Shifting Baseline Syndrome is a phenomenon that is perpetuated when each new generation perceives the conditions in which they grow up as ‘normal’. It capitalises upon our tendency to regard current conditions against a small set of recent reference points so that we do not recognise long-term change. As each generation formulates their own new baseline, the new benchmark is established and off we go again. It is a term normally associated with ecology and creeping unperceived environmental change.
You could say it’s a sort of generational amnesia where we all reset our own baselines to ‘the standard’ that we recognise, only noticing changes that we ourselves experience, without taking account of previous long term change.
I recently interviewed marine scientist Prof. Daniel Pauly from Vancouver University, who coined the term Shifting Baseline Syndrome in 1995, for this project. Some of his words are used in the piece. We talked of many things but one example he gave me regarded the extinction of animals. We don’t lose animals that are plentiful. We lose animals that are already dwindling. Cats and cows aren’t going extinct tomorrow. We hear about animals dwindling (and generally view it as a shame) but it doesn’t really affect us. We get used to the fact that they’ve dwindled but because they don’t affect us directly when one day they become extinct it’s a shame too but again it still doesn’t affect us. We become easily habituated to these shifts.
But I felt this phenomenon could be applied to other things such as behavioural, cultural and political change too. When did we create such complexity in all our systems? Why did we not notice our increasing need for instant emotional gratification? When did our acceptance of oligarchic power, and of media driven pseudo-events, happen? How did we get used to our own disenfranchisement? At what point did the length of a queue become headline news and we accept it?
I wanted to use the piano, the 19th century domestic instrument of choice, to explore this a little. It’s familiar sound, its role in society, its assumed position in the heart of middle class homes, its subsequent use in media and entertainment.
Reality is complicated and the comfort of illusion often more alluring.
Bla Bla Bla was commissioned by Britten Pears Arts for theAldeburgh Festival and premiered in June 2022.