Nelda Swiggett, a Seattle-based jazz pianist who leads the Nelda Swiggett Quintet, says, “My life has been a patchwork quilt in some ways. I’m local here to the Northwest, and I started out at the University of Washington as a classical piano performance major and pre-engineering.”
Swiggett eventually abandoned both the music and engineering programs and earned a degree in Scientific and Technical Communication. Although she left technical writing after her second child was born to focus on teaching, composing, and performing music, this foundation remained useful. “My work as a technical writer has spilled into all parts of my life,” she explains. “When I started developing the script for ‘The Alaska Suite,’ it was in many ways a technical writing challenge because I’m trying to communicate the science of climate change really succinctly to people.”
“The Alaska Suite” will come to the Tri-Cities on Saturday, December 3. It features a five-piece chamber jazz ensemble performing Swiggett’s original music. But “The Alaska Suite” is more than just a concert. A better term is performance, or perhaps experience — one which combines live music, spoken words, pictures, and poetry into something that profoundly connects audience members to the realities of climate change. While this may sound dreary to some, Swiggett emphasizes that the performance is an uplifting experience. “Despite the gloom and doom [surrounding climate change], there is a path forward if we can find the will to make those choices,” she says. “My goal is simply to get people to feel an urgency to act and to feel inspired and hopeful that they can actually make a difference.”
The performance features Nelda Swiggett on piano, her husband Clif Swiggett on trombone and bongos, Julian Smedley on violin, Chris Symer on upright bass, and Adam Kessler on drums. It also features poetry by Jill McGrath and images and narratives arranged by Swiggett. The performance is tightly scripted — much like the climate itself, it’s constantly changing. “Every six months, I have to revise my script because the urgency or the news changes,” Swiggett explains. “It’s very different than it was from the first performance.”
Since its debut on Earth Day 2017, the quintet has performed “The Alaska Suite” 27 times to audiences across Washington. Each time, Swiggett updates the script to better reflect the performance’s location. “We did four performances in southwest Washington,” she recounts. “I was looking at what was happening in those communities — the bark beetles [and] their impact on forestry; the very damaging impacts of climate change on Mount Rainier National Park; the impacts on fishing — so, really trying to focus on what people are feeling in those communities right now.”
As was the case in Southwest Washington, the performance in the Tri-Cities will be unique to the region. The Richland concert is part of a mini tour of Eastern Washington; the quintet will perform in Yakima on Friday, December 2, and Ellensburg on Sunday, December 4. “I’m going to rewrite it to reflect climate impacts [here],” she says. “I’ve been getting some input from the people that are helping put on the concerts in eastern Washington… so it feels more relevant to the audience who’s coming.”
Funds raised from the performance will directly benefit the Tri-Cities community. Because transportation is the primary driver of emissions in Washington, the event is raising money to get more Columbia Basin College students on bicycles. Proceeds from ticket sales will go to Wheelhouse Community Bike Shop, which trains people to refurbish, repair, maintain, and safely ride bicycles. Each $150 in ticket sales will cover a bike and accessories for a CBC student. Wheelhouse volunteers will be available at the performance to answer questions.
“The Alaska Suite” will be performed in Richland on Saturday, December 3, at Shalom United Church of Christ. “Churches have been really great for performing ‘The Alaska Suite,’” Swiggett explains. “In addition to social justice, environmental justice can often be an area of interest for some members of the congregation.” She also thinks there is something special about holding the performance in a sacred space. “The church is also, typically, just a beautiful venue for this concert because they usually have a really nice piano and beautiful acoustics,” she says.
Shalom United Church of Christ is located at 505 McMurray Street in Richland. Doors open at 6:30 pm and the performance runs from 7 to 8:30 pm without an intermission. Tickets are $15 and may be purchased in advance. Tickets are also available for performances in Yakima and Ellensburg. Besides Shalom, event cosponsors include Citizens’ Climate Lobby, Sustainable Tri-Cities, and Cornerstone Wealth Strategies.