Sally Beamish: Cereal music for the weed-killers

Sally Beamish's new Proms piece calls for cleaner farming methods.
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The Independent Culture

Composer Sally Beamish has good reason to be worried about the use of organophosphate chemicals in farming – concerns which lie behind her new work Knotgrass Elegy, premiered at the Proms next Sunday. A few years ago her husband was accidentally exposed to them. He is now permanently sensitive to a range of chemicals, including everyday products such as washing powder. If he comes into contact with these, or if crop-spraying is going on in the area in Stirlingshire where the couple live with their three children, he can suffer nausea, chest pains, heartbeat irregularities, dizziness and severe pain.

"I get very angry every time we go out and he has an attack of illness because there's spraying going on," says Beamish. "I think people do things they know deep down are not very good because everyone else does them. But more and more farmers are chronically ill from working with this stuff, and it's not being admitted that it can make you ill – and there's no safe way of using it."

The text of Knotgrass Elegy – written for Beamish by Scottish poet Douglas Goodbrand Saunders – resulted from Beamish's reading of the book The Killing of the Countryside, a devastating denunciation of British postwar farming practice written by the agricultural story editor for The Archers, Graham Harvey. Some years before the current foot-and-mouth crisis turned the woes of the countryside into headline news, Harvey pointed to something potentially more serious, how the system of agricultural subsidies in Britain has rewarded intensive farming methods and disastrously encouraged copious use of artificial fertilisers and insecticides. If insecticides are damaging to humans, their impact on biodiversity is nothing short of catastrophic – which is where the knotgrass comes in.

An unprepossessing weed once found in cereal fields, the knotgrass was wiped out by indiscriminate insecticide use in the 1960s. Its passing went unnoticed and unmourned, until its special role in the greater scheme of things was realised. As well as being a nuisance to cereal growers, it was the primary food source of the knotgrass beetle, whose larvae were eaten by the chicks of certain game birds: destroy the knotgrass, it emerged, and you severely dent the population of partridges.

Sally Beamish was deeply impressed with the fate of the unloved weed. "I found the story of the knotgrass very moving," she says. "If you eradicate a weed there are knock-on effects: the knotgrass beetle is now nearly gone and as a result the partridge is under threat. Only then did people start to notice something was wrong."

Her Knotgrass Elegy takes the form of an oratorio set in the Garden of Eden (a pre-subsidy Britain, perhaps), with one chorus singing the role of Earth, a children's chorus taking the parts of Flowers, Insects, Birds and Children, and a male soloist portraying Man – a weak and easily corrupted character seduced by the Tempter into boosting the productivity of paradise with chemical fertilisers. The Knotgrass, Knotgrass Beetle and Partridge are not forgotten, embodied on stage by a soprano soloist. Beamish explains: "It's the idea of mankind awakening to creation and the subtlety of creation and the way everything interacts. And then comes the Tempter, who is perhaps the serpent, or greed, or laziness: it's left open to interpretation. He offers an easy way to riches and power over creation rather than working with creation."

A final non-singing soloist is a saxophonist – Tommy Smith – whose improvisations represent what Beamish calls "the process of creation, a supreme being of some sort".

Knotgrass Elegy may not be the sort of salvo usually fired by the National Farmers Union and the Soil Association in the war over pesticide use, but its arguments find sympathy with an expert such as Graham Harvey. "A huge chemical industry says we have to produce food that way," he says, "but I'm not convinced, and neither are a lot of farmers in their heart of hearts. There's something about rural culture that's in denial at the moment, and is very defensive about practices that have continued for 30 years and are suddenly under attack."

Ignoring the state our countryside is in will be another nail in the coffin of species diversity. "One line of text in Knotgrass Elegy goes 'Join hands with these subtle dancers'," says Beamish, "and it is very much like a dance which only works if everyone interacts with everyone else. If that gets broken, everything spirals out of control, and that's what's happening."

Knotgrass Elegy is premiered at the Proms on 29 July, Royal Albert Hall, SW7 (020 7589 8212). The Killing of the Countryside is published by Vintage, £7.99