EnviroLab Asia sheds light on environmental destruction occurring on a massive scale

Kah Hoe, EnviroLab Asia Faculty Fellow

EnviroLab Asia (a five-college initiative) recently held a series of events, workshops and a concert on campus (Nov. 1st, 6th and 9th) focusing attention on grave environmental issues currently facing the Asian continent.

EnviroLab Asia is an outgrowth of an exploratory grant that CMC received this year from The Henry Luce Foundation’s Luce Initiative on Asian Studies and the Environment (LIASE).

The project is led by co-Principal Investigators, Albert L. Park, Associate Professor of History at CMC, Char Miller, W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College and Kyoko Kurita, Associate Professor of Japanese in the Dept. of Asian Languages and Literatures at Pomona College and administered by Project Administrator Karin Mak.

EnviroLab Asia invited award-winning Malaysian-Chinese composer and environmental activist Yii Kah Hoe to share his music and perspectives on the connections between music and environmentalism at events throughout the three-day get-together. Kah Hoe teaches music composition and theory at Segi College in Kuala Lumpur.

“We felt so fortunate to have Kah Hoe on campus as his work embodies the guiding principles behind EnviroLab Asia, which are to nurture cross-disciplinary exchanges, link knowledge with practice and develop links between the five Claremont Colleges,” said Park.

As to the question of how music can be engaged with environmental protests, while at the same time detached from them and stand alone as a “pure art,” Kah Hoe said he agrees with another composer, John Luther Adams, who said:

“If my work doesn’t function powerfully as music, then all the poetic program notes and extra-musical justifications in the world mean nothing. When I’m true to the music, when I let the music be whatever it wants to be, then everything else — including any social or political meaning — will follow.”

According to Kah Hoe, environmental destruction is occurring at an alarming rate everywhere in Southeast Asia, including on his home island of Borneo. He cited the mega-dams at Sarawak and deforestation caused by palm oil plantations as two major concerns. “EnviroLab Asia will definitely raise the awareness of environmental issues in the public,” he said, “and also to influence the public to be critical thinkers that can analyze social messages and decide for themselves what they believe.”

The three-day event kicked off with an “Awakening to the Environment” concert on Nov. 1st that was organized by Anne Harley, Associate Professor of Music at Scripps and an EnviroLab Asia Faculty Fellow, and where Kah Hoe’s piece Forest Threnody was performed by the Claremont Concert Choir and Claremont Chamber Choir of CMC, Harvey Mudd, Pitzer and Scripps.

The composition, Kah Hoe explained is for two sopranos and choir and is a collaborative work reflecting on environmental destruction. Frogs calling sounds were recorded from Borneo by Jennifer A. Sheridan of Yale-NUS College and accompanied a video showing the deforestation of Borneo by Steve Rowell.

In all, four world premieres were presented at this concert for choirs and chamber music; all with strong connections to Asia and the environment, and feature faculty and alumnae from the Claremont Colleges: Snowflakes, Blossoms: Friends of the Way by Marjorie Merryman (Scripps ’72); Li Po Declines by Bill Alves (HMC faculty), text by Warren Liu (Scripps faculty); Thinking of Elder Sister Zhen by Tom Flaherty (Pomona faculty); Forest Threnody by Yii Kah Hoe (Malaysia) & Steve Rowell (U.S.A.); and Chinese Moon Poems (1999) by Marjorie Merryman.

I enjoyed Yii Kah Hoe's visit to Claremont immensely,” said Jaclyn Stewart ’17, who sang in the Claremont Chamber Choir conducted by Kah Hoe. “I had the opportunity to learn from him in multiple classes and activities in the past few weeks. I learned more about the Malaysian shadow puppet theater tradition in my ‘Music Cultures of the World’ course, which just so happened to be the day I was leading a class discussion on Southeast Asian music. Hearing from someone with great knowledge and experience in this area was incredible.”

On Nov. 6th, Kah Hoe led a discussion-based workshop called “Workshop for Change” in which he shared his approach to environmental activism via music.

“One of the striking consequences of Yii’s Workshop for Change—which by itself was transformative—lay in his insights about how the performative elements of protest should also be staged, and done so in response to the space in which the demonstration was to occur,” said Professor Miller. “As compelling were the many student comments that emerged as in small, mid-sized, and large group breakout sessions, we discussed how we might apply Yii’s concepts to the questions that EnviroLab Asia is committed to exploring.”

“If, as one student put it, our task is to assess the impact that oil-palm plantations and their fire-swept landscapes have on air, land, and water should we not bring those consequences back home? Might we not examine how much palm oil is in the foods offered in the Claremont Colleges’ dining facilities?”

According to Prof. Miller, the feedback was “a brilliant reaction” that has led him to develop a team-based project for EA 190, a senior capstone course devoted to analyzing exactly that kind of issue on and off campus. “Yii raised the question, a student reformulated his query into a plan of action, and now we will see if we can develop some answers—this is the liberal arts at their finest,” Prof. Miller said.

In Professor Park’s view, the Workshop for Change gave the students at the five colleges a fantastic opportunity to think about how to connect art to activism.

“He showed us the value of public art in raising awareness of issues and developing a strong consciousness on social, political and economic problems,” Prof. Parks said. “Yii taught us that public art is not just about making art more visible and accessible to the public, but also using it as a vehicle for social change and transformation. Public art is a popular topic of discussion on all of the campuses, but connecting it to drives for fundamental changes in the political, economic and social world and protecting human rights is absent from this discussion.”

The last event, Kah Hoe’s presentation on the “Artist as Activist,” was held at the Athenaeum on Nov. 9th. In his remarks, Kah Hoe described being an artist and activist as “intermingled identities,” an image that resonated with attending students.

“Yii Kah Hoe's visit was wonderful,” said Stephanie Steinbrecher S ‘16 “I feel that we in Claremont can be isolated from movements, from perspectives, and from truly remarkable occurrences going on in other places -- especially places far distant from us, like Southeast Asia. Looking around, two visions of the world came together really cohesively. By acknowledging environmental issues and encouraging learning through art, I have to believe that Kah Hoe's work presented a new kind of perspective to the 5Cs. It was a special moment.”

During the week, the various events of EnviroLab Asia took place at different campuses -- the concert at Scripps College, the workshop at Harvey Mudd College and the lecture at CMC. But the unifying element was Kah Hoe. His presence helped to lay the groundwork for future EnviroLab Asia events including a joint conference this spring that EnviroLab Asia will host with other Luce-funded grantees (Whittier College and Occidental College) at Pitzer College to raise awareness about various environmental issues in Asia.




Pictures from Workshop for Change, Nov. 6, 2015

photos by Karin Mak



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