In 2018, I went on a trip to India and the UK. Debate over the proposed Adani coal mine had reached fever pitch; I planned to record the sounds of a coal processing plant in India, the type of place that Adani coal would end up. On the same trip, I recorded the sounds of the Durga Puja Hindu festival on Kolkata.

Kim CunioKim Cunio. Photograph © Sitthixay Ditthawong

This trip was shaped by my earlier experiences in Cambridge (UK), where I worked alongside the British Antarctic Survey (BAS). There, I experienced something that I did not think possible: I held an ice core in my hand. These ice cores are drilled by BAS scientists in Antarctica and then taken back to the UK for study, from which a definitive, time-based measurement of carbon dioxide and methane in the earth’s atmosphere is taken for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. A hand drawn-graph of the findings was displayed outside the freezer; the graph pulled no punches.

BAS tech-whizz Pete Bucktrout played me a recording of an ice core melting, that broke my heart and inspired this piece.

In the opening movement, the orchestral lines originated from the process of transcribing the sounds of the ice core: scoring and playing with them, speeding up their crackling sounds, and placing them into a series of scattered, minor arpeggios, like orchestral thought bubbles. As more CO2 is released, more bubbles appear, countered by a slow and building solo violin line which is a representation of us, humanity.

The subsequent interlude asks the orchestra to respond to an extraordinary sonic experience, the ecstatic Durga Puja, which liberates Bengali Indians from normality once a year. Our musical parameters are offered in text, not score, inviting the orchestra to co-create.

In the second movement, the strings play minimalistic patterns that are almost too fast for comfort. The winds lead an elegant dance, the dance of the ‘good old days’ of fossil fuels, before the brass take over with muscular, arresting grooves. The movement finishes with a Tihai, a polyrhythmic, Hindustani musical form.

Our second interlude asks the orchestra to respond to sounds recorded at the entrance of a coal processing plant in Orissa, India. I wanted to capture the sounds of India’s coal economy and to see first-hand where Australia’s Adani coal might end up. I was confronted by stories of staggering poverty; India’s poorest workers labour for as little as $1 a day, in difficult and backbreaking conditions.

In the final movement, our collective grief is stated by the voices of women; I worked with soprano Heather Lee to write and record a 16-voice work. We hear the ice core again, almost submerged before rising with an unlikely hope: my childish optimism that in some way we are moving towards better times. The solo violin is prominent, playing high, seemingly free lines that glue the movement together.

May each of us play our part in making things better.


Commissioned by the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, Kim Cunio’s CO2 and the Ice Core has its world premiere as part of the Classic Afternoon: The Elements concert on 19 June at Llewellyn Hall, Canberra

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