Have you ever been to Thuringia? The sixth smallest of the sixteen German States is sometimes labelled as the ‘green heart of the country’; I once even heard the term it’s German’s version of “The Shire” and those of you who are familiar with The Lord Of The Rings might immediately visualize this place now. Large forests and mid-sized mountains are typical for it. It’s the more idyllic part of Germany, far away from the hustle of the big urban cities. NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION actually got its roots in Thuringia, more precisely in Jena, where it first went online eleven years ago. I lived there for only six years but the city and countryside really left a mark on me to this day. For Martin Kohlstedt his history with that area lasts far longer – an entire lifetime actually. He was born in 1988 in Breitenworbis, a municipality in the district of Eichsfeld, the East of Thuringia. And although Kohlstedt has seen large parts of the world by now he remains deeply connected with these places. Pardon me that exposition on German topography but it’s necessary to understand the story I’m about to tell you.
For the past decade Martin Kohlstedt has established himself as one of the country’s finest figures within the so-called neo-classical cosmos. His records provide a wonderful meditative, calming yet quite complex take on the genre while his live performances are fascinating celebrations of improvisation and the universal power of music beyond genre limitations. Kohlstedt’s unique combination of electronic sounds and traditional piano work isn’t a trend-following gimmick, it shows a deep understanding for musical theory and the emotional value of it. If you ever attended one of his live shows you will remember that overpowering bass that really makes you experience the sound in a very physical form. And you’ll remember a protagonist who performs his music with enthusiasm and veneration for the power of sound. There’s a spark in Kohlstedt’s eyes when he’s at his machines that’s too tempting to not fall for it. Like a wondering child he wants to tell us something via his music – “Look what is happening. I can’t explain it but isn’t it amazing?”
“My stage persona tries to keep a lot of that mystery alive,” he tells me. Apart from that Martin Kohlstedt freed his own image by showing a different side of himself. “From quite early on I realized that switching between different sides of you can be tricky. I realized that when I started performing outside of Germany. In Russia, for example they take that whole neo-classic aspect very seriously. On the other side I’m still a German boy from the countryside. But nobody knows that in Teheran or the United States. So, I tried to find middle ground here.” Music is the creative energy source of Kohlstedt but when we meet up for a video phone call the other week it’s not about the seriously looking composer in black and white – I’m talking to the boy from East Thuringia, one that deeply cares for the nature of his home country and beyond. The forest is aching – and this man has found a way to help.
Pragmatism beats romanticism
Back in 2019 Martin Kohlstedt announced that he would plant a tree in the Thuringian Forest for every sold ticket of his tour. That might sound like a sweet and simple charity idea first but there’s far more to it than meets the eye as he explains to me on this morning. “I turned it into a phrase like ‘one tree for every ticket’ since the idea needed to be communicated in some form. Having it reduced to a simple tweetable sentence helped to spread the message quite quickly and allowed me to gather around 300 people to plant an entire forest.” The whole idea however dates almost 20 years back as he tells me. “I talked about such topics back then when I was hanging around with my friends as teenagers. But every thought ended at the aspect of efficacy and money.” Growing up in such an environment and with his father being a forester Kohlstedt’s connection to the forest is deeply entwined with his personality. He wanted to make a difference but for a long time he wasn’t sure on how to communicate it.
“I was trying to keep the whole subject in the background – I had a slightly adolescent fear that people would mistake it for a shallow charity action. I was trying to turn the earnings from my music into something that has a benefit for everyone. The idea was there for almost five years but it takes lots if planning, research. Forests, areas – that’s quite a bureaucratic challenge here in Germany; quite an unromantic and hard process.”
Throughout our talk he’s keen to repeat that the project isn’t just some sort of marketing stunt. Via the released images and stories he keeps telling through his social media channels Martin gives a realistic update on the planting process of these 3.000 trees. “It’s important to me to have pragmatic and clear perspective of this whole thing and how it works,” he says. “It’s not about dancing with children in the sunshine around trees; it’s hard labour.” Maintaining a forest is more than just planting and watering trees and it’s time that the people understand that. “I want to raise awareness among all the people who are capable of giving a bit more,” he says. “I want to look outside the window and I want to get a certain amount of responsibility back even if it hurts. I don’t know if the forest might survive the next summer. I will probably need to replace trees, I need to foster them. I will look at sky and ask myself ‘When was the last time it actually rained?'” It’s that sort of ‘forced’ connection and relationship Martin Kohlstedt wants to see restored in this society. He didn’t want to simply give a certain amount of money to the Brazilian rainforest so that the climate crisis is out of his sight. “I want that close connection. I want to see how the tree grows, realizing it takes centuries for these to grow. Planting is about patience. I want to share a transparent perspective on these things, not a romanticized one.”
Change needs to start from within
“So, what does that have to do with me?” one might ask here. Well, pretty much everything. Forests are key climate protectors and they are threatened all over the world by deforestation and changing climate conditions. Even if a tree might look healthy for the untrained eye, the damage might already be there. And it’s happening all over the planet. By destroying our forests, humanity is destroying its own future. That’s the plain truth. No romanticized “Yeah, but the trees will find their way” or “I live far enough for that.” Shying away from that harsh reality will only make it worse so acceptance must be a first step. But once you got that it can lead quite quickly to a certain kind of numbness and insecurity. Martin Kohlstedt realized that years ago. From early on he knew that it needed a form of revolution here but that it was almost impossible for him to activate people to join him. Then he realized it had to start within yourself first instead of desperately trying to convince as many people as possible. “You need to start a dialogue with yourself first,” he says. Pointing fingers at each other isn’t helping anyone in such a situation. We all got enough negative information in our newsfeeds. Martin wanted to make a difference by sharing something positive as a foundation for exchange. And it can’t work the other way around.
“I react bad when somebody approaches an overambitious idea from the outside to me. And I think lots of people do that. We all know how it feels when somebody points a finger at you and tells you to do something. That’s anything but motivational. You have to be honest to yourself. It’s impossible to overview everything and do everything right. I was suffering from that for quite a long time and kept the whole subject inside me. I was destined to get active first and then communicate it with the world.”
He’s not Greta Thunberg. Although we both agree she’s doing a great job, Martin didn’t want to give a big speech or lecture the people, he wanted to inspire them. In the end all the people who are involved within the project (taking care of planting, project management, bureaucracy etc.) asked him voluntarily. For him doing something is the best foundation for changing others. Luckily he already got the emotional connection to his fans via the music. But it needs to come from within the people, not from the outside. That process of self -emancipation is tough for everybody, not just for artists and musicians but also ordinary people. Everybody is so afraid of making a move due to their desire for perfection and fear of failing. “People really think they need to reach a certain level of perfection or else they won’t do anything,” Martin says. “Music can never be perfect. That’s the part where many people fail also when it comes to activism. ‘Can I do that? Do I have the qualification for that?’ It doesn’t matter. What if we told a 14-year old that he can do lots of things instead of labelling him as an immature human being?” Our exchange moves forward to general aspects of society.
“We opened Pandora’s box. Humanity fucked up big time and he is now forced to regulate this mess. Nature doesn’t care about us, it will survive;, it’s about humanity’s survival.”
To implement that we need to interact with nature , the forest needs a jump start from us since time is running out. “Maybe in 2060 every tree is more valuable than any precious metal,” Martin says. “We haven’t realized that yet. There’s so much people don’t know about the woods. We need to have a rational perspective on this subject.” But wow could it work? How can we re-establish a deeper and meaningful connection between all of us and Mother nature? Confrontation is not the way, it needs pragmatic and motivational solutions.
Why not giving everybody a personal responsibility for a certain piece of land? Nature as common welfare? Of course, people might call that “radical” but mostly because they lack of a) an understanding of the urgency of the impending climate catastrophe and b) the level of abstraction on how a different society could look like. We’ve gotten so used to the exploiting system of capitalism that we find it extremely hard to envision a world without it. Yet, we all feel that the system is not working anymore. It’s hurting the people and our planet and the current pandemic crisis only underlines that realization. Yet, we feel numb and are still too afraid to simply start doing; we denounce all ambitions by shouting at each other instead of joining forces. Shitstorms and – in some cases – “cancel culture” are comfortable tools to avoid the confrontation and action, to stop that process of self-emancipation I mentioned earlier from happening at all. Changing a system from within always causes contradiction. And that’s okay. It’s impossible to free yourself from it and even the most aware sustainable mind will hit a few obstacles every now and then, especially when it comes to Martin Kohlstedt‘s day job as he acknowledges:
“I also need to travel by plane every now and then. I approach these journeys quite consciously, check whether these gigs will give me enough in return, in terms of audience and earning, so I can reinvest it in my forest project, for example. But bringing culture and music to people is my other passion and I have to make compromises for that. I’m aware of that. I see what music does to people, especially when I play in countries like Iran or Turkey. And it helps to connect people and that is also something that moves this world forward. We are all so scared of having our own opinion but also facing different opinions that we often decide to don’t do anything at all. The whole Corona crisis made that quite visible on so many levels.”
Education, Emancipation, Engagement
Although things are slowly changing there’s still a level of aloofness within the music industry and among colleagues as Martin recalls. People stick to behaviour patterns, they are afraid to open up, to leave the comfort zone and to simply trust others. There are so many aspects from merchandise to touring production where you can evaluate your life as a musician. Of course, nobody is immediately the best kid in class here but it’s a start and projects like Music Declares Emergency where both – Martin and me – are part of want to start that process and inspire people to make a change. Because it needs to start from within you. Martin remembers the moments of doubt that he had before publicly announcing his forest project. “One morning I woke up and I realized that I already influenced a lot of people in my close circle with that idea and I told myself ‘Why are you shying away from this? Speak it out loud! It will get the attention of people.'” He did and didn’t regret it ever since. Setbacks are part of the process. This is a longterm project, the whole “one tree for every ticket”-concept will merge into a different form eventually. “There’s so many ways people can contribute, even in their own garden. And if you can’t do that I want to encourage people to invest in the best and natural projects.” For example, did you know that forestry offices do a lot of planting activities that rely on volunteers?
Throughout our morning exchange the passion of Martin Kohlstedt about the project and beyond is sensible at every moment. There’s so much he also learned about agriculture and he also explains to me how the Bark-beetle is threatening the forests, how much we need good education since people barely know about changing weather patterns and the effect they have on their lives. Did you known we might be the last generation to witness a spruce in the wilderness? There’s still so much we don’t know but the good news is: the knowledge is there, it’s almost free and everybody can have access to it.
Taking a closer look at the upper class and blaming them often feels like an easy outlet and comfortable excuse but by doing that we don’t start looking at ourselves and how we want to live. If Corona showed us one thing than that we can’t rely on political leaders to a certain degree. We need to make our own luck. Educating yourself is tough, it’s sometimes not pleasant but it’s not always rocket science. And if the negative news of the world leave you devastated simply engage in a project close to your home that makes a difference. Whether it’s actual planting, saving food from grocery stores, cleaning the streets, create better conditions for you and your neighbourhood and so much more. It’s the doing that matters, not the talking. “We’ve been living from this great source called nature and give her far too little back,” Martin says at one point during our chat and that sums it up pretty well. It’s okay to be afraid and overwhelmed by everything but you’re not alone in this. Actually, we’re all part of this so there’s no need to be afraid. The musician’s idea is neither rocket science not revolutionary; it’s an inspiring idea that can be transferred to different parts of all of our lives. And getting a bit of that Thuringia spirit out into the rest of the world is probably not the worst thing to happen, if you ask me.
All Photos by Peter Runkewitz
Martin Kohlstedt and NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION both have signed the declaration of Music Declares Emergency. We are a group of artists, music industry professionals and organisations that stand together to declare a climate and ecological emergency and call for an immediate governmental response to protect all life on Earth. If you want to know about it please read the following feature and visit the official homepage of the organization.
If you want to know more about the state of earth’s forests please inform yourself at:
- Treehugger: 21 Reasons Why Forests Are Important
- New York Times: With Deaths of Forests, a Loss of Key Climate Protectors
- The Guardian: ‘Part of German soul’ under threat as forests die