst of life-giving energy a tree gives to its vast forest network before it dies. From the quotidian to the catastrophic, the sonic narrative spans elements that produce and hold life in nature. As the years unfold, the human impact on the forest becomes visceral: from the onset of settler colonial occupation to the physical and technological expansion of nearby United States Military Academy West Point, species disappear, storms intensify, and the drone of highways and planes becomes constant.
The Last Stand presents a true biophonic assemblage: drops of water, creaking sounds of growth, and whirling winds reverberate across Sankaram’s composition. The call of the White Throated Sparrow, drawls of farm animals, and human chatter are also present. Botanic tragedy is featured, from an invasion of non-native insects to human-induced threats such as excess rain, logging, and fire. A vast ensemble of organisms and elements, The Last Stand calls attention to the simultaneous, symbiotic, and sometimes ruptured relationships that are present within our ecosystems.
The Last Stand is inspired by Dr. Suzanne Simard’s groundbreaking discoveries about tree communication. Trees exchange resources with each other and an array of other forest life through complex underground fungal webs called mycorrhizal networks. This multi-species exchange demonstrates that forests are inherently social and interconnected.
Using the sonic vocabulary familiar to the White Oak, Sankaram’s soundscape unfolds over 10 hours through a montage of field recordings and archival nature noises. At times the composition is a hyper realistic portrayal of a forest, with sounds from nature that feel familiar yet slightly exaggerated. At other times, the sounds are abstracted, with layers and loops that hint at the rhythms found in Electronic Dance Music and hip hop.
The Last Stand is experienced through a multi-channel speaker array encircling a cast of trees. The story is also told via vibrations felt through a seating system built from reclaimed wood from the New York region.
With widespread deforestation and cataclysmic changes in climate patterns, The Last Stand calls its human audience to bear witness to the long and intricate story of a tree. It emphasizes the possibilities of kinship with nature. The installation’s dramatic duration positions a tree’s life on a timescale that far outreaches our own. At the heart of The Last Stand is the fundamental truth that our planetary survival depends on collaboration with our natural neighbors.