Below is a prompt from a course I took with Dr. Joanna Demers on ecology and music. For me, it brought forth some ideas worth sharing.
Prompt: In his article on the music of John Luther Adams and strong environmentalism, Mitchell Morris contrasts Adams’ compositional style (which he regards as sympathetic with ecological concerns such as Deep Ecology) with qualities often found in Modernist composition. Drawing on either of the JL Adams’ pieces that Morris discusses, please first summarize what (according to Morris) distinguishes Adams’ approach as ecological, as opposed to subjective. Then, assess the validity of Morris’ methodology: is there merit to Morris’ valorization of JL Adams’ music (as opposed to twentieth-century modernist composition)? Or, should he and we focus our attention not on European and North American art music, but rather on the music of peoples whose history and culture are actually rooted in the Arctic (or wherever a case study is situated)?
Mitchell Morris’s article “Ecotopian Sounds; or the Music of John Luther Adams and Strong Environmentalism” offers a definition of ecological music practice through an analysis of the so-called “Green” composer John Luther Adams. Morris asks “what would it mean to be a Green composer?” (131), which serves as the article’s axis of inquiry. The logical assumptions within this one phrase are intriguing (some of which Morris seems aware of), and this paper traces some of Morris’s universalizing claims that foreclose the possibility of transforming the ecological paradigm.
As the prompt for this occasion suggests, Morris attaches Adams to a conception of ecology in terms of “objective” versus “subjective” musical materials. This theoretical argument occurs most explicitly on pages 134-137 (a case study of Adams’s Dream In White on White), where Morris suggests that the musically “subjective” emerges from/as traditional classical music behaviors (“melody”, “harmonic progression”, “arpeggiation”; “icti”, to borrow from Morris). A reason isn’t precisely given for why these musical behaviors are conceptually subjective, but his discussion of timbre suggests the latent histories embedded in sound are the cause: according to Morris, certain timbres (in the case of classical harp but – incongruously – not in the case of violins or cellos) contain a historical connotation which evokes the concept of human subjectivity. Conversely (and perhaps too simplistically), Morris argues that what can be read as the musically “objective” thwarts these aforementioned behavioral expectations; eluding an empathetic, subjective response, and suggesting, through its negation, non-human entities or non-living objects (i.e. landscapes, inanimate “natural” object).
Although he spends time discussing the historical precedent for the “ecotopian” and Deep Ecology (132-134) and a brief moment detailing the historical threads embedded in harp timbre (135), Morris does not diachronically argue how subjectivity has been mapped to the musical behaviors considered, perhaps because this might require an expansive, interdisciplinary abstraction (involving Enlightenment germinations of subjectivity and their blossoming in the Romantic and Modernist periods of classical music) that would – in a clarifying way – highlight the contingency of his argument. In this sense, Morris remains uncritical of the initial apparatus that directs his analysis: classical music epistemology itself. A meta-critical analysis like this would benefit the argument, as the “objective/subjective” formation essentially arises from two culturally Western claims: that ecology can be collapsed to the historical dualism of “human/nature”, and that musical behaviors are to be read in (or in contrast to) the terms “melodies”, “progressions”, etc. As such, Morris’s definition of the “Green” composer does not analytically problematize normative awareness of human’s ecological standing (an important aim in Deep Ecology), and can only be recognized within and through classical composition’s particular musical discursiveness.
These contingencies are suggested at the end of the article on page 140 (“To be sure, this definition is dependent on the peculiar characteristics of North American culture. No doubt a Green composer in Europe, Asia, or Latin America would require a different profile”), but Morris does not seem to read this as an indictment. This quote suggests that Morris has not truly completed the task of defining a “Green” composer in the abstract. Instead, he has described, through case study, an analysis of John Luther Adams’s musical themes as they could be understood by a traditional awareness of “ecology”.
In some sense, the axial question’s conceptual task is confused, because it requires: a) defining what is meant by “Green”, a concept that arises from a global, political (in)attention to ecology; and b) defining what is meant by “composer”, a term that categorically delimits the discussion to the realm of classical music (the musical genre that conceptualized the term), which is a global music genre but cannot account for the musical behaviors of the globe. By only defining Adams’s particular case within classical music (as opposed to defining a framework to observe ecological thought as it appears in global music-making), Morris forecloses any possibility of radical transformation to the “human/nature” opposition. Perhaps a more developed inquiry into the history of Adams’s sonic palette would lead to questioning the epistemological limits imposed by Western culture, namely “subject/object” dualism, and to analysis that could offer an abstraction of “Green” music that is more globally applicable and transformative.
This historical aversion continues with Morris’s account of Earth and the Great Weather (a piece for voices and instruments), where he makes a more linguistic argument. Adams’s libretto employs multiple languages: Inupiaq, Gwich’in (two Indigenous languages), English, and Latin; juxtaposing different (mis)translations of words traditionally tied the Western concept of “nature”. In Morris’s commentary, he argues that “[t]hey are juxtaposed in such a way, however, that they do not seem to enter into any kind of conflict, but reflect across each other while remaining separate” (Morris 138) and that “[e]ach language can be understood first of all to make a kind of clearing within which the world manifests itself. In its creation of clearings, each language performs in a strongly “musical” way, for such sonic domains as timbre, attack, and quantity are more important to the creation of conceptual space than are grammatical relations” (140). Although this offers a convenient framework for Morris’s argument about Indigenous people and ecology, this analysis relies upon an autonomous art fantasy that is native to Western aesthetics, which frequently and insidiously overdetermines the readings of classical music pieces as constructing utopic realms that transcend (by erasing) history. What needs to be proven for Morris’s argument is the following: how is it that these languages have shed their histories and now become purely “sonic domains”, when previously the timbre of the harp recalls “a long tradition of heavily coloristic , even onomatopoeic effects in program music, opera, and ballet” (Morris 135)? On a structural level, these four languages stand in for axiological processes of violence (a simplistic summary of colonialism), whether their speakers were almost eradicated (in the case of the Inupiat and Na Dene people) or whether the languages are used to collapse cultural difference (Latin in a historical and biological sense, and English as the newer, global “language of business”). Adams’s piece, then, demands a more radical analysis of our current globalized ecology, an ecology that decimates Indigenous people (the communities Morris suggests we look to for ecological answers) and any community that has not (or does not) adhere to the “master code” of the West.
In the vein of conceptualizing Indigenous people as “ecological saviors”, Morris slips an aside within the piece that warrants further thought: “Many activists continue to see such “pre-modern” indigenous peoples as possessing the ecological or spiritual stances most appropriate for their particular geography; that is, each indigenous people possessed a vision of their place in the world that was appropriate to their location, and this correctly understood their position in the local order (That this is a rearticulation of the ideal of a cosmic order should be obvious)” (133). It is worth noting that Morris brings up this concept of a cosmic order a few times, referencing “Great Chains of Being” towards the beginning of the article (129). Perhaps it is the insistence upon there being a “cosmic order” – a theodicean “master code” evading rigorous interrogation – that produces the frustrating logical assumptions that occur in the writing. Put simply: it is not that Indigenous people knew/know best. It is that they never claimed to know best through the process of decimating, colonizing, and accumulating everyone and everything on the planet. In contradistinction to venerating a group of people whose culture offers a convenient replacement to the West’s “cosmic order”, we might develop an abandonment of universal codes as defined by one monolithic culture, and turn towards globally applicable abstractions (with respect to ecology, culture, ethics, and society) formed through rhizomatic and contingent arguments, dissolving the logics of our destructive present.
Morris, Mitchell. “Ecotopian Sounds; or the Music of John Luther Adams and Strong Environmentalism”. Crosscurrents and counterpoints: Offerings in Honor of Begnt Hambræus at 70, 1998, Göteborg, Sweden.
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