Session/Séance 2e: IASPM Panel 3 Ecomusicology and Environmental Concerns in Popular Musics

Session/Séance 2e: IASPM Panel 3. Thursday/jeudi 25 May 2017. 2:00PM-3:30PM, EJB 216.
Ecomusicology and Environmental Concerns in Popular Musics
     Moderator: JODY BERLAND (York University)


1. Plastic Makes Perfect: Popular Music Before Production and After Consumption
     Kyle Devine, University of Oslo

Popular music scholars recognize that the phrase “music industry” was for too long a synonym for “record industry.” As a result, the field is richer for its expanded conception of the music industries, for seeing album sales as simply one commercial concern among many. The recent boom in the live music economy has been an impetus for this shift, and has been paralleled by a boom in research into the history and current state of live music as both an economic and cultural phenomenon. In other fields of music studies, too, scholars are inclined to study the history of music as a performance practice as much as a lineage of scores or studio recordings. Christopher Small’s simple but pointed observation – that music is not a thing but an activity – has significantly fueled this shift, which also resonates with a sea change in cultural sociology more generally: such scholars are nowadays more interested in painting than paintings, say Craig Calhoun and Richard Sennett. From the perspective of contemporary materialist approaches to culture, this move from products to processes is inspiring but incomplete. For if music is not a thing but an activity, it is also possible to view things as activities too. This presentation puts recordings at the centre of popular music research, not by returning to uncritical assumptions that “the record industry” is “the music industry,” but by understanding recordings as momentary (more and less durable) aggregations of materials and actions. It is thus possible to expand our understanding of this industry, which is not only about selling and buying recordings as finished products, but also the range of materials that must be harvested, synthesized, and processed before a recording can be bought or sold – materials that must also be dealt with once recordings become what Will Straw calls exhausted commodities. In focusing on the use of plastic in the popular music recording industry from 1950 to 2000 – which is a global story about oil derricks, polymer sciences, war, factory labour, and hazardous waste – this presentation works toward a fuller understanding of the recording industry as an industry, one that better accounts for the global political entanglements and environmental consequences of popular music before production and after consumption.

Keywords: recording industry, new materialism, political ecology, plastic


2. Maria Schneider’s “The Thompson Fields”: Environmental Realism in Contemporary Jazz
     Joel Oliver-Cormier, Dalhousie University

The large-ensemble music of contemporary jazz composer Maria Schneider has always been concerned with nature which, for her, acts as a connection to her childhood in rural Minnesota. The wildlife and landscapes that Schneider portrays, however, are in crisis. In the liner notes of The Thompson Fields, she laments that birds commonly heard during her childhood are now seldom seen when she visits home. I examine her work through an ecomusicological lens. Ecomusicology is an emerging sub-discipline of musicology that aims to critique the ways in which music and the environment interact, in order to better understand how music both influences and is influenced by our attitudes toward and beliefs about the natural world. Jazz, routinely characterized as “urban” music (a loaded term in itself), has been largely ignored by ecomusicologists. I believe that there is much to be learned from an ecocritical exami- nation of contemporary jazz, and its relationship to the environment. Schneider’s music provides an excellent entry point to this sort of study as the tension between her physical location in New York City and her music’s figurative location in nature pervades her work. As the focal point of this paper, I discuss Schneider’s piece “The Thompson Fields” (from her album of the same name, 2015), and how she portrays the titular location realistically: not as mere aesthetic window-dressing, but as a living world. My argument is that Schneider is no environmental tourist, composing an exoticized pastoralism; rather, she is deeply concerned with the environment, and takes great care in the depiction of that world.

Keywords: Jazz, environmentalism, ecomusicology, landscape, women in jazz


3. Electro-Pop as Trojan Horse: Hearing the Call to Arms in Anohni’s Hopelessness
     Maria Murphy, University of Pennsylvania

Released in May 2016, Anohni’s Hopelessness has generated praise as an album that is equal parts accessible, engaging listening with its lush textures that comprise its electronic pop soundscape, and blistering critique, for its unsparing analysis of imperialist and capitalist politics across the globe. With subject matter that includes drones, climate policies, toxic masculinity, and viruses, the album is firmly grounded in the aesthetic-activist roots of Anohni’s earlier performing group Antony & the Johnsons, whose name was inspired by the work of transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson. In the wake of startling revelations concerning the Canadian Security Intelligence Service’s electronic data surveillance program and ongoing debates over how to reduce green-house gas emissions despite the government’s continued investment in the fossil fuel industry, the album – in particular, the songs “Four Degrees” and “Watch Me” – strongly resonates with some of the most urgent matters in Canadian politics. This paper addresses the “Trojan horse” effect of the album, which lies both in the general communication of these critiques of power through the language of popular music and through Anohni’s method to raise several key political issues in her album by positioning herself and the listener as both the enactor and object of violence, desire, and control. To belong to a Western nation-state is to have political violence perpetrated in our names – against ourselves, others, and the environment. I unpack these issues through a close analysis of two songs: I consider the implications of enacting ecological warfare as a strategy to substantiate political capital in “Four Degrees”; and, I argue that “Watch Me” speaks to a renewal of sovereign regimes of power through surveillance technologies. Ultimately, while Hopelessness delineates a devastating portrayal of the most pressing issues in contemporary life, Anohni puts forth an inventive approach to communicating politics with revolutionary possibilities.

Keywords: electronic music, transgender voice, surveillance, ecological warfare, aesthetic activism



Thursday Schedule | Programme - jeudi
(Session 2 | Séance 2)

MusCan Office

MusCan is led by a committed community of volunteers from across Canada. You can contact our secretariat by mail, phone, or email.

10 Morrow Avenue, Suite 202
Toronto, ON
M6R 2J1
office [AT]