In 2013, Paul Walde led a group of 100 people, including a 55-piece choir and orchestra to the foot of the Farnham Glacier, in the Qat’muk area of the Purcell Mountains, in southeastern British Columbia.
There, with the glacier as its sole audience, the musicians performed a requiem composed by Walde. The piece memorialized the glacier, as heightened carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and late-stage capitalism threatened its existence.
To create the work, Walde converted climate data, including temperature records for the area, into musical notation. The composition also featured a Latin translation of the BC government’s media release announcing the initial approval of a year-round resort community near the site.
Walde documented the performance in a multi-channel sound and video installation, Requiem for a Glacier, which he’ll share with London, Ont. audiences in his exhibit Glacial Resonance, opening Friday, Jan. 19 at Western’s McIntosh Gallery. The show also includes his most recent project, Glacial.
Both works, created 10 years apart, address concerns about land use and the impacts of the climate crisis, with glaciers taking centre stage.
Raising environmental awareness through art
Walde, BFA’92, has been immersing himself in his work as an award-winning artist, composer and curator for the past 30 years.
Growing up in Northern Ontario, Walde, who originally trained as a painter, was inspired by the landscape. After graduating from Western, he earned his master’s degree in studio and environmental art at New York University.
Since 1994, he’s used landscape as a device to explore issues of identity, technology, and the pressures facing the environment. But it was a research trip to the Yukon two decades ago that fixed Walde’s focus on the growing and devastating implications of climate change.
“In Dawson City, I saw the effects of melting permafrost for the first time and that led me to do some research about it,” Walde said. “I discovered the supposedly permanently frozen ground contained not only water and mud, but biological material such as rotten plants and tons of trapped methane gas and nitrous oxide. That’s when I realized the enormous implications of climate change. At that same time, people were starting to use terms like ‘tipping points,’ and it wasn’t something I understood until I read more about permafrost.”
Walde felt compelled to ‘do something.’
“I was working with landscape in my art, and this was going to transform it. All of a sudden, landscape became an issue that impacts everyone in a very tangible way – perhaps even more than localized environmental issues might. That’s when I decided I needed to try to find ways to communicate about this.”
In the many interdisciplinary performance works he’s created since, music and sound have played key parts in creating art in natural environments.
Reflecting on Requiem, Walde now recognizes it as “an incredible experience.” But “I had no perspective on it at the time,” he said. “I was more concerned about getting everyone on and off the mountain and how we were going to get the shots.”
He was also responsible for feeding and housing the party, and ensuring nothing was left behind on site, including human waste.
Up until two days before the performance, mudslides – caused by global warming heating up high-altitude permafrost – closed the logging road that would take the group to the site.
Community members involved in activism against the development of the resort became engaged with the project and contributed to its success. Among them, Pat and Baiba Morrow. Pat – the second Canadian to climb Mount Everest and the first person to climb all seven summits of the seven continents – was Walde’s original site survey guide and conduit to the best mountaineers.
Exploring the phenomenon of glacial melt through musical instruments
The second part of Walde’s exhibit, Glacier, explores glacial melt from a different perspective.
“While Requiem features musicians playing for the glacier, in Glacial, the glacier plays for us,” Walde said.
The installation takes audiences to the Coleman Glacier at Qwú’mə Kwəlshéːn, also known as Mount Baker, Washington. The sounds of the glacier melting are modified by using musical instruments as speakers. The resonant frequencies and materials of the instruments act as acoustic signal processors.
Using violins, cello, double bass, timpani and cymbals fitted with sonic transducers, over the course of five hours, naturalistic field recordings are transformed into the resonant frequencies of the instruments which form the basis of a sound composition.
A detailed video portrait of the glacial environment from where the recordings were made accompanies the audio. The large composite is made of hundreds of images digitally stitched together, leading the viewer through a tour of the glacier.
“You’re going to see things in a way you probably haven’t seen before,” Walde said. “Unless you spend a lot of time on glaciers, you’re going to see a landscape that is quite alien to the everyday and hear sounds you would never hear.”
Through his latest works, Walde is interested in exploring what a future culture could look like.
“A culture more in tune with Indigenous and environmental values that move beyond colonial aspirations and late-stage capitalism,” he said. “What kind of knowledge do humans already have that shows we can live in ways that are not just sustainable, but generative, so that we’re participating in the environment? Right now, I think there’s a real disconnect in our current culture through the internet and social media. We’re becoming even more isolated from our own communities.”
Ties to London and the Western community
Walde said he’s happy for the opportunity to present his work at Western, where the influences on his formative development as an artist were “pretty massive.” His connections to campus go beyond his time as a student. He also taught studio arts here and was the artist in residence at the Biotron Experimental Climate Change Research Centre from 2008 to 2010. His broader ties to the London community include serving as the curator of public programs at Museum London and as artistic director and visual arts curator of the LOLA (London Ontario Live Arts) Festival. In 2012, Walde relocated to Victoria, BC, where he’s currently a professor of visual arts at the University of Victoria.
He hopes gallery visitors will draw their own conclusions about climate change and global warming while viewing his works, on display until March 16.
“I don’t ever tell people what to do through my work,” he said. “I’m more interested in how to participate in those processes and problems. I feel like I’ve got my work cut out for me for the rest of my life. And it will be exciting.”
Artist-led exhibition tour
Friday, Jan. 19 at 6:30 p.m.
Friday, Jan. 19 from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m.