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September 25, 2019
Dr. Aaron Allen, director of the Environment and Sustainability Program and associate professor of musicology at UNC Greensboro, recently received the 2018 Ellen Koskoff Edited Volume Prize from the Society for Ethnomusicology for the book “Current Directions in Ecomusicology: Music, Culture, and Nature.”
He shared the award with co-editor and co-author Dr. Kevin Dawe from the University of Kent.
Campus Weekly caught up with Dr. Allen to ask him about the book and his work.
What is ecomusicology?
When ecomusicologists are thinking about environmental concerns we ask: What role does music play in causing environmental problems or in activating people through activism and emotional responses? What role does music play in communicating a broader cultural understanding of environmental problems or connection between humans and nature? How does sound tell us about the state of environmental and cultural affairs? Typically, musicology and ethnomusicology are about the study of music and culture. The way that we’ve framed ecomusicology is as a triad: the study of music, culture, and nature.
So, a mixture of disciplines.
In environmental studies, we connect the environmental and the human. In music we’re constantly connecting the sonic and the human: sound, artistry, musicality, and pieces of music or poetry with human culture. For ecomusicology, we overlap those two approaches.
Is this a relatively new field of inquiry?
People have theorized for a long time about how sound comes from nature and how music impacts human emotion. It’s just taken awhile for music scholars to give it the name “ecomusicology.” And I think the reason for naming the field is that we have finally come to grips with this huge environmental crisis going on that’s about climate change and loss of biodiversity.
This book is the first sustained example of ecomusicology. So, it’s both new and old. It’s both something innovative and specific to right now, and also something completely mundane and obvious.
As co-editors of the book, do you share similar research interests?
I’m a music historian and a musicologist, trained in historical method broadly, working to understanding music and history. Kevin is trained as a music anthropologist and ethnomusicologist. We both have backgrounds in the natural sciences. We wanted to bridge the disciplinary divides in ethnomusicology and musicology by collaborating. We each offered something different. I offered more of an environmental studies and historical approach, and he offered more of an anthropological and biological sciences approach.
For the book project, how did the two of you decide who would be responsible for what?
Kevin was really good at organizing, recruiting, and communicating with the press. And I was really down in the text of each article. As a junior scholar, I learned a lot from collaborating with a more experienced colleague.
What was one of your biggest challenges as co-editors?
Organization! We really thought hard about how to order the chapters, and we had some sections sketched out at the outset based on different kinds of environmental problems. But ultimately, we found that approach was too narrow, so we zoomed out and thought about providing an orientation to a field as if the book were a map or a field guide. We’re trying to understand something – trying to get somewhere. So we went with four directions: ecological, fieldwork, critical, and textual. We called them current directions with the understanding that the field of ecomusicology will change – that the terrain will likely be quite different the next time someone sits down to do a book about ecomusicology.
How do you see ecomusicology fitting into all the recent conversation and activism around climate change?
The ecomusicology project is drawing attention to the cultural basis of environmental problems. Fundamentally, all environmental problems are cultural problems. The ecomusicological approach is one of many ways to teach people to draw unusual connections, and to activate people to consider human-environmental issues and work to change culture to solve and prevent these catastrophic problems.
We can’t rely on just the scientists and politicians and technocrats to figure it out and deploy the solutions. That’s not working! We need a lot of different ways to confront the environmental crisis. Ecomusicology is not the be-all, end-all. It’s not a panacea. It’s just one of many ways to approach it. And I think that it’s an interesting and creative way, and I think one of the foremost things that it can offer in the context of a liberal arts education is to make the unusual interdisciplinary connections that are necessary to move us from a liberal arts approach to an environmental liberal arts approach, which would help us change culture.
What about your research on the relationship between musical instruments and the environment?
That research is about how human musical cultures value particular types of musical instruments, and how the materials for those instruments can have both positive and negative impacts on the environment. What’s interesting is that those impacts come from the same aesthetic values. I’m not suggesting we must entirely change that aesthetic culture; but I do think we need to adjust according to our environmental and social impacts.
Any new developments coming up for the Department of Geography, Environment, and Sustainability?
The UNC System Board of Governors just approved last week our new BA in Environment & Sustainability!
Story by Matthew Bryant