Selling Nature to Save It (2016)

Approaching Self-critical Environmental Sonic Art

With similarities to the emergence in fifteenth-century landscape paintings, to poems by the Transcendentalists, and to the more recent 1960s land art movement, environmental sonic art is always context-based and conjointly performs as environmental activism with aims to break down the nature/culture dualism. Nature, however, is both a material object and a socially constructed metaphor that is infinitely interpretable and ideologically malleable based on one’s values and biases. Does the environmental sonic artist acknowledge this? The theoretical framework of this essay extends acoustic ecology, first theorised by R. Murray Schafer, to include environmental history and cultural theory—ultimately problematising definitions of ‘nature’ and ‘natural.’ Through this framework, the author critiques the way composer John Luther Adams represents his environmental sonic art. This analysis will illuminate a dialogue that asks, ‘What is self-critical environmental sonic art?’

In Press: Organised Sound (Cambridge University Press), issue 23

Wolf Listeners (2016)

An Introduction to the Acoustemological Politics and Poetics of Isle Royale National Park

Listening to wolf howls as both material object and socially constructed metaphor highlights the contested relationship between nature and culture. The author conducted field research on Isle Royale National Park from 2011-15 from which he offers a narrative wherein citizen-scientists who listen for the howl literally “lend their ears” to a wolf biologist who has led the longest continuous predator-prey study in the world. The theoretical framework of this essay extends acoustic ecology, first theorized by R. Murray Schafer, to include environmental history, and cultural theory—which problematizes definitions of ‘nature’ and ‘natural.’ Ultimately, this introduction describes a nuanced form of participatory, situational environmental music that plays out in the everyday lives of those listening on this remote, roadless island in Lake Superior.

Leonardo Music Journal (MIT Press), Issue 26

Listening Against Natural Sound in Law (2016)

National Park Service (NPS) resource management aims to conserve, preserve, and manage “natural quiet” and the “natural sounds” associated with physical and biological resources. While the concept of nature is ideologically malleable and ultimately based on values that are both culturally constructed and embedded, how does the NPS identify what a natural sound is? Where does it locate the natural in the shifting schema of transformation and stasis against historical precedence and antiquated wilderness ideology? Building on the theories of anthropologist Tim Ingold, I will explore the contours of this issue and argue for the importance of establishing acoustic methodologies that understand the concept of soundscape as a phenomenon of experience rather than as, to quote anthropologist Stefan Helmreich, “something in the world waiting to be tuned into.” The NPS delineates the boundaries in each park by sound that is natural or unnatural (the latter often defined as human-produced). To quantify this distinction they use acoustic monitoring of sound sources, sound pressure level, and sound frequency. In determining how loud a human-produced sound is relative to other sounds that are defined as non-human, they then seek to enact policies that limit sound identified as coming from outside the natural experience. Like composer R. Murray Schafer, this method of quantification understands the soundscape as an objectification of sound and neglects to consider the perceptions of individual listeners in parks as important components of that soundscape. Emerging from the author’s five years of field research in the NPS, this research offers ethnographic case studies that challenge the current positivistic theoretical framework of the field of acoustic ecology—which examines the relationship, through sound, between living beings and their environment—that extends to include environmental history, cultural theory, and grounded studies of listening as a fluid mode.

Paper presentation at the 2016 SEM Anthropology of Sound Forum.

On Composing Place (2014)

An Analysis of Clusters on a Quadrilateral Grid by John Luther Adams

There is a vast collection of philosophical texts that deal with place from both anthropological and geographical perspectives. The introduction to Steven Feld’s and Keith H. Basso’s book Senses Of Place provides a wonderfully varied bibliography on the topic. Each of the ethnographies included in the collection describe and interpret some of the ways in which people encounter places, perceive them, and invest them with significance. Along this path there is a lineage of composers who have written concert music inspired by place but there is a lack of published material that confronts the topic. Sounds of Place by Denise Von Glahn discusses a number of “place pieces” composed by Americans. However, Glahn’s work, while rich with ideas, only briefly mentions the compositional devices employed to embody place. This analysis seeks to unpack this particular compositional “mapping problem” in John Luther Adams’s Clusters on a Quadrilateral Grid from Strange and Sacred Noise (1991-97). In this particular instance, Adams uses sonic translations of chaos theory as a way to gesture towards the natural resonances of “noise” he lives with in Alaska. The analysis utilizes a custom-built visualization system and audio/visual animations to demonstrate the composers mappings.

Perspectives of New Music, volume 52, issue 3