Sustainable Music


Monday, February 20, 2023

Music, Sound and Nature

Yellow warbler. Photo by Jeff Titon, 2010.


I begin with a bit of news: FeedSpot has selected Sustainable Music as one of the fifteen best musicology blogs and websites. I appreciate their recognition of this blog, maintained since 2008.

What follows now is a short introduction, for high school and first-year college students, to the topic of music, sound and nature. I wonder if ChatGPT would produce anything similar. I plan to find out. In any case, I wrote this essay in 2019 and have just now imported it into this blog, but I can't seem to overcome the strange formatting triggered by the endnote numbers in the text. So be it, and my sincere apologies for any difficulties in reading. 



         All over the globe, and throughout history, people have recognized deep connections between music, sound, and nature. The 3rd century B.C.E. Chinese Taoist text, the Zuangzi, asks “You may have heard the [musical] notes of Man, but have you not heard those of Earth?”[1] Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journals of the comforting hum of the “earth song,” the music made by frogs, crickets, and other animals.[2] This essay links earth song to human-made sounds and music for social change and a more sustainable future. 



Sounds tell us a lot about the environment. The natural landscape and the built environment surround us with sounds, whether the sounds of thunder, the whoosh of the wind shaking the trees, the ring of the church bell, the bang of the drum, the alarm-call snorts of deer, the hum of the refrigerator or the scream of the police car siren. We wonder why birds sing.[3] What kind of language is bird song? Is it like human language, or are they just signaling--“danger!” or “here I am?” Have you ever tried to talk with a bird, singing back its melody?[4] Living beings communicate by means of sound. If their acoustic channels (“acoustic niche” is the technical term) are blocked, they either fail to get their signals through or they may try another channel. Birds that live near highways sing higher to avoid being blocked by traffic noise.[5]



We call the characteristic sounds of a place its soundscape. Soundscapes consist of anthrophony (sounds made by human beings), biophony (sounds of nonhuman beings), and geophony (sounds of the Earth, such as wind, rain, thunder, earthquakes, and glaciers). You can imagine how important sounds must have been in an earlier America.[6] Who has not heard of the Liberty Bell? The ringing of large bells could be heard over very long distances. People marked the passing of time with bells ringing in clock towers; bells called children to school and churchgoers to church. The chugging of the railroad locomotive, the clicking of the cars on the tracks, and the scream of the railroad whistle became common sounds in the 19th century.[7] As the trains rolled through the countryside, many a farmer out in the fields hoeing corn or chopping cotton wondered what it would be like to travel and start a new life in some distant city. Many a “railroad blues” song expresses those feelings while a harmonica imitates the sound of the train whistle.[8] What might Rachel Carson have meant when she titled her book about pesticide misuse Silent Spring?[9]     



Soundscapes have interested sound collectors ever since it became possible to make recordings. In some countries, such as Japan, sound collecting has been going on for many decades.[10] Moses Asch, founder of Folkways Records, encouraged collectors of biophonic, geophonic, and anthrophonic sounds and released them on LPs beginning in the 1950s. You can still hear those Folkways albums featuring the sounds of frogs and other amphibians, birds, thunderstorms, even rooms filled with typewriters clicking away (typing pools, as they were called back then).[11] Today’s international sound collectors get together on the internet to share their recordings and technical expertise.[12]



Soundscapes inspire composers of music in various ways. 20th-century musique concrète composers sampled and mixed recorded environmental sounds into their musical performances. John Cage’s famous 4’ 33” is a composition in which the musicians do nothing for the four minutes and thirty-three seconds’ duration of the composition. The only “music” the audience hears is the soundscape of the room in which the “performance” occurs. Contemporary sound installations are sited so as to integrate musical compositions with environmental sounds, indoors and out. Environmental sound art not only awakens listeners to the soundscape but also to environmental impacts of noise pollution (as from airplane flyovers in the National Parks) and habitat change. Some composers have taken down bird songs in musical notation, and others have incorporated, imitated, or transformed bird song phrases in their compositions. In Chinese music such as “100 Birds Courting the Phoenix,” for suona (oboe) and ensemble, extended passages are a virtual catalog of bird calls and songs imitated by instruments.[13] But birdsong played an even more important role in traditional Chinese music. According to the ancient book of the Chunqiu, in the 3rd millennium B.C.E. the Yellow Emperor Huangdi sent one of his courtiers, Lin Lun, to the western mountains to invent music.[14] There he gathered hollow bamboo and made twelve pipes of “superior and inferior generation” to match the pitches he heard in the harmonious singing of the fenghuang birds.[15] In other words, Chinese mythology tells us that the Chinese musical scale comes from birdsong. It was also believed that in a new dynasty the Chinese Emperor would order the fixed-pitch instruments to be recalibrated in order to bring them back in tune with the universe. It would be hard to find a stronger connection between music, sound, and the environment.



Nor was the connection between harmony in music and the universe confined to ancient China. You may have heard about the idea of the music of the spheres. The ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras (c. 570-495 B.C.E.) claimed that that when the mathematical ratios that described the motions of the stars and planets were also made to govern musical intervals, they created harmonious sounds; and that therefore these heavenly bodies must make pleasing music (although their sounds were beyond human hearing). This idea of a harmonious universe also was essential to medieval and Renaissance European music philosophers, and to educators who made the study of music a required part of the quadrivium, an important part of the medieval curriculum. Today music is not so central to education, yet most students listen to music on a daily basis for pleasure and consider it an essential part of their lives.



People deeply concerned about the climate emergency ask what they can do to help mitigate this environmental crisis. One way is to become involved with music that raises environmental consciousness, promotes solidarity and encourages care for the Earth. In addition, emerging fields of study such as ecomusicology combine ecology with music in new and powerful ways that can combine knowledge with environmental activism.[16] Raising environmental consciousness often occurs in the face of habitat loss or environmental dangers. In 1966 Pete Seeger recorded God Bless the Grass, the first album of environmental protest songs. Seeger’s “My Dirty Stream,” about the Hudson River, went on to become a protest rallying cry after his Clearwater sloop took part in the first Earth Day (1970).[17] In “Big Yellow Taxi” (1970) Joni Mitchell sang “They paved paradise and they put up a parking lot,” which immediately became a proverbial expression for the environmental movement’s opposition to the proliferation of shopping malls and industrial parks. And in this century, to take one of hundreds of more recent examples, several musicians have devoted themselves to protecting the US Northwest Coast bioregion, the old-growth forests and salmon grounds on the coasts of Washington and British Columbia. Dana Lyons, Idle No More, and The Raging Grannies are among those musicians whose protest songs target the endangered Salish Sea environment.[18] The Hypoxic Punks sing about environmental problems in their home city of Minneapolis-St. Paul.[19] Wikipedia lists hundreds of “songs about the environment” by well-known and lesser-known musicians.[20] In most communities today it is not hard to find local musician-activists who sing to raise environmental consciousness, promote solidarity, and encourage care for the Earth.



Ecomusicology, as the name implies, involves the study of ecology and music. Ecology is the study of organisms (living beings), their relationships with each other, and their relationships with the environment. Ecomusicology is the study of music, sound, culture, nature and the environment in a time of environmental crisis.[21] Ecomusicology brings together composers, musicians, environmental activists, ecologists, and students of music and sound to increase their understanding of the sonic world and its relations with human and other beings, and the environment.[22] Some scholars are especially interested in applying literary ecocriticism to music--that is, in studying the ways composers have incorporated nature and the environment into their ideas about music and their musical compositions themselves. Other eco-musicologists explore the interface between music, sound and the environment more directly. One of these research areas concerns sustainability of natural materials used to make musical instruments.[23] For hundreds of years the finest violin bows have been made of Pernambuco wood, while the finest guitar bodies were constructed of Brazilian rosewood. But these woods currently are endangered, requiring laws to limit their use, and encouraging luthiers to experiment with alternative construction materials. Moreover, research into methods of stewardship and conservation should result in a continued, if limited, supply of traditional materials, while it may be possible to find favorable conditions to grow them outside of their normal ranges, especially in response to habitat change induced by global warming. Other important areas for eco-musicological research involve visiting with and attempting to understand how various native and indigenous peoples think of the sonic universe and its relation to living in harmony with the environment.[24] Long dismissed as superstition, this traditional indigenous knowledge about the healing powers of sound and music has begun to be valued as a way to think about adapting to conditions brought about by the climate emergency. Related to well-being is the research on noise pollution, done by acoustic ecologists on the effects of noise.[25] Sudden loud noise produces a “fight or flight” response while continued loud noise, as near airports, in factories, near quarries, and so on, causes physical and psychological illness, just as a frequently barking neighbor’s dog can drive people to distraction. Public environmental policy requires noise limiting ordinances and other means of noise abatement (acoustic insulation, etc.).



People may think that music streamed over the internet is more environmentally friendly than previous listening formats such as CDs and cassettes, which not only required fossil fuel energy to manufacture them but also, not being recyclable, pile up in landfills. But it takes an enormous amount of energy to operate the servers that store and stream the music. The amount of carbon dioxide emissions from the manufacture, distribution and sale of CDs, vinyl records, and cassettes in the US in 2000 was 157 million kilograms. In 2016, when the revenue from CD sales was roughly 1/8 what it was in 2000, and when streaming and mp3 downloads were the vastly preferred listening formats, the amount of carbon dioxide emissions from internet servers in the US was 350 million kilograms. In other words, despite the transition from CDs to the internet, the amount of carbon dioxide emissions from music listening has nearly doubled. Of course, as electricity comes increasingly from renewable sources, music’s contribution to global warming may decline. In an effort to reduce their carbon footprint, many musicians and bands have introduced more environmentally friendly practices into their music-making and distribution. On their tours, Dave Matthews Band, Phish, Dead and Company, Drake, Walk the Moon, and others reduce carbon use by employing solar energy, distributing reusable water bottles, providing solar charging stations at concerts, and handing out information about environmental issues, green products and tech, and so on. REVERB, an organization created to reduce bands’ energy footprints, sponsors a Farm-to-Stage program that works with local farmers to provide artists and their crews with locally sourced food.[26] In July, 2019 a group of music industry professionals formed an organization called Music Declares Emergency, calling for “the music industry to acknowledge how its practices impact the environment and to commit to taking urgent action” and to “work toward making our businesses ecologically sustainable and regenerative.”[27]



As concern about the well-being of the planet and all of its inhabitants is growing, music and sound make us aware of the plight of our common inheritance: our seas, our air, our forests, our other habitats. We know that the earth song has the power to awaken our environmental awareness and encourage environmental activism. Sound connects beings in the world. In songs of protest and through experimental compositions, we make audible both the strength and vulnerability of our environment, while sonic connections enable our common kinship with it. 



[1] Translated from one of the inner chapters, 齊物論 or The Adjustment of Controversies. See

[2] For example, his entry for May 20, 1854: “The steadily increasing sound of toads and frogs along the river with each successive warmer night is one of the most important peculiarities of the season. Their prevalence and loudness is in proportion to the increased temperature of the day. It is the first earth-song, beginning with the croakers, (the crickets not yet), as if the very meads at last burst into a meadowy song.” See also the entries for Nov. 11, 1850, May 12, 1857, and January 2, 1858. Thoreau’s journals may be found at

[3] See Donald Kroodsma, The Singing Life of Birds (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2007).

[4] See Alan Powers, Bird Talk (Berkeley, CA: Frog Books, 2003).

[5] See Bernie Krause, Wild Soundscapes, revised 2nd ed. (Yale University Press, 2016), and The Great Animal Orchestra (Little, Brown Back Bay Books, 2013).

[6] Richard Rath, How Early America Sounded (Cornell University Press, 2005).

[7] In the “Sounds” chapter of Walden, Henry David Thoreau wrote about the sounds of the locomotive piercing the natural soundscape in the forest near Walden Pond. For Thoreau these sounds were signals of the Industrial Revolution.

[8] Hear Woody Guthrie and Sonny Terry’s “Railroad Blues” on Folkways FW00AA4_205, The Asch Recordings, 1939 to 1945 - Vol. 2.

[9] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring, fiftieth anniversary edition (Houghton Mifflin, 2002).

[10] For example, the Nature Sounds Society of Japan at

[11] See Jeff Todd Titon, “A Sound Commons for All Living Creatures.” Smithsonian Folkways Magazine (Fall-Winter 2012).

[12] For example, the World Listening Project (, and Xeno-canto (for bird songs, Accessed 27 November 2019. Nature Recordists ( and the World Listening Project also formed Yahoo Groups but as of this writing Yahoo Groups is closing and both those communities are migrating to

[13] A performance by Yazhi Guo and Tao He playing the suona and erhu may be seen at

[14] Written by Lü Buweh in the 3th century B.C.E. The music-making events themselves were said to have occurred in the 3rd millennium B.C.E.

[15] These were mythological, immortal creatures, sometimes called the Chinese phoenix, representing both male and female elements (a yin-yang harmony).

[16] See Accessed 27 November 2019.

[17] God Bless the Grass, containing “My Dirty Stream,” Columbia Records CL 2432, reissued in 1982 as Folkways FW27232 and FSS 37232. The album also contained many songs composed by Malvina Reynolds, author of “Little Boxes,” a celebrated song about look-alike housing in suburban developments that mocked middle-class conformity in 1950s America.

[18] Mark Pedelty, A Song to Save the Salish Sea (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2016).

[19] See and hear them sing “Watershed” at

[21] Jeff Todd Titon, “The Nature of Ecomusicology,” Mùsica e Cultura, Vol. 18, no. 1, p. 9. Download the article in English at

[22] For more information about ecomusicology see Aaron Allen and Kevin Dawe, eds., Current Directions in Ecomusicology (Routledge, 2016) and the journal Ecomusicology Review (at

[23] Aaron Allen, “Fatto Di Fiemme’: Stradivari’s Violins and the Musical Trees of the Paneveggio,” in Invaluable Trees: Cultures of Nature, 1660-1830, edited by Laura Auricchio, Elizabeth Heckendorn Cook, and Giulia Pacini, pp. 301-315 (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2012).

[24] See, for example, Klisala Harrison, “Aboriginal Music for Well-being in a Canadian Inner City,” MUSICultures, 36 (2009), pp. 1-22. During the intensifying environmental crisis of the past fifty years, Euro-American scholars have increasingly turned to native and indigenous knowledges about the environment for ways for humans to live in harmony with nature. There is a large and continually growing literature in this area from anthropologists such as Philippe Descola, whose In the Society of Nature: a Native Ecology in Amazonia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) was one of the key texts in the last century. Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013) is recognized as a landmark in 21st century environmental studies.

[25] R. Murray Schafer, the pioneer in acoustic ecology who coined the term “soundscape,” has been especially concerned about noise pollution (e.g., in his The Soundscape (New York: Destiny Books, 1993). His thoughts on the subject may be found summarized in a lecture, “The Sounding City,” at

[26] Information about REVERB can be found at

[27] Information about Music Declares Emergency can be found at

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Nature writing: ethnography, travel literature, and literary ethnography (2)


Writing near the Tagus River, Portugal, by Pedro Simōes. Wikimedia commons.

The editorial introduction to the section of the Norton Anthology of American Literature (9th ed., 2016) that contains “Ethnographic and Naturalist Writings” calls the former “literary ethnography” (instead of travel literature, the normal term) and in so doing suggests that in some sense the latter (i.e., nature writing) is also ethnographic. To be sure, the writings of natural historians are descriptive and may be systematic and scientific, just as anthropological ethnography is. But, strictly speaking, the idea of an “ethnography” of plants and animals is a misnomer. Why? Because ethnography's Greek root ethnos refers to human beings. Yet what happens when the boundaries between human and more-than-human blur? Is an ethnography of nature possible?
    Nature writing is not to be confused with scientific writing about nature. Scientific writing about nature is fact-based, descriptive, often reductionistic, concerned chiefly with structures and functions, parts and wholes. The parts of a plant, how they work together, how a plant grows, that sort of thing. Animal behavior as it is observed. Science writing like this can be found in biology textbooks and in reports on experiments in journals such as Science and Nature. Nature writing, on the other hand, is, in the words of Richard Mabey, editor of The Oxford Book of Nature Writing, an attempt to “portray the life of nature in prose”—not so much how a plant grows, but to convey, somehow, the “life” of the plant, what it is, or is like, for the plant to be alive: in Mabey’s words, both the plant’s “kindredness and otherness” to human life (1995, vii). Nature writers you may be familiar with include Barry Lopez, Gary Snyder, Annie Dillard, Daisy Hildyard, and Peter Matthiessen. Some scientists have also tried their hand at nature writing: Lewis Thomas, Aldo Leopold, and E. O. Wilson, for example. The tradition of nature writing in English also includes earlier writers like John Muir, John Burroughs, Henry David Thoreau, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Gilbert White. 
    Nature writing is a “quest for the essential characteristics and boundaries of being human” (Mabey, ibid.). It is often lyrical and conjectural. It is, certainly, literary. Still, the idea that nature writers are also doing something like ethnography is intriguing. That is, when they write about plants and animals to probe those “essential characteristics” of being human, they must, to some degree, anthropomorphize non-human nature. To take the most obvious example, birds are said to “sing.” A scientist—that is, a behavioral ecologist—may use the term birdsong but only as a placeholder for the sounds that birds make in order to communicate with one another. Behavioral ecologists such as Richard Dawkins have taken pains to deny any aesthetic component in birdsong—that is, any possibility that birds are singing for their own pleasure. Nature writers, on the other hand, take pleasure in the possibility that birds sing not just for practical purposes—to attract a mate, to sound alarm calls, and so on—but also for their own enjoyment. One might point out that birdsong is not parsimonious: a bird will appear to “sing its heart out” for a long time, surely longer than seems necessary to frighten an enemy, attract a mate, sound an alarm, or otherwise announce its presence in the neighborhood. In anthropomorphizing birdsong, nature writers are in effect trying to understand the “native’s (i.e., the bird’s) point of view”— which, beyond mere detailed, “thick” and systematic description, is one of the most important aims of ethnography, as anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski expressed it more than 100 years ago. Certain non-Western beliefs about nature also play into the idea that it has something in common with ethnography. Indigenous social groups whose view of nature is what Viveiros de Castro has termed “perspectivism” do not exactly anthropomorphize animals but, rather, consider that like humans they have consciousness, intentions, feelings, and undergo experience; and that, like humans, they have social lives in groups not unlike human groups. In short, this Indigenous perspective, which can be found in traditional ecological thought among Native groups in the Americas, does not need to anthropomorphize because it views animals as kindred, not other. Ethnography from this perspective would not need to overcome the barriers that science throws up by denying inner lives to plants and animals.
    Of course, the Norton Anthology editor’s category, “literary ethnography,” is separate from “naturalistic writings”; yet to juxtapose them in the same space does suggest the systematic and descriptive (ethnographic) approach to nature which has been characteristic of certain natural historians in their taxonomic activities—Linnaeus, for example, or Darwin for that matter. Yet until early in the 20th century most natural historians in their “naturalistic writings” mixed objective, scientific taxonomy of particular species with lyrical, anthropomorphic descriptions of animal lives, often in the same entry. In nineteenth-century books about bird species, for example, natural historians took pains to classify, determine prevalence, and describe size, coloring, shape, habitat, range, reproductive habits, nests, seasonal activities, etc. but they also added anecdotes thought to typify what was characteristic of that particular species, as well as conjectures about inner lives while sometimes imputing motives and feelings to individual birds whose behavior was described. Moreover, they represented bird species' songs either in mnemonic syllables, or in musical notation. In the twentieth century musical notation gave way to sound spectrograph representations of birdsong, but while objectivity and precision were gained, the reader’s ability to sing back the song from musical notation was lost. The same precision and objectivity is apparent in twentieth-century bird identification guidebooks such as Peterson’s and Sibley’s. Yet there is no shortage of lyrical nature writing about birds and other animals in contemporary literature; indeed, it’s a very popular literary genre—not only in writing but also in films and television shows that attempt to portray animal lives.
    As more and more plant and animal species are endangered, or threatened by extinction, due to human encroachment on habitat, global heating, and so forth, a sustainability/conservation component inevitably enters nature writing, often accompanied by a combination of sentiment if not sentimentality, along with a sense of emergency. But there is a truth to this component, regardless of the perspective: Western science, nature writing, or perspectivism. For Western science, nature provides ecosystem services for human beings; for naturalists, nature reveals the porous boundaries between the human and more-than-human; and for Indigenous perspectivists, nature reveals life’s universal kinship.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Keeping Track of Writing Projects -- End of 2022

Scholar with his books. Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (17th c.)


An update to keep track of my writing projects has become an annual event. Since the last update, on Dec. 31, 2021, which writing projects have progressed, which have been published, and which have seemingly stagnated? On my page and also in my twitter profile @jefftoddtiton I suggest that readers who want to know the answer to the question “What research and writing are you working on?” come to this blog to find out. Here is the list:

1. “Ethical Considerations for Ethnomusicologists in the Midst of Environmental Crisis.” In August, 2020 I’d finished this essay for a book in progress edited by Jonathan Stock and Beverley Diamond called the Routledge Companion to Ethics and Research in Ethnomusicology. Routledge published the book a few months ago, and it's available from Routledge and other sources. I'm hoping that in a year it will be available in paperback at reasonable price.

2. A short essay on musical icons, introducing a section of a book entitled Social Voices: The Cultural Politics of Singers Around the Globe.  I finished up the essay in the spring of 2021. The book is in production now and scheduled for publication by the University of Illinois Press in 2023.

3. “Eco-trope or Eco-tripe? Music Ecology Today.” I completed this chapter in 2021. It’s for the book edited by Aaron S. Allen and myself, Sounds, Ecologies, Musics. I also co-wrote the Introduction with Aaron. The book contains thirteen essays written from diverse ecological perspectives, by scientists, scholars, environmental activists, and musicians, each concerned with music, sound, nature, culture and the environment in a time of environmental crisis. Since I wrote about it in my blog entry a year ago, it received a positive external review from Oxford's referees and has just been put into production at Oxford, with expected publication toward the end of 2023.

4. “The Sound Commons and Applied Ecomusicologies.” This is an article co-authored by Aaron Allen, Taylor Leapaldt, Mark Pedelty, and myself, for The Routledge Companion to Applied Musicology, edited by Chris Dromey. I completed my section (on my concept of the sound commons) of the article in 2019, and the others followed with their sections; we revised in 2020 and sent the manuscript to Chris, who returned it with suggested revisions in the spring of 2021. We responded to those and revised yet again, and sent them back to Chris. The book is in the latter stages of production and should be available in the spring of 2023. I'm hoping that a year later it will be available in paperback at reasonable price.

5. “Ecojustice and Ontological Turns: a Response to Marshall and DeAngeli.” This was part of an E-seminar that the Ecomusicology Review has been conducting in the fall of 2021 within the ecomusicology Google Group. Kimberly Marshall and Emma DeAngeli wrote an essay to which Sebastian Hochmeyer responded, whereupon they wrote a rejoinder. Mark Pedelty followed with a second response. Aaron Allen asked me if I too would respond, and so I wrote a brief response, starting with my reaction to a disagreement between Marshall and DeAngeli on one hand, and Hachmeyer on the other, over the relevance of the so-called ontological turn in anthropology to the project of social justice. Rather than take sides, I proposed that ecojustice would resolve the disagreement by including social justice in the larger framework of relationality and by extending reciprocity and respect to all living beings, not just humans. This is congruent with the writings of Indigenous scholars such as Robin Kimmerer and Zoe Todd in past dozen years or so as well even though they don’t use that term. Aaron intends for all these to be published in the Ecomusicology Review, though I’m still not sure when.

6.  An essay on music and sustainability that I wrote as an invited forward for the book Music, Communities, Sustainability, edited by Huib Schippers and Anthony Seeger, was published this year by Oxford University Press. 

7. My essay "Sustainability and a Sound Ecology," the latest published description of my sound ecology project, was kindly translated into Spanish by Chilean musicologist Mauricio Valdebenito, and published in El oído pensante, vol. 10, no. 1, 2022, pp. 131-156. It can be downloaded from the journal's website, here. The English version had already been published in my book Toward a Sound Ecology: New and Selected Essays (Indiana University Press, 2020). 

8. Earlier this year Robert Baron, on behalf of the Fellows of the American Folklore Society, invited me to contribute an essay to a forthcoming issue of the Journal of American Folklore, to be derived from my oral presentation on folklife, heritage and environment for the American Folklore Society webinar on "Heritage, Folklore, and the Public Sphere" on March 10, 2021. I completed the essay (a little more than 10,000 words) in August, and then revised it a little in response to suggestions from Robert and also from Mary Hufford and returned it to Robert Baron at the end of October. Its title is "Folklife, Heritage, and the Environment: A Critique of Natural Capital, Ecosystem Services, and Settler Ecology." It's to go into a future issue of the Journal with a group of other essays related to the topic of heritage, folklore, and the public sphere. I have no timeline yet on publication.

9. I continue to work on my book-length manuscript, A Sound Ecology.

Among the lectures and seminars I gave during this past year, one in particular was memorable: an invited video lecture for the Festival El Aleph, in Mexico City. The festival was organized by CulturaUnam with the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and broadcast on TV UNAM. I was one of three scholars from the US invited to present at this festival, a hybrid (partly online, partly in-person) extravaganza that unites science with art and music by means of lectures, workshops, and performances by scientists, scholars, artists and musicians. The theme this year was sustainability and environment, and I was asked to speak about my sound ecology project. The Festival recorded the lecture over Zoom in March, and then broadcast it during the festival itself, on May 25. I was pleasantly surprised to find, when I began watching the broadcast itself, that Festival producers had located video footage and inserted it, intercutting with my "talking head" so as to illustrate the ideas that I was discussing. The result was that instead of seeing a talking head on the screen for 45 minutes, the viewer saw the lecture intercut with a variety of illustrative video clips that made the presentation more interesting to watch and listen to. I'm grateful to the producers for doing this. I was, also, told by several friends and colleagues who saw it, that it was the clearest and best explanation of my sound ecology project to date. As it happens, it can still be seen from the Festival website, via this link in case anyone reading this blog entry would like to take a look.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Ethnography, travel literature, and literary ethnography (1)

Find the frog in vernal pool. Spring 2022. Photo by Jeff Titon.

 I was interested to see, in the first volume of the ninth edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature (2016), a section with the heading Ethnographic and Naturalist Writings (Vol. 1, pp. 641ff). The section’s introduction begins, “Broadly defined, the genre of literary ethnography is the written description of peoples, cultures, and societies. . . . Virtually all of the earliest ‘American’ literature offers instances of ethnographic and naturalist writing, as the sustained European encounter with the Americas that begin in 1492 provided writers with a treasure trove of new material” (641). My interest was piqued, first of all, by the use of the word ethnography outside of the anthropological/ethnomusicological/folkloristic context in which I know it. Inside that context, although ethnography is defined as the written description of the culture, or some aspects of the culture, of a social group, it is not regarded primarily as literature or even as a literary genre. Instead, it aspires to be systematic, its reliability grounded and guaranteed by thorough documentation. Systematic ethnographic descriptions to a certain extent resemble inventories--these are the ways the group thinks of kinship relations; these are their laws and traditions; this is how their government is organized; these are their rituals and ceremonies; that sort of thing. This kind of ethnographic description is later used as evidence for cultural analysis, cultural comparisons, and cultural histories. 

Yet when ethnographers become narrators, portraying as much as describing, telling anecdotes based on their personal encounters, anecdotes that encapsulate the meanings and offer grounds for interpretation--not analysis--of this or that cultural behavior, then our tales take on literary qualities, because they exhibit such things as individual characters, settings and scenes, point-of-view and narrative reliability. But because truth-telling is our goal, it would be highly unusual for any ethnographer, narrating in the first person, to present themself as an unreliable narrator and impossible to offer up an ethnography as fiction, unless it were meant as satire or comedy--in which case, the audience would need to be let in on the ruse sooner or later. Or not; there are some famous exceptions, such as Carlos Castaneda's once-popular narrative ethnographies on the teachings of a Mexican shaman he called Don Juan.

I was, also, curious about the deliberate juxtaposition of ethnographic and naturalist writings in this section, suggesting that describing “peoples” is, or at least was, during the early European colonization of the Asian, African, and American continents, not altogether different from describing esoteric plants and animals. Such a juxtaposition also reflects empire, but is it a recognition of similarities in these literatures, "ethnographic" and naturalistic, of the 17th and 18th centuries? Or might it reveal a residual settler colonialism in the Anthology editors' thinking? More on that in a later blog post. Third, I was struck by the Anthology editors' apparent reluctance to use the accepted term "travel literature" to describe this kind of writing. Travel literature is an ancient genre; portions of Herodotus' history fall into this category, while perhaps the 13th-century Travels of Marco Polo is the most famous example, both from a period that predates European colonialism. Anthropology, and to some extent ethnomusicology and folklore, have a history of ambivalence toward travelers' accounts of exotic lands and peoples; on the one hand, they may contain new information that makes a genuine contribution to knowledge; on the other, the travelers are amateurs after all and therefore their observations cannot be taken at face value. Indeed, as the 20th century wore on, professional, advanced degreed anthropologists increasingly got out of their studies and into the "field," traveling themselves to the field sites where the peoples lived whose cultures they wished to describe. They thought of themselves as scientists, and made a distinction between themselves and the untrained amateurs, tourists whose observations were haphazard, their judgments subjective and often prejudiced; whereas these scholar-scientists considered themselves objective documentarians and analysts pursuing knowledge in a thorough, systematic, unbiased and objective fashion. 

This conception of ethnography as a scientific endeavor began to unravel during the period of the great social movements of the latter 1960s and early 1970s, and by 1990 or so many cultural anthropologists, if not archeologists and linguists, had largely abandoned the idea that their methodology was ever scientific in the sense of the ideal that it was impersonal, objective, unbiased, and replicable. (Of course, critics of science also claimed that objectivity was a myth in all scientific endeavor, even natural science.) Indeed, in the face of post-colonial independence movements, cultural anthropologists began to realize that their field was part of the legacy of empire; that in many cases access to "other" cultures in faraway lands was possible (and relatively safe) only because of the protection of colonial governments. And in the 1980s, cultural anthropology (and, a little later, ethnomusicology) became a locus for debates over such things as cultural appropriation and theft; the relevance of post-structuralist thinking; and of course the literary qualities of narrative ethnography--and whether narrative ethnography was fiction, or whether it was only "like" fiction. It was in the context of these old debates--advanced but never settled--that I first pondered the term "literary ethnography" and its application to the literature of travel and exploration written by European explorers and colonists in the New World beginning in the late 15th century. I'll say more about these topics in a subsequent blog post.

Monday, October 24, 2022

Ecological Imaginaries 2


Crabapple tree of many colors, Oct. 22, 2022. Photo by J. T. Titon

“Ecological imaginaries” is but one kind of imaginary, but in the past ten years this idea has become increasingly useful as ecology in all senses of the word gains traction. A bit of background is in order before introducing two more ecological imaginaries. Imaginaries are ideas, not things; they are social products of a collective human imagination. Like myths, they are believed in; they are thought to be true, or they deserve to be made so. An example is the idea of “the rule of law.The best known imaginary is the “social imaginary,” i.e., the network of ideas that individuals in a particular social group have about their society, what it is, how it operates, and how one should behave as a member of that society—the rules, principles, laws, values and the assumptions that people believe (imagine) govern their social interactions, and their meanings. For Jürgen Habermas, it was “the massive background of an intersubjectively shared lifeworld.”

Benedict Anderson’s concept of the “imagined community” has been influential among folklorists, ethnomusicologists and anthropologists. Anderson was thinking primarily of an imagined socio-political community, often based in ethnic, regional, and racial ties. So, for instance, a nation such as "England" or "the United States" when regarded as a whole, integrated society embodies an imagined community. The idea of the folk community, as a comparatively undifferentiated, pre-industrial, peasant or Indigenous social group, with its ancient customs and oral traditions, and their performance as expressive culture, is another example of a social imaginary. A more recent example of a social imaginary is the community invoked by the phrase "Christian nationalism." 

In the previous post I’ve identified four ecological imaginaries all related to beliefs about nature: pastoral, the “land of Cockaigne,” untrammeled wilderness, and self-regulation (organicism and the balance of nature). Here I will identify two more among many others. The first is Lorraine Code’s identification of an ecological imaginary (as she calls it) which attempts “to enact principles of ideal cohabitation,” or living together. Code views this “ecological imaginary” as based in the ecological principle/assumption of interdependence (or what others have called relationality and reciprocity) among living beings, a principle that, for example, I have called an ecological rationality (Titon 2013) and invoked more specifically in my sound ecology project, in which this interdependence is both signaled and secured by co-presence through sonic connections (Titon 2015, 2021). Code’s project is ongoing and difficult to summarize on account of numerous digressions—one might say the same thing about sound ecology—whereas she is incisive in her description of the social imaginary of “mastery” (Val Plumwood’s term) and the “autonomous individual”: “The instituted social imaginary of the affluent white western-northern world is one of taken-for-granted availability and access: a way of life where individual self-reliance is a virtue [positioned so as] to achieve their ‘goals’ and fulfill their ‘needs.’ Such needs are said to be natural, the sine qua non of a viable human life; scarcity is temporary and contingent: it can and should be ‘fixed’” (Code 2010, 30). Mastery involves control over the self and control over others: political mastery, and mastery over the external world; and thus they require management.

The second ecological imaginary I would add here is that of scientific realism, a set of assumptions based in the idea that the external world has an existence apart from our human perceptions of it, and that it is knowable by means of a series of epistemic operations, perhaps the most familiar being the so-called “scientific method” of inductive reasoning: observation, hypothesis, experiment, measurement, and conclusion. Scientific realism acknowledges organic wholes but proceeds towards functional analysis by means of reducing wholes to constituent parts, and parts to their constituent parts, and so on, studying the structures of those components and their interactions. The science of ecology appears to have always contained both the ecological imaginary of ecological rationality biased toward intersubjective understanding, organic holism, interrelation, balance, and interdependence; and the ecological imaginary of an objective and reductive scientific method, currently in favor among ecological scientists, that portrays nature as in continual flux, subjected to frequent disturbance and without an overall tendency, absent human interference, toward climax equilibrium and natural balance.

All six of these ecological imaginaries reflect Western intellectual history. There are additional perspectives. Folk, Indigenous, and non-Western social groups have their own ecological imaginaries, their own particular ideas concerning nature and the socio-political world. Earlier this year in this blog I wrote about “settler ecology,” prompted by an intervention from Kyle Powys Whyte from an Indigenous perspective. The diversity of environmentalisms is based in diverse ecological imaginaries.


Code, Lorraine. 2010. “Particularity, Epistemic Responsibility, and the Ecological Imaginary.” Philosophy of Education 2010: 23-34.

Titon, Jeff Todd. 2013. “The Nature of Ecomusicology.” Música e Cultura: revista da ABET 8, 8-18.

Titon, Jeff Todd. 2015. “Exhibiting Music in a Sound Community.” Ethnologies 37 (1): 23-41.

Titon, Jeff Todd. 2021. “Sustainability and a Sound Ecology.” In Toward a Sound Ecology: New and Selected Essays, 254-276. Bloomington: Indiana U. Press.