The word ‘solastalgia’ was invented in 2003 by philosopher Glenn Albrecht as a concept to describe the lived experience of negative environmental change. This indicates a variety of contexts – both actual and potential – in which one directly experiences grief and pain from the perception that one’s sense of home is changed, changing or will change drastically for the worse. Albrecht summarises it as a “homesickness you have when you are still at home”.
For Lithuanian composer Žibuoklė Martinaitytė the concept also embodies aspects of nostalgia, for the life and habitat one has known and loved, now disappearing from sight. Her 2020 piece Solastalgia, for clarinet, piano, violin, viola and cello, explores this in a very simple way. For the most part, the ensemble is (depending on your perspective) either willingly or unwillingly confined to a relatively small pitch space, spanning the interval of a perfect fifth from D to A. Their default behaviour within this space is tremulous, as if subject to an unstoppable shivering that never seems to provide either relief or warmth. Yet conversely, the ensemble’s confinement acts as, if not exactly comfort, then at least a notion of permanence or stability, underpinned by the majority of the piece playing out over an actual or implied low D drone. Also countering this instinct to palpitations are sustained tones that do their best to form tentative possibilities of melody, and in addition, Martinaitytė hints at the harmonic world beyond this narrow space with a couple of early instances of B-flat, initially just a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it high register glance, but shortly after appearing more prominently at the bottom of the music, tilting the harmonic colour, only to vanish immediately after.
From here, Solastalgia plays out as a flexing of tension in which both the balance between and emphasis upon tremolando or line continually changes. That being said, almost all traces of melody are heard as taking place in the midst and in spite of the large quantities of instability surrounding them, tending to slip-slide around before either being swallowed up or losing their hold on clarity. This give the work a profound sense of suppressed lyricism – or perhaps, more accurately, compressed, due to the way everything is so bunched up.
While its pitch space is small, the music’s emotionally capacity is boundless, heard with increasing force and stridency as Solastalgia progresses. Indeed, were it in another context, the pair of extended plateaux the piece reaches in its latter stages (the first of which starts to pulsate) could almost be heard as ecstatic. Yet even here Martinaitytė ensures the music remains absolutely grounded, the impassioned high clarinet line contrasting with but not disconnected from everything else which is unequivocally still fixed and rooted to the ground. The work’s lengthy coda continues to balance sustained and tremulous materials, the clarinet quietly keening as the rest of the ensemble either shivers out of existence or, in the case of the piano, resigns itself to the drone from which it cannot, or will not, escape.
This performance of Solastalgia was given by Lithuanian ensemble Synaesthesis, conducted by Karolis Variakojis, at the 2021 Baltic Music Days.
Solastalgia has its origins in the concepts of “solace” and “desolation”. The meaning of solace is connected to the alleviation of distress or to the provision of comfort or consolation in the face of distressing events. Desolation is related to abandonment and loneliness. The suffix -algia has connotations of pain or suffering. Hence, solastalgia is a form of “homesickness” like that experienced with traditionally defined nostalgia, except that the victim has not left their home or home environment. Solastalgia, simply put, is “the homesickness you have when you are still at home”. This term is related to the anguish caused by environmental changes and global warming. It acquired some new meanings throughout the time of the global pandemic where we all have been experiencing a lack of solace and longing for life itself as we’ve known it. The concept of nostalgia is one of the essential components that has been threaded through my work and solastalgia conveys yet another gradation, another layer of it.