Global Warming

Michael Abels

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes

American composer Michael Abels (b. 1962) is a musical storyteller. Most widely known for his film scores, such as Get Out and Us, he also composes works for chamber and large ensembles, piano, and voice. A glance at the titles in his catalogue reveals his embrace of social justice themes and portrayals of the human condition. Abels’s most recent project is an opera titled Omar, created with Rhiannon Giddens. The libretto is based on the true story of an enslaved West African scholar transported to the United States in 1807. The primary source documents for the narrative, now held in the Library of Congress, make up the only surviving first-hand account of U.S. slavery preserved in an Arabic language. Since its 2022 premiere by the Spoleto Festival, the opera has sparked interest in opera companies across the United States, bringing renewed attention to the composer.

Abels’s orchestral poem Global Warming was commissioned in 1991 by the Phoenix Youth Symphony. The composer’s website states that the title refers to the thaw of international relations taking place in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union disbanded and the Berlin Wall was torn down. Since that time, the piece has taken on new meaning related to climate change. The composer writes:

The opening section of the piece is a vision of the traditional idea of global warming—a vast desert, the relentless heat punctuated by the buzzing of cicadas, and an anguished, frenetic solo violin (with help from a solo cello). This scene gives way to several episodes reminiscent of folk music of various cultures, most noticeably Irish and Middle Eastern. At the climax of the piece, a Middle Eastern melody is transformed, through gradual changes in rhythm and ornamentation, back into the Irish refrain, and many counter-melodies join in to present a noisy—yet harmonious—world village. This joyous moment is broken by a sudden return to the stark vision of the opening, leaving the listener to decide which image may more accurately reflect our future.

Program Notes by Dr. K. Dawn Grapes, ©2023

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan

With a “keen ear for musical color and a deft ability to adapt structural elements from popular music into the symphonic idiom” (Houston Chronicle), contemporary composer Michael Abels has gained widespread recognition for his orchestral piece Global Warming. …it has been given nearly 100 performances by orchestras including Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, Houston, Baltimore, Louisville, Columbus, Indianapolis, Dallas, Detroit, Nashville, Phoenix, West Virginia, New Mexico, Tucson, Savannah, Dayton, and Toledo as well as the Civic Orchestra of Chicago.

Global Warming is an orchestral work that uses the term to describe the warming of international relations that was happening around the world in 1990. The Berlin Wall had just come down, the Cold War was declared over. “I wanted to write a piece that explored the similarities I heard between music of various cultures,” Abels said. “It begins with a desert scene, a depiction of a futuristic vast desert, with desert locusts buzzing in the background. But soon the piece turns quite uplifting. There are elements of Irish music, African music, Persian rhythms, drones, blended to display their commonalities in a way that is often quite joyous.” But rather than end happily, the piece suddenly returns to its original, stark, desert scene, leaving it to the listener to decide which version of global warming they prefer. At the time of its premiere, the term “global warming” was not the politically charged term it is today. The piece was not written as a political statement, but its political message has inevitably deepened as climate change has evolved from theory into reality.

Michael Abels is best-known for his scores for the Oscar-winning film GET OUT, and for Jordan Peele’s US, for which Abels won the World Soundtrack Award, the Jerry Goldsmith Award, a Critics Choice nomination, an Image Award nomination, and multiple critics’ awards. The hip-hop influenced score for US was short-listed for the Oscar, and was even named “Score of the Decade” by online publication The Wrap.

As a concert composer, Abels has received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Meet the Composer, and the Sphinx Organization, among others. His orchestral works have been performed by the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Atlanta Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and many more. As guest conductor of GET OUT IN CONCERT, Abels has led orchestras such as the National Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony. Several of his orchestral works have been recorded by the Chicago Sinfonietta on the Cedille label, including Delights & Dances and Global Warming. He is co-founder of the Composers Diversity Collective, an advocacy group to increase visibility of composers of color in film, game and streaming media.

Recent projects include the ballet for concert band Falling Sky for Butler University, At War with Ourselves for the Kronos Quartet, and the Hugh Jackman HBO film Bad Education.

Program Notes by Dr. William E. Runyan, ©2023