For my whole life, I’ve found myself juggling, wrestling with, torn between my passion for music, love of the natural world, and preoccupation with social justice. Along with family, these three have competed for my time and attention for more than three decades, ever since as a kid turning off whatever tape was on to watch the latest David Attenborough.
I think I always knew that the three were intimately connected through our culture. Growing up in a family of European Jewish refugees, where music was always an explicit aspect of the story of cultural survival, and where we were as likely as not listening to Brecht and Weill or Simon and Garfunkel, the connection was right in front of me. As a teenager, discovering music like Sting’s highly political The Russians, Martin Wesley Smith’s environmentally powerful Who Killed Cock Robin, and Not Drowning Waving’s beautiful records deeply interwoven with messages of social justice, it couldn’t be ignored.
But it was only a few years ago, when setting up Green Music Australia after 15 years of dividing my time between campaigning on the one hand and performing on the other, that I really thought it through, with some deep research, interviews and reading.
Before we get back to that, where do I come from as a musician?
Well, I’d say I’m incredibly lucky, incredibly privileged. I grew up in a family which, after going through hell, found its feet in a welcoming Australia, and was able to make a great life here, surrounding us with love, food, abundance and music. Music has been a constant presence, since as early as I can remember, and, at the age of five, I made a fuss that my older brother was learning music and insisted that I wanted a violin. My parents gave me every support. I still have that 1/4 size, and my older daughter was, I think, the 6th of 8 children so far to start learning on it. Talk about reuse and recycling! I also still have my first full size violin, a beautiful 150 year old French student instrument which accompanied my every adolescent groan and joy and remains in some ways one of my best friends.
Classical music was never daggy or embarrassing for me. It was my path to a social life, through youth orchestras and music camps, where I met girls with similar interests and formed lifetime friendships. And it was the source of incredible power and passion and transcendence, with deep social and political meaning – Shostakovich, whose music cannot be separated from its political context, was something of a teenage obsession. Strange for a 15 year-old in 1990? Maybe… But at the same time, there was Bjork and The Cure and Nick Cave, there was the explicitly political Midnight Oil, Billy Bragg and the Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, there was this whole other world of quite transgressive music beckoning.
So, at University, my brother and I and two other friends formed FourPlay String Quartet and started blurring the boundaries between classical and rock as much as we could. At the same time, I blurred the boundaries between my music and my politics, using my position on the stage to advocate for environmental and social issues. When we were recording our third album, Now to the Future, I was confident enough to put my passion into practice and make sure we reduced the environmental impact of the record and tour as much as possible, reducing energy use in the studio, car-pooling, printing on recycled card, and offsetting what we couldn’t reduce. Alongside the tour, I spoke at events around the music industry about reducing our footprint – how and why. A few years later, I finally took the plunge, quit my job as Communications Director for the Australian Greens, and started Green Music Australia.
It was always my belief that Green Music Australia, by working at a practical level with musicians and their surrounding industry, could and would help create deep, cultural, social change. But I didn’t really know how. So I started researching it, with a paper I wrote under the auspices of my friend Matthew Rimmer’s Future Fellowship on Intellectual Property and Climate Change.
The word that brings it all together, for me, is “culture”. It’s such a wonderful word, partly, because it can mean so many different things to different people in different contexts, and yet still have the same underlying driving force. We have high culture and low culture, ethnic cultures, socio-political cultures, culture in yoghurt or a petri dish which makes it come alive, flourish, thrive, create something new and interesting.
Culture guides us as we make the myriad decisions that we make each day. Culture guides what we eat, whether we wear jeans, a skirt or laundered trousers, the words we use, the way we work and commute, how we engage with our children and our parents. Culture sits behind our desire to follow social mores or our willingness to break the law, whether by jay walking or shoplifting or locking on to mining equipment in an act of civil disobedience. Culture drives the way we vote, the music we listen to, the way we deal with conflict. And each of our actions feeds back on and influences culture as it continues to evolve.
Culture is central to a major strand of political theory. Gramsci understood culture as central to his conception of hegemony. He developed Marx’s theory of class dominance to cover a critical point of power dynamics – that those in power will seize control of the arena of ideas as much as they will the traditional arms of coercive power. Power is held by controlling the discourse, and the deepest way to contest power is to contest those ideas at the cultural level.
But there is a deeper aspect to culture than sophisticated political discourse; one that sits evolutionarily deep within us.
It is absolutely no accident that the word culture has artistic connotations as well as political ones. If culture is about our understanding of our world and where we belong in it, art is one of the first and best ways in. Art is how we make sense of our world and how we find our place in it. Art, including music, is one of the earliest human impulses. Actually it predates humanity, and is found in many other species, from mating calls to territorial marking to group bonding.
This instinct for music as a way of finding and cementing our place in the world developed into hymns and other religious music, ethnic musics which still bind many of us so deeply, national anthems, and protest songs.
And that’s where I am today. There is no more urgent and vital social or environmental issue that we face than climate change, and, if we don’t face it through music, we can’t truly say we’re facing up to it at all. Music has woven a thread through every major social change battle since time immemorial, but this is the first one where, if we fail, we stand to lose everything. Because, to bastardise the old slogan, there’s no music on a dead planet.
Or, as we say in this song: “You mean the world to me, and the world means you to me.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_bZkXBRYKwM
Tim Hollo is violist and vocalist with FourPlay String Quartet, founder and CEO of Green Music Australia and Executive Director of the Green Institute. A highly regarded musician and environmentalist, he is former Communications Director for Australian Greens Leader Christine Milne, has worked for 350.org, Greenpeace and others, and has performed around the world from the Sydney Opera House to Carnegie Hall. His writing has been published by The Guardian, ABC, Fairfax, Crikey and many others.