Music for the Joyful Earthling

Written by Emma Marris; Photographed by Andrew Wallner

Gabriella Smith felt guilty about making music as the world was burning. How could she justify playing with sound and pattern—exploring the percussive possibilities of cellos, juddering a violin bow staccato across its strings—while climate change threatened to destroy ecosystems and cultures? “It felt so selfish and inconsequential compared to, you know, wanting to solve the climate crisis.”

It isn’t like she wasn’t doing anything to help. Gabriella has been involved in various kinds of climate action for a long time. She got her start at age twelve, volunteering for a songbird research project in Point Reyes, California. As she tells me about her feelings of guilt, we are standing in a little forest, wet with Seattle rain, where Gabriella, now thirty-one, volunteers, working with her hands on ecosystem restoration—planting, weeding, tending. “I’m not leading it or anything,” she explains. “I just sign up online and show up, like anybody can do.” Through a group called the Green Seattle Partnership, Gabriella and thousands of other volunteers have helped this forest in Magnuson Park and other green spaces around the city thrive. I admire a young madrona, with its characteristic creamy warm orange bark. It is one of my favorite Pacific Northwest trees. 

I appreciate Gabriella’s work here in part because I grew up with this park. As a teenager, I would come here to swim or attend outdoor concerts. I saw Pearl Jam play here in 1992. The only plants I remember from those days were endless tangles of blackberries and close-cropped lawns. This was before the park’s ecological rebirth. It was also before I grew up to be an environmental journalist and writer, before I started really falling in love with other species, even as I chronicled how climate change and other human actions could threaten them. 

Gabriella played violin as a youth, then studied composition at Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia from 2009-2013. An early success was 2015’s “Carrot Revolution,” a gristly, weird, exuberant string quartet composition. But for years, her climate work was separate from her calling as a classical composer. One of her first explicitly environmental works was 2018’s Requiem, written for eight singers and string quartet. In the piece, the traditional Latin requiem Mass text is replaced with the Latin names of all the species that have gone extinct in the last 100 years. That Requiem takes twenty-five minutes to perform makes me deeply sad.

Sadness is an inescapable emotion when confronting environmental loss and change. I feel like I’ve back-stroked through oceans of sadness in my career. But while Gabriella agrees that “we need to feel our grief in order to do the work,” she has increasingly tried to capture the joy that many also feel when working on climate issues: the thrill of determination, the sense of community one builds with one’s compatriots, whether you are filing legal briefs, marching in the streets, or planting madronas. This is where the Venn diagram of Gabriella’s music and my writing overlap: we are so over doom and gloom. 

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