Environment & Science

Martin Luther King's words inspire viola player's music

Christen Lien and her viola.
Christen Lien and her viola.
Charles Steinberg/Courtesy Christen Lien

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Eighty-one years after his birth, Martin Luther King Junior’s work resonates beyond his original goals. One Southern California musician says King’s words inspire her environmentalism and her songs.

At the Governor’s Global Climate Summit in Los Angeles last fall, Christen Lien was an unlikely participant amid diplomats and policy wonks. Curved tribal spikes fit in her ears – she herself fit in with the youth delegation, invited by the governor’s organizers. "As a group we wanted more action and less talk from the climate conference," she says wryly.

Lien says she’s worried about how a changing climate will affect social justice, like how scarce water can create political conflict. She believes making songs can help make policy. "Music opens people up. It’s a universal language to communicate," she says. "When music is involved on an emotional level, people are more open. Afterwards, the conversations, they have go a little deeper to the root."

Christen Lien’s musical roots are classical. She plays the viola – the violin’s larger, lower sister – a prime target for orchestra jokes. No, she doesn't know any. "But I know they all have to do with the violists being out of tune."

Now Lien runs her viola through guitar effects and a looping machine. She slaps it and scratches its strings to make sounds.

The song "Unconditional" got some buzz last year when photographer Chris Jordan used it in Web videos of images made at Midway Atoll. They document harm to albatrosses from the pool of plastic trash that swirls near the surface in the Pacific gyre. "The mamas are going out and they’re scoping out what they think is food from the ocean but it’s plastic," she says. She hasn't been to Midway Atoll yet; she hopes to. "And the birds are decomposing but the plastic is not."

Another song called “The Crux and the Shadow” Lien intends as an argument for nature, its necessity and its beauty. "The problem is it’s so fragile," Lien says. "I wanted to create a song that warned people you can lose everything you love very quickly if you’re not careful."

Christen Lien celebrates Martin Luther King Day with gusto. A King quote on her CD testifies to her admiration. Faith is taking the first step, Dr. King said, even when you don’t see the whole staircase. Lien believes the environmental movement needs that kind of courage. "Martin Luther King has something he calls 'the fierce urgency of now,' when your vigilance or neglect determines the fate of generations," she says, straining for the exact quote. "And that song of all the songs on this album deals with that concept."

This is what Dr. King said:

We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.

Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.

Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.

Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all God’s children.

Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood...

Dr. King was talking about racial justice. Musician Christen Lien says she takes his words to apply to global environmental justice, too.