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Carbon Song Cycle

Carbon Song Cycle is a work for chamber ensemble and expanded cinema. It’s inspired by ongoing changes and upheavals in the Earth's ecosystem, and by the carbon cycle—the process through which carbon is exchanged between all terrestrial life forms and domains. This performance work is a collaboration by Pamela Z (music) and Christina McPhee (moving image). A 'song cycle' associates, in bursts and long lines of experimental sound and cinema, to the core processes of terrestrial life on our planet. 


Carbon Song Cycle was performed at the Kanbar Forum, Exploratorium, San Francisco, in three performances in August 2023 This revival performance, supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, was a co-production with San Francisco Cinematheque and Shapeshifters Cinema, California. 


Performers include: Pamela Z (voice+electronics), Dana Jensen(bassoon), Charith Premawardana (viola), Mark Clifford (percussion), Crystal Pascucci (cello), Christina McPhee (live drawing),  Drew Detweiler (video tech). 


To compose the music, Pamela knitted together melodic motifs inspired by scientific data on the carbon cycle and texts referencing environmental balance and imbalance. Playing on the idea of the natural exchange of elements they pass sonic material between the players and explore audio elements related to the imagery in Christina’s video material. The video is built from footage Christina shot at petroleum fields, natural gas locations, and geothermal sites around backcountry California, along with carbon-inspired drawings and images of processes involving intense heat and chemical transformations.

Carbon Song Cycle premiered at Berkeley Art Museum / Pacific Film Archive in 2013, with funding from the MAP Fund for Performance as well as New Music USA.  It has also been performed in full at Roulette, Brooklyn, New York, and at the Joe Goode Performance Space / Theatre Artaud, San Francisco (2013-14).  An orchestral variation was performed with NextFest at Roulette in 2022.

Please click on the images below for a sampling of links to documentation and writing on Carbon Song Cycle.


 Frazer Ward synthesizes the connections between drawing, the carbon cycle, light, and charcoal in this excerpt from his 'Carbon Immediate,' in CHRISTINA MCPHEE: A COMMONPLACE BOOK (Punctum Books, 2017):

"McPhee’s practice holds together drawing with home-made charcoal and with a cell phone; in fact, it seems to insist that they are on a continuum, from carbon to petrochemical derivatives, for her work articulates the tactility of drawing with the visualization of various kinds of data sets, especially ones related to economic globalization and environmental degradation (examples include climate change data, maps of carbon concentrations, geomorphological data following from earthquakes, research tracking the effects on biodiversity of the BP oil spill, or 16th century bank documents that speak to the deep history of globalization). In the context that McPhee provides, every line—charcoal, musical notes, cell phone light—embodies the expenditure of resources and energy necessary for the forms of capture and condensation that representation requires. As though metaphor were to be measured in kilojoules... Many of the ways in which she condenses and articulates her own research and the work of scientific collaborators seem largely unprecedented. The densely layered surfaces that McPhee produces—whether in drawings, paintings, collages, moving-image or multimedia works involving soundscapes and live performance—ask us to rethink our environmental situation, which is at the same time to say our relation to walls of data, the lines of ones and zeros that now flicker insistently, as if they had embedded themselves beneath the skin of the phenomenal world. 

Yet even McPhee’s most highly mediated works maintain a sense of immediacy. Perhaps this derives from the way that drawing remains a touchstone in her work. As much as some of her works might refer to geological time, they typically insist on the fragility of embodied time...This sense of vulnerability stems from the aspect of McPhee’s work that reimagines drawing as energetic in a broad sense, as fully imbricated in the carbon cycle, the abuses of which are increasingly breathtaking. The line drawn on a surface (or over in the case of the cell phone light), perhaps especially the charcoal line, requiring both combustion and respiration, appears in a new strange light: a thing at once excessive, quixotic, and necessary." 

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