Monday, September 17, 2012

Even though you thought we probably weren't important, musicians can actually save the planet.

So, there was this: 

And there was also this:

And some of you may have seen this:

For such an egocentric species, we humans certainly enjoy it when music, something old white men have long considered "unique to homo sapiens [and probably white men]," crosses the species line. Western composers have lightly flirted with this idea for centuries, with birdsong making a number of cameos throughout the canon (but never a leading role). A slightly more intimate approach occurs between Debussy and Ravel, with whom gusts of wind, ocean waves and, of course, a number of birdcalls are replicated with masterful symphonic orchestration.

But so quickly after the French impressionists, we flocked to matrices, tapes, computers, to musique concrete - and, just as in the world of visual art, pastoral work somehow became mundane. Even I, the quintessential environmentalist, have scoffed at 20th century landscapes when a Kadinsky is nearby. Western composers of the 20th century have found deep safety in the industrial and mechanical world. Perhaps this stems from a deeply rooted desire to achieve something super-human, something God-like, something echoing the ever-present Aristotelian view that "the whole heaven [is] a musical scale and a number.” As R. Murray Schafer in his masterful The Soundscape suggests, the advent of the industrial revolution allowed for loud sounds to be synonymous with power, and the machine became our new God: so perhaps our composers, in keeping with Western tradition, sought to achieve Godliness with their music, utilizing powerful, ordered, and - dare I say - masculine approaches to mimic the Machine.

But what happened with the Western reverence for the machine? Total environmental apocalypse. If you have (YOU MUST) seen these charts and these maps, you know that we are entirely fucked, unless contributers (industrialized nations) drastically change their emissions and lifestyles. Yes, yes; as classical musicians we are mostly tidily liberal - we don't have enough money to buy cars or fill gas tanks, anyway - so I guess we just sit back and wait for everyone else to do something about it. This is our comfortable position in society, after all, since what we do is pretty much irrelevant nowadays. Right? 

No. Absolutely not. In fact, musicians are one of the most essential arbiters of environmental change. Why? Because we understand sound.

R. Murray Schafer, in The Soundscape, calls for a global alliance between acousticians, ecologists, and musicians to address the issue of noise pollution and noise evolution. Through this alliance, soundscapes can be created for cities and communities, much as architectural decisions come from an artistic and engineering alliance. Believe it or not, noise pollution is one of the most destructive forces of many ecosystems - a single jet passing over a rainforest can disrupt animal vocalizations for minutes, which is enough time for the balance between predators and prey to become severely ruptured. Animals that aren't supposed to die perish, some predators aren't fed, and an ecosystem can collapse. As such, we are learning the ecosystems can no longer be monitored exclusively with visuals; the sound of an ecosystem will reveal much, much more about which animals have perished, and which have survived, after a significant alteration of the environment.

Bernie Krause addresses this in detail and takes Schafer's indispensable research further in The Great Animal Orchestra, a 2011 book that, personally, changed my entire life and even dictated a number of recent career choices. This book is a detailed account of his experiences as a musician, naturalist, and soundscape artist, and in it he discusses the spectrograms of ecosystems healthy and damaged alike. He goes one step further and suggests the sound of a healthy, naturally balanced ecosystem is the origin of human music. Humans can mimic more accurately than most species, and in the earliest days of our existence, we mimicked our environment and created music. Of course, this has numerous evolutionary advantages - an understanding of the sound of our natural environment means we can tell the time of day, whether or not its safe to hunt or gather, whether a predator is nearby, what the weather is going to do, etc. And with our severely compromised night vision, it's no surprise that our affinity for sonic changes has allowed us to remain near the top of the food chain. And, of course, it is enjoyable to play in perfect harmony with the forest.

Many indigenous cultures that retain an ancient music display this hypothesis almost indisputably. In my own research, which I hope to continue in greater detail, I have noted a marked similarity between the music and sonic environment of the B'aka people, based on recordings from the Cameroon rainforest. One of the recordings I examined in a spectrogram (found here) begins with a few seconds of forest sounds, then the music begins, and a few seconds of forest sounds are left at the end. Among many stunning observations, the most interesting  is that their song takes its meter from the timing of the most prevalent bird song at the moment the song began. This type of musical-environmental harmony is teeming with potential for scholarship; but it's plain to see upon spectral analysis for those interested. I also compared Moroccan gnawa music to North African soundscapes and Senegalese sabar drumming to a dawn chorus along the Gambia, both of which showed marked similarities. Other cultures with similar sonic relationships to their environment are discussed in Krause's book, although he notes that culture-environment relationship is not the central issue of his book (but invites others to do the investigations). 

But what happened when I did a spectral analysis of our great symphonic composers? A variety of spectrograms that, for the most part, looked nothing like a natural soundscape, and more like a splattering and sputtering machine. I examined work by Mozart, Chopin, Ravel, Cage, Webern, Berlioz, Reich, Tallis, and myself. The closest visual matches to a typical Northern Hemisphere natural soundscape - one that would be similar to the areas in which most of these composers lived - came from Webern and Tallis, with a few moments of Cage and a few moments of my work showing potential. Notably, many of these composers came about before the Machine, but, as Schaffer suggests, the likes of Mozart and Beethoven perhaps had a more artistic relationship with the clop of hooves on cobblestone or the sound of carriage wheels over rocks. Not birds, cows, wolves, or insects. In a sense, this suggests a longstanding Western obsession with dominion over nature, which, hopefully, is not news to anyone.

So how does this matter to us? It's simple. Those cultures that have an essential musical connection with their environment are not set on destroying their environment because, if they did, they would no longer have their music. We do not have this type of relationship with our environment, so it is easy to feel like little is at stake for us if it is destroyed. But - as composers and performers have ever more license to be wacky and creative - we can change this. What if we created and performed music that was dependent on the health of the environment around us? What if we created work that must be performed in chorus with the rustling of the trees and the drumming of the woodpecker? Even if we record soundscapes and write a piece to be played alongside the tape of this soundscape, we are creating a relationship to the environment, and we are creating a nostalgia that would create heavy hearts if it were damaged. As classical musicians, we have such an affinity for nostalgia, for valuable things of times passed, that its time we extend this beyond our human family. 

Recently, I wrote a work for piano, viola, clarinet, and tape, the tape being a hydrophone recording of a conversation between killer whales. The whales speak in rhythm and pitch, and it is an astounding fourth instrument for the ensemble. Upon acquiring permission to use the recording, I exchanged a series of heartfelt e-mails with the bioacoustician who provided them to me: he offered to promote my work and performances of it on all of his networking sites, and was thrilled to finally have an extra-scientific association. I was thrilled to have an extramusical one. And now, if those orcas ever stop speaking to each other (an impending possibility), I know there will be a deep pain amongst those who have a relationship with my piece. I am not alone in this type of musical endeavor: and I invite you all to consider your ability to navigate sound, whether as performer and composer, to listen to your environment, to learn how to read a spectrogram. Let's be sonic architects. Talk to our officials about noise pollution. Write pieces titled Sonata for Horn and Walden Pond and be willing to play them. Let's see what we can do to keep our earth singing.
Further Reading:

Krause, Bernie. The Great Animal Orchestra. New York: Littleton, Brown and Co., 2012. Print.
Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books, 1977, 1994. Print.
World Forum for Acoustic Ecology,


Christina G said...

Kaley, this article is incredible! Music is about connecting; however, choosing what's relevant to connect to is a difficult task for any musician. In a world that is becoming increasingly global centric and increasing sensitive to the global ecosystem, music has the potential to spread awareness through a language that is familiar, about a variety of subjects previously gone unnoticed. In this sense, music can be used as a meditation device through which a world we are blind to becomes intense and meaningful as we become more and more aware.

Kaley Lane Eaton said...

Thanks Christina! Precisely!! I encourage you to read those texts - you will be totally enamored.

grgrandma said...

Kaley, I'd love to hear what you would compose with the background of walking on Mt. Helena. There are comfortable sounds up there. Grandma

grgrandma said...

Kaley, I'd love to hear what you would compose with the background of walking on Mt. Helena. There are comfortable sounds up there. Grandma