Discussion: Music in the Anthropocene

Editor's Note: In this short piece, composer Nathan Currier responds to an article by Mark Perlman that appeared in a prior issue of the Ecomusicology Newsletter and previews a longer article of his own, "Classical Music in the Anthropocene," which appeared in a later issue of that publication and can be read here.


“In some cases our work might have direct relevance to environmental problems,” Marc Perlman noted in “Ecology and Ethno/Musicology: The Metaphorical, the Representational, and the Literal” in the Ecomusicology Newsletter 1, no. 2 (October 2012). “In other cases the relevance could be very indirect, or indeed conjectural; but I suspect that in most cases our ultimate concerns are environmentalist ones.” In my own case, it might be because of its direct relevance that my perspective is quite distinct from this literature: I have spent much time in recent years outside of music dealing with fine points of climate science and policy. Climate change is central to the fate of the biosphere, as well as to the economic, political, cultural and moral basis of society. Yet traditional environmentalism (i.e. the social movement emerging from the 1960s) has thus far found it difficult to adequately come to terms with this epic environmental problem. Climate science is itself a discipline full of internal upheaval, controversy, and complexities of communication. In “Music in the Anthropocene” (forthcoming in this Newsletter) I consider climate science within Earth System Science (ESS), the ESS relationship with Gaia theory, and these in light of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures” concept of the split between science and the humanities.

Perlman also noted, “Just as ecologists argue that biodiversity increases the robustness of an ecosystem, we have argued that musical diversity will strengthen human culture, rendering it less vulnerable to future threats.” I certainly agree. And just as in climate policy, where it is clear that the Western developed powers will need to lead the way and carry the economic burdens of mitigation, so if we wish to see musical diversity survive, we in the West need to undergo a massive and rapid internal transformation. Western culture’s conception of its own history, therefore, is likely to be vital to the survival of much that surrounds it. Focusing on Western culture, my paper is devoted to issues that could be constructive in working towards a less negative outcome for planetary diversity (biological and cultural). I consider the period when both ecology and musicology were beginning, and when the so-called “common practice period” was ending. I examine the intersections of these, connecting Mahler’s music and Haeckel’s science, in order to explore how these fields might be drawn together around a cohesive philosophical position. 

Ecomusicology fuses two well-defined fields: environmentalism and ethno/musicology. I advocate for a further fusion more deeply invested in science as “ecology + musicology.” I suspect that, when we get serious about trying to save ourselves from the extraordinary risks ahead, the underlying problems within traditional environmentalism in dealing with climate will become readily apparent, and a large-scale shift will take place. By way of example, I would briefly note some of the following problems: 1) a refusal to recognize that GHG emissions reductions alone are increasingly unlikely to stabilize global mean surface temperature at levels that can dependably preserve the world we are familiar with; 2) the desire to eliminate all aerosol pollution negative forcings as quickly as possible; 3) the desire to decommission nuclear power plants right away; 4) an exaggerated faith, with insufficient quantitative analysis, in the capacity of an intermittent “renewable” energy source like wind power (large-scale harvesting of wind would alter wind patterns); 5) a lack of acknowledgment that near-term radiative forcing declines from non-CO2 components of the climate system should be separated out and done right away to improve the probability of avoiding near-term tipping points; and 6) an out of hand opposition to all geoengineering. 

Such attitudes grow from basic precepts of traditional environmentalism that have informed much ecocritical thinking, including the field of ecomusicology, and the short list of examples above already constitutes a powerful impediment to ameliorating the climate crisis. To highlight the different thinking in “Music in the Anthropocene,” I end by looking at one of these problems, likely to be among the greatest controversies of the century: geoengineering. For Mahler and Haeckel, Goethe’s Faust was a work that was particularly formative; I interpret its ending as a direct adumbration of geoengineering. Intriguingly, this analysis might provide a good vehicle for a more nuanced discussion of human agency within the biosphere than is now prevalent in geoengineering discourse. All the while, I seek to highlight Faust’s unique closeness to the evolution of the Western European tradition of classical music, suggestive of a role that this art might yet play.


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