About This Project

By Tanya Kalmanovitch

The Tar Sands Song Book is a documentary theatre project about our complex personal relationships to oil. Last summer, I returned to northern Alberta, Their stories, and mine, are inspiring a new play and a new body musical works that make our complicated relationships to oil audible from multiple perspectives.


A Brief History With Oil

I was born in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada in 1970. That makes me roughly the same age as the development of northern Alberta's oil sands: a project that, in my lifetime, grew from a remote, obscure mining operation into what some now call the largest and most destructive industrial project on earth. 

In 1970, Fort McMurray was a town of about 6000 people. Nearly 5000 of them had arrived since the mid-1960s, as the Great Canadian Oil Sands prepared to open the world's first oil mine. My family were among them. My father, like many, sought his fortune in a great northern gamble. It might seem counter-intuitive: that moving to a remote, northern town could being about a bigger life. But oil drives more than economic opportunity: around the world, it's a harbinger of fortune, a convener of talent, desires and dreams. 

Growing up in Alberta in the '70s and '80s, oil soaked everything. It was so ubiquitous, you could almost miss it. For a time we lived in a house in a neighborhood called Petrolia. Our local hero was Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers hockey team. The McDonalds had a pumpjack in the playground, its insatiable, solemn head nodding like our drinking bird toys.

But as a child it was music, and not oil, that offered me my first glimpse of a world beyond Alberta.  It was in the black-and-white pictures of Japanese children modeling sober postures in my Suzuki method books; in the German, Hungarian and Czech names of the pedagogues whose études I strove to master; and in the foreign accents of my music teachers, displaced to an isolated Canadian frontier.

Music gave me personal agency: something that was scarce for a girl of my age, ethnicity and social class. It offered me both a way to imagine myself in a bigger world, and the means to assume my place in it. Literally and figuratively, music gave me a voice. 

My growing awareness of oil's environmental impacts shaped my decision, at age 14, to become a professional musician. There seemed to be two routes one could take: one would lead to employment, directly or indirectly, in oil. The other would serve deeper, invisible things. Music, I reasoned, would be like water to oil: ubiquitous, essential and un-mixable.  At 17, I moved to New York to study on scholarship at the Juilliard School. I changed my surname to my stepfather’s, the better to match the life I was about to assume. When I left Alberta, I meant to never look back. 

But not long after I graduated from Juilliard, I did move back. Perhaps I'd moved too far, too fast: from the middle of nowhere to the center of everything and back. Either music had failed me, or I'd failed music. I couldn't figure out which it was, so for a time, I stopped playing music. 

Instead, I went to graduate school. I wrote about the history of animals and technology in psychology and postcolonial power relations between India and the West, completing a M.Sc. in psychology and a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology. At the time, there didn't seem to be much that connected my intellectual pursuits. Now, I can see how my research was asking the same basic question: In an era of unbridled progress, how do we make sense of where we came from, and where we stand?

Let me put it more bluntly. My mother grew up on a farm in central Manitoba without heat, electricity or running water. I was born to a working-class family in Fort McMurray. I started violin lessons at age three, and at seventeen I won a scholarship to Juilliard. Read it one way, and it's a triumph for music: discipline, desire and talent winning over geography and social circumstance. Read it another way, and it's about education and feminism and my mother navigating our way into a better life through the force of imagination and determination. Read it still another way, and it's the story of the twentieth century: of metropoles over margins, of colonialism shading into capitalism, and its unredeemable promise of limitless growth for all.

It's taken me until now to see that the things I imagined to be separate — oil and music, past and progress, capitalism and art, remote northern towns and the capitals of the world — are in fact closely intertwined. Music, like oil, is an elixir of possibility. As a child, music seduced me with talent, promise and dreams. Oil, as it turns out, is not so different. Oil and music each flow invisibly through every facet of human life. Pull on a thread, and the fabric puckers in surprising places.

How I Came to This Project

I did wind my way back to being a musician, and I moved back to New York in 2004. These days, I divide my professional life between performing and teaching music; traveling to research and perform; and thinking and writing about the connections between music and the big social issues of our time.  Much of my work has involved distant places like India, Turkey and Afghanistan. Gradually, I left Alberta behind. Two recent events, though, brought my gaze back home.

In October 2012, New York City was hit hard by Hurricane Sandy. Overnight, my Brooklyn neighborhood, Red Hook, became a disaster zone. The damage was immediate and indiscriminate. Recovery was not. Months after the storm, the 8000 residents of NYCHA's Red Hook Houses, the city's second-largest public housing project, still lacked power and water. 

In Alberta, I grew up knowing the danger of isolation. Nature could kill you, and cities felt safe. Sandy changed that for me. Now, cities feel like vulnerable places. I've seen what a few feet of water can do, and how recovery is rarely a simple matter. Some things, once broken, cannot be put back together. 

Then, around 2014, the heated debates over the Keystone XL pipeline put Fort McMurray in the center of the international news. For years, whenever someone would ask me where I was born, I’d have to pull out a map. Fort McMurray often didn't appear, so I'd use my finger to trace Highway 2 from Calgary north to Edmonton, and Highway 63 from Edmonton north to Fort McMurray, and we'd marvel at how far it was from there to where we stood.

With Keystone, though, things changed. Suddenly, people in New York didn’t just know where Fort McMurray was, they had opinions about it. My reactions were complex: a welter of pride for my place, grief for what had been done to the land, and resistance to people from outside of Alberta who claimed to speak for the land and its people. 

Fort McMurray is not a "ground zero". Or maybe it is, but it's also much more than that. It's the story of my life: the place where I was born, where my father and step-father worked, where my step-brother was killed. It's the miniature jars of bitumen and its byproducts that stood on the console that housed my step-father's stereo components and classical LPs. It's the olives and mortadella and espresso he bought from the Italian store. It's my mother going back to university, decade by decade, until she'd turned a Normal School certificate into a doctorate. It's the first grant I got through my own efforts, the one that took me all the way to San Francisco to audition for an orchestra that played in Carnegie Hall on Christmas Eve 1986. 

Oil convened the people and institutions who shaped my early life, who brought me dreams of promise and learning and beauty, and made me who I am. Oil was the thing I resisted, that compelled me to declare who I wished to become. Let’s just say I have an especially complex relationship to oil.

An Invisible Atlas

For years, I've carried with me an invisible atlas of Alberta. It's full of images, ideas and feelings: the idea of north, the feeling of space, the texture of trees on a mountainside, the tone of the sky, the angle of light in the winter dusk driving north, the rough rapid-fire of my Uncles' voices. These things make no sense in New York. There's no escaping industry, and my origins function invisibly. No one knows where I'm from: I'm white, that's all, with a Russian surname, an artistic pedigree, and a decent job. Anyway, it was my tacit understanding that to pursue a life as an artist was to choose to sacrifice part of my past in exchange for progress. 

For years, it seemed like no sacrifice at all. 

Sandy and Keystone XL challenged this tacit understanding. Together, they brought my gaze back to Fort McMurray: to questions of my identity (What does it mean to be be from this place?), of the landscape (What is this place before nation, empire and industry?) and from there to a deeper questioning of the imaginary border I'd placed between music and oil.  

In April 2015, I was invited to sit on a panel for an Earth Day event hosted by the The New School's Tishman Environment and Design Center. At one point I heard myself say, "I grew up in Northern Alberta. I became a musician because I wanted nothing to do with oil." Someone in the audience tweeted it.  


I could feel the words hit their mark: it was satisfying, like a perfect thwack in the sweet spot of a racket. But for a long time after that, I felt uneasy about what I'd said. The story was too good, the divisions too tight, the package too perfectly wrapped. I was conflating heroic, romantic myths — about classical music, about social class, about New York City — with a claim to special kind of wisdom about oil and its effects. Each of these things are true, in their way, but none of them are adequate. 

Absent were the complex, inextricable relationships between oil and its opportunities that brought me to where I sat. Unspoken were complex personal dynamics that led me to change my name, or drove me to make music in a voice that was my own, and fostered an ambivalent but stubborn pride in my working-class roots. The invisible atlas was invisible. How do you tell a story like that in a soundbite? Looking back, that day was the day that my wall between music and oil came down.

It was also the day that I began to try to tell a new story about my life, and the relationship between music and oil.

That night, the Tishman Environment and Design Center invited me to join as Affiliate Faculty. This carried the possibility of funding to apply my musical research practice to environmental issues. For a year, I struggled to come up with a way to bring these two fields into meaningful contact. How might I use musical knowledge productively and pragmatically to drive new understandings? How might I tell my story without implying privilege, on one hand, or auto-exoticism on the other?

I dismissed many ideas before arriving at this one. In the end, what makes me comfortable about this approach is its linchpin of personal history. If you want to understand how the world works, your own life is as good a starting point as any.  And there are many things I don't know, or understand, about how I came to be where I stand now. 

There are many things we can't change in the world, but one thing we can change is the story we tell about ourselves.

A Song Book, a Play

The Tar Sands Song Book is my effort to tell a new story about oil and music. In August 2016, I spent a month in Alberta, back in the culture and landscape that shaped me. I gathered sounds and stories from people, like me, whose lives are marked by living close to oil development and its effects. 

Returning to New York, I'll compose a new set of musical scores that will form a rich visual and textual narrative of our relationship to oil. I'm inspired by open-form compositions of the American and African-American avant-garde, composers like Anthony Braxton and John Cage who use indeterminate structures and graphic notation to make their music open to multiple readings by different kinds of performers. This kind of music was not a part of my early training, and it's nothing like the music that most of my friends and family back home would remember me playing.  

To many people, it’s ‘difficult’ music: loosened from obvious forms and structures. To me, it’s delightful: playful, a puzzle, a map that you can navigate and refuse at the the same time. There's a productive tension between the authority of the composer and the authentic power of the performer (typically reduced to an "interpreter" in Western art music). It unsettles the power balance in delightful ways.

In my scores, pipeline maps can become melodies; data can become twelve-tone rows; annual reports can be set into songs; and musical instruments can become machines. It's a slanted lens on the story of oil, and one that I hope will open new possibilities for understanding our own relationships to oil and the environment.

Back in New York, I’ll also be working with playwright and director Cecilia Rubino to develop a documentary theatre play based on this project. Stories will form the basis of dramatic monologues, layered with the music I’ve composed. The premiere performance will take place during Earth Week 2017 at The New School in New York City.  At the same time, I'm lining up performances by musicians in many different places. 

...par la faute de la musique.

In his own "Song Books", composer John Cage quoted Erik Satie: "Et tout cela m'est advenu par la faute de la musique." (Loosely, "All of this happened to me because of music." The deft irony comes across better in French than in English.) Satie didn't mean it charitably, but I've used it to understand many things in my life: chiefly, the role of music as I've refused, returned, revised and renewed the terms of my relationship to home. This project is another iteration of the same investigation, but this time, it's in the inverse. Here, I think, I'm using home to reimagine my relationship to music itself.