Ecomusicology, the Energy Crisis, and Changing Music | Aaron Gervais, composer

Ecomusicology, the Energy Crisis, and Changing Music

I’ve thought a lot lately about the effect that sound, and particularly music, has on our environment. This is what people frequently call Ecomusicology, though I’m not crazy about that term.

Basically, do we have a right to make noise? How must it feel for a bird living on my street? Does it enjoy (or notice) the sounds of cars, airplanes, people playing soccer in the park across the street? Maybe the bird doesn’t but the squirrel might.

In a purely physical sense, any unintended noise made by a machine through the use of a non-renewable energy source is waste, though of course certain originally unintended noises have developed social purposes (for example, silent cars would be quite dangerous). But we can’t be faulted for not being perfect right off the bat; I’m sure the world will get quieter as the energy crisis becomes more acute.

Now what about the noise of music? In the past, you only ever heard music when people played it in front of you, and this was rare enough and bound by sufficient social convention that most people generally enjoyed it (the exception being street musicians who would try to annoy the locals so that they would get bribes to perform elsewhere). Nowadays, however, music of all kinds is everywhere. The experience of hearing music is the norm rather than the exception.

Music is cheap and plentiful, and individual performances (whether live or recorded) have as much value as any other individual mass-produced object; that is, close to none. Yet music is not free to create; there is an economic and ecological cost, as well as the psychological cost of being exposed to varying degrees of noise at various times, often not of our own choosing. The use of music has measurable physical effects on the world around us.

I suppose if we all had unlimited financial resources and mobile social ties, we could all choose to live in the sonic environment of our choice, including deciding on the kinds of music we want to be exposed to. This would at least reduce the psychological cost of music-making, although not the economic or ecological ones. We might therefore choose a range of exposure from “none, except when I play it myself” to “surprise me as much as possible, I like variety”. But this isn’t really realistic, so most of us suffer through less than ideal sonic environments, usually by learning to unconsciously tune things out.

That’s too bad, because listening can be very enjoyable, and is one of the few truly unique experiences left in our mass-produced environments. The “soundscapes” (to use R. Murray Shafer’s term) of different places are very different–San Diego, Toronto, New York, Amsterdam, Cologne, London–these cities all sound very different from one another. And guess what? They also enjoy different kinds of music scenes. I’m sure there must be a correlation, although clearly economic, cultural, and other incentives play a role too. But those other factors also play a role in the soundscape of the city, so in a sense, how the city sounds is tied to how its music sounds.

So I can’t help but think that as our cities evolve to become “greener” and necessarily quieter, our music will change too. It will become more responsible, as will the ways that we use it. Last year we reached the point where over 50% of the world’s population now lives in cities, which are artificial places, created by people for people. Our music will therefore increasingly become city music (whatever that may be), appropriate to the lives of city dwellers. This is obvious when we look at the sharp decline in the creation of so-called “pastoral” music in the 20th century. How many people nowadays have ever spent an afternoon lying in the sun in a sheep pasture? Different cultural experiences for a different time…