Tar Sands Song Book in the Edmonton Journal

Earlier this summer, as I was preparing to leave for Alberta, the Edmonton Journal's Roger Levesque interviewed me about my project. You can read the article on the Journal's website.  I was apprehensive about being interviewed for a project that hand't yet begun, but it was a good note upon which to start my journey, and a vote of confidence in my idea that a personal conversation about oil and our relationship to it is a conversation worth having.

The comments on his piece hit a nerve with a handful of readers. Some responded critically to my use of the term "tar sands". (Tar sand....where the hell does she live??? No "TAR" sands on this planet!!!" wrote one). This shows me again, why it's critically important that we restore personal histories of place to a charged conversation. (For more on the "tar sands" versus "oil sands" distinction, read this post.) Others expressed a sense of relief (". . .it sounds like a thoughtful considered and fair expression is in the works. Thanks!"). Thanks back to you, commenter. I'm convinced that a different kind of conversation is worth the trouble. 

Read the whole article on the Journal website here. A longer version from the print edition is posted below. 

Seeking Stories: Musican comes home to research documentary on life in the oil patch

By Roger Levesque, Edmonton Journal, 2 August 2016

Sometimes you have to go somewhere far away to understand where you came from.

Just ask Tanya Kalmanovitch. In recent years the musician, ethnomusicologist, author and teacher, who was born in Fort McMurray, found herself in places like Afghanistan, India or at home in New York, often recalling her Alberta upbringing, thinking about how her life has been tied to issues like oil and climate change.

All this will take greater focus as Kalmanovitch returns to northern Alberta this summer on a creative mission, to seek out stories and views tied to living in the oilpatch, to society’s reliance on oil, and its role in our everyday lives. It’s all for a multimedia work of documentary music-theatre, a collaborative project to première in New York next year. Her working title: Tar Sands Song Book.

This comes as an unusual addition to an impressive career. Kalmanovitch won a scholarship to New York’s Juilliard school at 17, later finishing her doctorate in psychology and ethnomusicology in Edmonton at the University of Alberta.

Since her return to New York in 2004, the virtuoso viola player has become an avid member of the jazz and experimental music scene, releasing three solo/group CDs. She’s also an associate professor at Mannes School of Music at The New School in New York.

Q: Your new project is tied to your upbringing in Fort McMurray and Edmonton. Do you still feel a close attachment to your roots here in Alberta?
A: It’s one of those things that’s so naturalized into your experience that you don’t notice until you leave. It’s only now, 12 years since I last left that I realize how indelibly Alberta is part of my personality and psyche.

Q: How did the project start?
The initial concept was simply to generate 15 to 25 new compositions using graphic scores rather than conventional western notation. I work in an artistic zone that’s between composition and improvisation, where 20th century classical and African-American music meet, and I love graphic notation because it opens up so many interpretive possibilities for the performer.

Then a colleague, Cecilia Rubino, a playwright-director in documentary theatre, offered to work with me and bring in a theatrical component. So people’s stories will be the basis of dramatic monologues, together with the music I composed.

Q: On your website for Tar Sands Song Book you explain “I have a complicated relationship to oil.” Both your father and stepfather were linked to the oil industry (her late stepfather, Earnest Kalmanovitch was chief project engineer at Suncor when it was still known as Great Canadian Oil Sands). What else inspired you?
For years, I had this sense that where I was from was really the middle of nowhere. Growing up in Alberta in the 1970s and ’80s, it felt as if there was just land everywhere and that you could do what you wanted with it. More recently, for a couple of years, I didn’t really clue in to the fact that the Keystone XL Pipeline was a story about Alberta. As that dawned on me, I began to see how polarized people were, how they were starting to project such strong opinions onto a place they didn’t know.

When my family moved to Fort McMurray, the oil industry was offering strong incentives to be there, stable incomes, nice houses, good mortgage rates. When I think back, that social progress and class progress is so intimately linked to oil, and more generally, modern conveniences like iPhones and digital connectivity. The way we live today is absolutely linked to oil, and one reason we find it so difficult to imagine a life after oil is because we imagine a return to some post-apocalypse nightmare where we have to chop our own wood.

Another signal for me was the experience of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, hitting my neighbourhood in Red Hook. It was a brutal, devastating experience for my community, but half a mile away everything was business as usual. Imagine living in a zone that was absolutely abnormal for six months without water or power and huge property damage, where people in the next neighbourhood over were still going out for sushi. It was a very interesting experience that cemented a sense of vulnerability in me. I hope victims of the Fort McMurray wildfires won’t experience the same thing.

Q: You must know that these issues are sensitive for a lot of Albertans, and that just your choice to title the project Tar Sands Song Book will be controversial for some.
When I first came up with the idea for this project, I didn’t realize that the term ‘tar sands’ was so politically loaded. To me, that was the name that everybody called it when I was a kid. Through the ’90s, ‘tar sands’ and ‘oilsands’ were used pretty interchangeably. But the switch to ‘oilsands’ actually made sense because it was more geologically accurate, more natural, and more neutral.
I made the decision to keep the name Tar Sands Song Book because a lot of people weren’t aware of the true history, and I’m trying to un-nerve some of the polarization in the debate.

Q: So you don’t want to come out of this labelled as a political activist?
I am absolutely not interested in assuming one position or another with respect to oil or oil development, and whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. I’m more interested in looking at our relationship to it, how it impacts society and our own individual lives. Taking sides precludes empathy and understanding and our ability to move forward together. Part of what I’m trying to do here in this connection between oral history and music is to find my own connection.

Q: Neil Young drew a lot of flack for voicing what many saw as an uneducated view of Fort McMurray. Given your personal experience, can you present a more balanced view?
I don’t think I can help but present a more balanced point of view. If I have a bias, it’s rooted in history and my sense of a place 40 years ago. If you look at the population of Fort McMurray, it was about 1,000 in 1960 to 6,000 in 1970, to about 80,000 now. That means there have been a few different Fort McMurrays during my lifetime and I can only speak for the town of my early memory.

Q: It seems like you are trying to connect what you do as an artist and a scholar, to meld different disciplines and aspects of your experience.
Absolutely. There’s been an old split between what I do as a musician and an academic, and my research has often involved places that are geographically or culturally distant to me. It began as a kid, looking at the map on the wall, feeling how isolated you were in relation to the rest of the world.

When I lived in India I learned a lot about my experience of growing up in Western Canada and my relationship to colonialism and my ethnicity. Then, I was quite involved in a project in Kabul, Afghanistan, over three trips there between 2011 and 2014, to help a music school that was attempting to rebuild and restore the culture of professional musicianship after it had been destroyed by the Taliban in the civil war. This was very far away from home, and I live in a city far away from home, so there was an aspect of wanting to turn my experience back to where I am from.



Welcome, New Readers

The Tar Sands Song Book is a documentary music project about our relationships to oil. 

I was born in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada in 1970. That makes me roughly the same age as the industrial development of northern Alberta's oilsands: a project that, in my lifetime, has grown from a remote northern mining operation to what many have called the largest and most destructive industrial project on earth.

By dint of geography and personal history, I have a complicated relationship to oil. Growing up in Alberta in the 1970s and 1980s, oil was everywhere. My growing awareness of the environmental costs of oil shaped my decision, at age 14, to become a professional musician. Music, I reasoned, would be like water to oil—ubiquitous, essential and un-mixable. But oil is also what afforded me the opportunity to make that choice.

Oil is a vast and complex issue. It flows, largely unseen, into every aspect of our lives. For years, I let the divide between "oil" and "music" stand: it was a neat division that insulated me from complicated changes taking place in the world. 

But when recent events put Fort McMurray at the center of international debates over energy and the environment, it brought my gaze back to my own history, and to a closer examination of my old divide between music and oil. 

If you want to figure out how the world works, your own life is as good a starting point as any. So this summer, with the support of a grant from The New School's Tishman Environment and Design Center, I'm going back to Alberta. For a month, I'll spend time with people whose lives, like mine, have been shaped by living close to oil. Their stories, and mine, will inspire a new body of musical compositions and a documentary theater play that examine our complex personal relationships with oil. 

There isn't any good label to describe what I'm doing. It's part music composition, part design, part enthnography and part theater. 

"Tar Sands" or "Oil Sands"?

When I was a kid, the "tar sands" were just the "tar sands". It's what I remember everybody calling them: industry, government, media, and ordinary people alike. 

It was only after I started this project that I learned that the terms "tar sands" and "oil sands" carry specific political gravity. Industry, research and government favors the term "oil sands", while those who are openly opposed to industry tend to use the term "tar sands". 

According to this report by the Pembina Institute, the term "oil sands" came into use in the mid-1990s, as part of a deliberate strategy to improve public perception of Alberta's oil operations. I can see why the change came about: "tar" sounds dangerous: black, sticky, heavy. "Oil" sounds neutral: useful, natural.

When I started this project, I thought these two three-letter words were interchangeable: but I'm learning that one's choice (tar, or oil) can serve to communicate one's location in a complex array of issues, interests and communities. 

Words have weight, and memories have meaning. It's not without some discomfort that I've decided to keep the "Tar Sands" in my project name. It's partly out of fidelity to the location of my childhood memory: it's a clue to a story that I'm trying to hear.  It's partly out of my stubborn conviction that we must keep trying to learn and tell our stories, even when all we have to go on is a three-letter word.


What's the difference between a million, a billion and a trillion?

Big Numbers 

Over the past few decades, big numbers have become normalized in our conversation. We hear about billions and trillions in the news every day:

But what do these words really mean?  If you're anything like me, you can wrap your head around the idea a million, but you're hazy about billions and trillions. These big numbers just sound big. And the issues they describe sound scary. 

Without a way to understand big numbers, it's difficult to engage in the issues they describe. 

Linguistic Inflation

What we're experiencing is a symptom of a kind of linguistic inflation. Numbers are getting bigger, and so is the scale of our language.  

When I was a kid, a "millionaire" was a very wealthy person: someone who was set for life. In The Beverly Hillbillies, the popular TV comedy of the 1960s and 1970s, crude oil "made Jed a millionaire". Today, retiring on a million dollars takes strategy. Even the definition of millionaire is shifting to describe a person who earns a million dollars a year.

The definition of a billion and a trillion

Growing up in Canada, I went to French immersion school. I took math in French, where I learned the words milliard and billion: in English, 'billion' and 'trillion' respectively.  Ever since, I've been unclear about what a billion is: is it a thousand times a million, or a million times a million?

As it turns out there are two definitions of a billion: a 'short scale' definition (a thousand times a million) and a 'long scale' (a million times a million). The short scale is now commonly adopted as an international standard, but as lexicographer Susie Dent explained for the BBC, there's a persistent generational and cultural divide between the two. 

Under the short scale standard: One million is 1,000,000. One billion in 1,000,000,000, One trillion is 1,000,000,000,000. 

Making big numbers make sense

But how can we understand what big numbers like these really mean? Here are two strategies to help you relate to big numbers.

Pin big numbers to everyday concepts

One way of making sense of big numbers is to pin them to concepts, like time and distance, that we use in our everyday life:

  • One second is one second. A million seconds is 12 days. A billion seconds is 31 years. A trillion seconds is 31,688 years. 

  • An inch is an inch. A million inches is 16 miles. A billion inches is 15,782 miles. A trillion inches is 15,782,828 miles. 

16 miles is a distance you could cover in 5 and a half hours, walking at a moderate pace. 15,782 miles is just about 3/4 of the way around planet earth. A trillion inches, by contrast, is about 633 times around the planet. 

Rescale big numbers to the level of your life

You can also shrink big numbers down to a level that makes sense in your life. Here's an example:

Imagine you earn $50,000 a year and your friend is one of those new millionaires, earning $1,000,000 annually. Her salary is 20 times bigger than yours, so to your millionaire friend, things cost 20 times less. A decent bottle of wine in the $12 and under section costs her 60 cents. A $40 dinner out at a restaurant costs her $2. Her $10,000 monthly rent is your $500 rent. 

As my friend Scott said, "It's like dog years."

Big numbers and social justice

If we can't understand what big numbers mean, it's hard to engage with news about issues like climate change, national economies, population growth, and the redistribution of wealth. Big numbers sound big. The issues they describe sound scary. And it's hard to stay in a scary space without understanding what's there.

I suspect that for many of us this mixture of fear, confusion and guilt leads to passivity. We let the words "billion" and "trillion" wash over us without stopping to ask what they really mean. We feel defeated before we've even begun to inquire. Numeracy is a simple and powerful tool to fight this kind of defeat.