Gaia Theory (2014)

For Orchestra   23 minutes

Life clearly does more than adapt to the Earth. It changes the Earth to its own purposes. Evolution is a tightly coupled dance, with life and the material environment as partners. From the dance emerges the entity Gaia. – James Lovelock in an interview in 2000

James Lovelock is now 94, and has been writing and thinking about Gaia Theory since the 1960s, but I only started to pay proper attention to his work a few years ago. A voyage to the Arctic, organised by Cape Farewell, in the company of a group of scientists and musicians, woke me up to the speed and scale of changes that were taking place. I wondered if it was possible to write about this without finger-wagging. In Lovelock’s books, I found ideas that music could celebrate and explore.

Lovelock’s assertion that the Earth behaves as a self-regulating organism, which tends to maintain surface conditions on the planet that are favourable for life, is a beautiful idea in itself; and his image of everything dancing together to achieve this balance obviously invites music.

I was struck by his observation that, since life on Earth began, the sun has got perhaps 30% hotter, and yet the Earth has not. For hundreds of millions of years, the impact of the sun’s heat has been moderated by cloud cover, the atmosphere, the albedo of the polar ice-sheets and so on, all affected by the behaviour of microscopic organisms as well as by animals, the respiration and rock weathering activities of lichens, plants and trees and innumerable other processes, including human activity – all, as Lovelock describes, “locked in a sort of dance in which everything changes together.” From sudden and spectacular events such as volcanic eruptions, to almost imperceptible processes playing out over millennia and even millions of years, Gaia has somehow regulated conditions in the oceans and in the atmosphere, thereby making it possible for life to exist on our planet for some three and a half thousand million years.

I found myself wondering about the dance that Lovelock describes, and starting to imagine what it might sound like.  How would the heat of the sun change the character of the dance?  As one process adapts and responds to another, what would happen if some elements of the dance started to spin out of control?

The three movements of Gaia Theory were inspired by these ideas. I would like to thank Robert Woodford, Dr Stephan Harding and Philip Franses at Schumacher College for helping me to imagine what Gaia theory might sound like as music.

Commissioned by BBC Radio 3

First performance: 28th July 2014, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Josep Pons conductor, Royal Albert Hall.


3(II&III=picc).3.3(III=Eflat-Clar).2.Cbsn – – Timp – 5Perc (1: Bass Drum, Cymbals, Hi-hat 2: Xylophone, Tom-tom, Tambourine (mounted), Triangle, Suspended Cymbal, Tam-tam 3: Glockenspiel, Suspended Cymbal 4: Marimba, Crotales, Hi-hat, 4 Tom-toms 5: Vibraphone) – Harp – Pf – Cel – Str