Ecomusicology in the News
The New York Times continues to lead the media in coverage of stories that link—in some way—music to the environment or environmentalism. In this installment of “Ecomusicology in the News,” I highlight news stories from summer 2013 through mid-winter 2014, all of which I’ve selected from The New York Times. I’ve organized the pieces into four categories: music and climate change, music in and about landscape, musical instruments, and environmentalist musicians.
Music and Climate Change
An article from May 31, 2013 begins with a provocative and signiﬁcant lede: “Climate change may have officially taken a toll on the opera world.” After 39 summers of performances in Central Park, the New York Grand Opera canceled its 2013 summer season due to the “increasing unpredictability of the weather.”
A story from July 15, 2013, titled “Cultural Programs to Focus on Climate Change” describes a series of events on climate change held in New York City this past fall. In addition to talks and panel discussions, the Marfa Dialogues, as the series was called, included musical performances like Nora York’s song cycle Water’s Getting Deeper/Water’s Getting Scarce and a show called Field Trip (A Climate Cabaret) that included singing and dancing alongside presentations given by climate scientists.
Three articles (July 2, 2013; July 10, 2013; and October 31, 2013) mention the work of cellist and composer Daniel Crawford, an undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota, whose A Song for Our Warming Planet musically depicts annual temperature readings beginning in 1880. As the temperature rises, so does the pitch. In one article, an interview/conversation between New York Times columnist Andrew Revkin and Crawford, Revkin says, “I see music with a climate component . . . broadening how we can internalize and convey aspects of this very complicated problem.” (Revkin, himself a musician, has composed a piece called Liberated Carbon about fossil fuels.) In another article, Revkin writes about a piece for digital violin that depicts climate change over more than 600 years. S. Julio Friedmann, who devised the composition, explains that music can illustrate “the relative timing, magnitude, and rates of the climate changes.” The same article also notes compositions by DJ Spooky that he generated from data related to climate change.
Music in and About Landscape
Two articles from fall 2013 tell of musical journeys through natural spaces. A September 23, 2013, piece on a new iPad and iPhone app, "John Lennon: The Bermuda Tapes," explains how the software allows you to trace Lennon's sailing trip to Bermuda in 1980. Lennon traveled through tumultuous weather, and sang sea-shanties as he sailed the ship himself. According to the article, the app also includes images of places in Bermuda that Lennon visited. The songs he wrote on the trip led to the albums Double Fantasy and his posthumous Milk and Honey, both of which were collaborations with Yoko Ono, who stayed behind in New York during his adventure.
A travel article from November 22, 2013, follows the writer as she seeks out the places and sites across the U.S. that inspired Woody Guthrie’s music. She camps on the banks of the Columbia River and tours the Grand Coulee dam. After traveling from the Paciﬁc Northwest to Los Angeles, she journeys eastward into dustbowl territory in the Texas Panhandle and Oklahoma. From there she travels north to the beaches of Coney Island, where she concludes her adventures. Throughout, she tries to convey how Guthrie “captured something essential in places” across the country.
An article from July 5, 2013, promotes an event called Ex-Situ, a collaboration between the Original Music Workshop and the River to River Festival in New York City. The concert series included both pre-composed and improvised music, some of which was performed at and for select sites. Maja SK Ratkje’s piece, for example, followed the contours of the courtyard where it was performed.
An article from the newspaper’s Home and Garden section (August 28, 2013) describes the living space of Mileece Petre, an artist and musician whose pieces are created by “attaching electrodes to leaves”: “The electromagnetic current is fed into software she wrote that turns the data into musical notes, so a garden becomes an orchestra.” According to the article, the artist sleeps in an Airstream trailer parked in a verdant garden behind her mother’s home.
A review (October 31, 2013) for the documentary ﬁlm Musicwood tells how the ﬁlm explores issues related to sustainability and the logging industry in guitar making. The interests of environmentalists, guitar companies, logging corporations, and Native American developers in Alaska are all taken into consideration. The ﬁlm, which receives a positive review, weaves musical performances into its complex narrative.
A short article from a few days before Christmas recommends a gift for guitarists. The Pick Punch transforms credit cards or hotel keys into guitar picks, helping the musically inclined to recycle.
In an interview (July 29th, 2013) musician and inventor William Close discusses his instrument, the Earth Harp, which the article calls the "world's largest string instrument." The instrument is re-built for each performance, taking its shape and size from the dimensions from the performance space. Consequently, the space -- sometimes outdoors -- affects the quality of the sound. Close says, "I've had it strung up to the top of a mountain before and the mountain had caves actually in it up at the top, and you can hear the strings from within the caves."
Several articles highlight the music of environmental activisits. The Rude Mechanical Orchestra, which travels in a biofuel bus and celebrates community gardens among its many progressive causes, is the subject of an article from November 17, 2013.
A piece on Neil Young’s beneﬁt concerts in Canada to raise money for the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (December 9, 2013), part of his “Honor the Treaties” tour, explains how the Native American group is suing Shell Canada to protect its lands and resources.
An interview with Chuck Leavell, keyboardist for the Allman Brothers Band, the Rolling Stones, and others, connects Leavell’s current position as the director of environmental affairs for Mother Nature Network to his musical background as he discusses the way he’s decorated his office.
Lastly, obituaries for Toshi and Pete Seeger, who passed away about half a year apart from each other, highlight their environmentalism and, in particular, their efforts to clean up the Hudson River. It goes without saying that both will be missed.
Michael Silvers is an Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research concerns music, drought, and cultural sustainability in northern Brazil.