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Rafael Anton Irisarri's New Album Explores the Human Cost of Climate Change

Irisarri's new experimental album is a stark meditation on "solastalgia," the mental distress caused by the changing environment.

by Lewis Gordon
Jun 19 2019, 1:49pm

Photo courtesy of the artist

Rafael Anton Irisarri is relieved that spring’s finally in bloom. The artist’s home, tucked away in the woods 50 miles north of New York city, was battered by another winter of extreme snow, ice, rain and wind just after he wrapped up recording of his latest album Solastalgia in the summer of 2018. But the blossoming flowers and chirruping birds offer only fleeting respite to a musician acutely tuned in to his immediate surroundings. For Irisarri, not to mention residents across the eastern coast of the United States, severe weather patterns—like the polar vortex which claimed 21 lives earlier this year—are the new normal as the effects of the climate crisis take grip.

Violent meteorological conditions, shifting landscapes, and the subsequent emotional impact form the core of Solastalgia, which is streaming below and comes out this Friday, June 21. The title is a term coined by the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003 who sought to find linguistic expression for the mental and existential distress caused by environmental change. Irisarri is committed to exploring the "human component" of ecological disaster in a cultural discussion he perceives as too often abstract and theoretically driven. He conjures monumental slabs of noise to convey the turbulence and weight of our current climate-inflected moment with bleak, overwhelming, but often eerily beautiful results. Fittingly, the tracks embody the shape of environmental crisis: complex, compositional entanglements—described by the composer as a "collage of automations"—which coalesce to produce an unstoppable whole.

Irisarri has been meditating on similar questions of ecology, place and humanity through a string of records for the often environmentally minded Australian label, Room40. The North Bend and The Unintentional Sea both took their influence from specific terrains—the Pacific Northwest and California respectively—before Irisarri expanded his gaze to encompass all of America on 2015’s A Fragile Geography. Like the blown-up audio palette of its predecessor, Solastalgia’s cataclysmic themes sound suitably big. It was constructed from layers of guitar, piano, synthesizer, voice, and field recordings manipulated to near unrecognizable states. The album recalls both the deep time and pressure of geological rock formations as well as the ocean’s elemental horror. At its most affecting, Solastalgia sounds like a tsunami happening in slow motion.

On highlight "Visible Through The Shroud," the breathtaking, panoramic scale is evident but its environmental roots lie in the modest experiences and memories which have shaped Irisarri’s committed outlook on the world. He grew up in the 1980s, splitting his time between Florida and San Juan, Puerto Rico experiencing the increasingly volatile and destructive hurricanes of the region first hand. During the mid-00s, he lived in Seattle, a city not typically associated with the climate crisis but subjected to noticeably rising temperatures. When he visits now, a more palpable hazard presents itself. "There’s always the threat of fires outside of Seattle," he says. "Everything gets covered in this ashy dust and you can’t breathe. Things are only getting worse."

NOISEY: The conversations surrounding climate change and ecological crisis feel like they’re hitting mainstream discourse but it has been a slow build. Was conceptualizing the album also a gradual process or was there a moment of crystallization?
Rafael Anton Irisarri: I'd gone on vacation to Iceland with my wife last summer. We went to the Snæfellsnes peninsula on the western side of the island and there's this big volcano called Snæfellsjökull. It has a 700,000-year-old glacier and the residents were telling us how it’s thinning out because of climate change. In other areas of Scandinavia like Stockholm, locals were telling us how more people are moving to the city because the winters aren’t as harsh which is creating all kinds of other issues. I conceptualized the record in Scandinavia and started to work on it when I got back to New York. Then, of course, we started to get insane weather.

What kind of weather?
Nor'easters, which are a kind of a severe winter storm. As we approached the fall and winter time, the weather was handling pretty bad. The year before, there were four nor’easters in a row which the people who’ve lived here for 55 years had never experienced. At the same time this was happening in the New York area, there were wildfires in California burning down entire towns like Paradise.

How did that make you feel?
It really started to weigh on me. It's our biggest challenge as a species and if we don't address it, I don't know what's going to happen.

Sean Curtis Patrick’s accompanying video for "Coastal Trapped Disturbance" channels that idea of scale. It was shot in Iceland, right?
Yeah, exactly. He also went to Puerto Rico last year to document the aftermath of Hurricane Maria for the University of Michigan. The things he found were brutal, like trailer trucks, perhaps 15 of them, and the guy he was with told him they were full of unclaimed bodies. It's just heartbreaking.

Even if you’re work hasn’t been explicitly concerned with climate change, it’s often felt intimately connected with the environment and landscapes in flux. The Unintentional Sea is partly inspired by the Salton Sea , a failed river redirection in California which ended up wiping out the native wildlife population. Where do you think this ecological interest stems from?
Living in the Caribbean and experiencing hurricanes as a child was impactful. I remember having to bathe myself with a bucket of water because there was no running water for weeks in my house. We had no power. Back in the 80s, only the rich folk had generators. We also discussed the greenhouse effect in school, the fact that emissions are creating this problem. It felt like there was no debate over it at all but now it’s been politicized.

There's a wild stat that we’re pumping 48% more carbon into the atmosphere now than we did in 1992, the year of the first United Nations summit on climate change. We’re knowingly causing this.
For sure. And as I've grown older I've started thinking about the future I'm leaving behind. What's my impact in all of this? I'm sure I’ve contributed to pollution, especially because of the field I work in. I master records for vinyl.

Which are PVC, basically plastic polymer, the majority of which are made from crude oil.
Right. It's terrible for the environment even though I read somewhere that streaming is also really awful for the planet.

There was a recent report which suggested the energy needed to stream music is just as harmful as the plastic waste of CDs and vinyl, particularly when the majority of energy isn’t renewable.
Exactly. And when you think about the fractions of cent[s] that streaming is paying versus the environmental impact of such streams. The power for those streams to actually get converted into often very small revenues for the majority of artists is mind-boggling. But this is where we are and we've allowed it to happen.

When I think about ecological and climate crisis, it’s often this deep, overwhelming, and heavy thing. And your music is also crushingly heavy. Does thinking about the state of the earth and then creating this super intense music ever get to be too much?
Not at all. The music is actually an outlet. It's a form of therapy.

How do you feel emotionally when you’re creating music?
It's like a blur. Sometimes people ask me how I create some of the sounds and honestly, I have no idea. When I write the album credits, I have to go back and open sessions because my memory is so hazy. It's beautiful, almost transcendental, almost like an out of body experience. A lot of my writing is about chasing that sensation. When I’m in the moment, nothing else in the world matters, I’m totally disconnected. And when I’m done with it, I feel so cleansed.

"Kiss All The Pretty Skies Goodbye" feels almost defeatist. Is Solastalgia a pessimistic record?
I like to think of it as hopeful gloom, so not entirely despair. There are glimpses of hopefulness in there but it might just be wishful thinking.

Lewis Gordon is a writer based in Glasgow. You can find more of his work on Twitter.