Solastalgia—a portmanteau of the words “solace” and “nostalgia”—describes “the feeling of distress associated with environmental change.” While it was only recently coined by the Australian professor Glenn Albrecht, the feeling is universal—it’s been a part of the human experience for centuries. Nearly everyone can recall a moment when their life was affected by natural phenomena, like a severe storm, or a drought, or a man-made problem like urbanization, creating a level of discomfort or distress.
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In 2019, however, more and more communities across the globe are experiencing a sense of solastalgia, this time triggered by the increasing consequences of climate change. “Even just in the United States, many coastal areas and populations are in what is called the ‘flood zone,’” explains composer Rafael Anton Irisarri from his home in New York; to illustrate, he lists a few that hit close to home: floods in South Florida and New Orleans in May, and 2012’s Hurricane Sandy in the Big Apple. “The scary thing is that currently, in our country, there is nothing being done to address these issues. The official stance is denial.”
Irisarri’s new album on Room40, aptly titled Solastalgia, tackles that feeling of tension, fear, and unease. Inspired by the musician’s visit to Iceland in the summer of 2018, where he witnessed the visibly vanishing glacier of Snæfellsjökul (a natural marvel set to disappear by 2050, and which is pictured on the album’s cover art), Solastalgia is centered around the existential dread that accompanies climate change. The album’s themes are reflected musically in various ways: in the numerous layers of distorted textures that appear near the end of “Coastal Trapped Disturbance,” in the immense space of “Chrysalism,” in the solemn melodies of the closing piece “Black Pitch.” But even though the subject matter is severe, the music never feels apocalyptic; there is an element of optimism too—as Room40 label owner Lawrence English put it: this music is “hopeful gloom.”
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For Irisarri, making music provides a refuge from the incessant anxiety. “When I look at the way I create music in the studio, for me it’s always been a cleansing kind of exercise, where music becomes therapeutic for me. It’s a way for me to cope with all these heavy thoughts.” And while the New York musician’s work tackles dark subject matter—like climate change, or the doomsday clock (Midnight Colours)—Irisarri processes them the only way he knows how: “I just make a bunch of noise.”
On Solastalgia, the ways he “makes noise” have changed. Heavily processed original audio material (including field recordings from Iceland) is molded into beautiful drones and textural tools, sampled, resampled, and processed beyond recognition. The vocals—Irisarri’s, and his friend’s Leandro Fresco’s—are more present, especially in the album’s first two pieces. But perhaps, most notably, on Solastalgia Irisarri employs various generative and automated tools that embellish his drones with shimmers of melody, gentle flourishes of texture, and hints of syncopated rhythm that harken back to his childhood in the Carribean. On “Visible Through The Shroud,” for instance, new melodies and subtle crackling rhythms rise from the depths of the texture, only to disappear a few minutes later. “Kiss All The Pretty Skies Goodbye,” on the other hand, constantly introduces so many new ideas it’s hard to keep track of them all. As a listener, you never quite know where to look, how long to pay attention, or where to direct your energy. This feels strangely familiar—it mirrors the way we’re constantly barraged by news pieces, scientific reports, and brand campaigns.
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Irisarri has been addressing environmental themes in his work over the past decade; Solastalgia feels like a culmination of this journey—a final universal statement. In some ways, it also acts as a warning. When asked about the possibility of future generations looking back at this period of time as one defined by environmental distress, he responds, grimly: “Will we even have a future to begin with?”