Friday, October 26, 2012

An Echo in Knoxville

     “Thoreau’s Pastoral Symphony” was the title of the public lecture I gave at the University of Tennessee on October 3. It was sponsored by the university’s Humanities Institute and their School of Music. As at the University of New Hampshire last March, I spoke about Thoreau’s remarkable attention to sounds in the natural world and what we might, for music and sustainability today, learn from them. (To stream a video of this lecture, go to http://www.sustainableunh.unh.edu/sustainabilityunbound/) “Music,” Thoreau wrote, “is the sound of circulation in Nature’s veins.” In this University of Tennessee lecture I was able to concentrate on Thoreau’s fascination with echo, with the way echo orients creatures in space and also alters our sense of time. Here is an excerpt from the lecture:

    “With an echo we have a doubling, as if time is stopping and running backwards on itself as the echo returns to the listener. Listening to the echo of a distant drum, Thoreau writes, personifying time, ‘Suddenly old Time winked at me, -- Ah, you know me, you rogue. . .’  Here Time addresses Thoreau as a ‘rogue’ for having found Time out, having known Time by the echo. At this point—it is in the Monday section of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers—Thoreau breaks into a visionary poetry very like that of Emily Dickinson:

          'Then idle Time ran gadding by
           And left me with Eternity alone;
           I hear beyond the range of sound,
           I see beyond the verge of sight, --'

     The encounter with the echo sharpens the writer’s senses, alters his sense of time and space, and enables him to peer into the workings of universe. In the same book he quotes Iamblichus in Taylor's translation, on sphere music thus: ‘Pythagoras . . . extended his ears and fixed his intellect in the sublime symphonies of the world, he alone hearing and understanding, as it appears, the universal harmony and consonance of the spheres, and the stars that are moved through them, and which produce a fuller and more intense melody than anything effected by mortal sounds.’ Thoreau did believe in a version of the theory attributed to Pythagoras which we refer to as the music of the spheres, whose harmonies were based on the mathematical ratios believed to exist between their astronomical intervals; and this was an instance in which Thoreau’s ecstatic experience with the echo confirmed it. Except for Pythagoras himself, humans were supposedly unable to hear this music; but Thoreau felt that he heard it all around him in the sounds emerging from the silences of the natural world. Therefore he pursued it on his daily walks, attended to what he heard, and seldom failed to make note of it in his journals. Thoreau never wrote a pastoral symphony. He never needed to: it was all around him.”

     I also spoke some about Thoreau’s belief in the echo as a signal of co-presence; on one occasion he likens the echo of his voice to the sound of a friend reading his verse back to him. And I spoke about Thoreau’s comparison of echo and reflection, referencing Hudson River School paintings (see the entry for Aug. 30, 2012 in this blog for some of them). I contextualized it within the music and sustainability discussion by suggesting that “this discourse proceeds along two fronts: one, how people can sustain music; and two, how music san sustain people. How people can sustain music gets us into issues involving best practices for the sustenance of music cultures. How music can sustain people gets us into issues of the role of music in the sustenance of life on planet earth. Both of these ways of thinking about music lead us to policy: the first primarily to cultural policy affecting the future of music cultures; and the second to a variety of cultural, economic, and regulatory policies affecting musical activities and their relation to the future of life on the planet.” The Thoreau lecture was an exploration along the second of those two fronts. 

     The audience of students and faculty filled the concert hall auditorium. The thought occurred to me that Thoreau himself had given many public lectures, although he was quite ambivalent about doing so. Several faculty—from the English department, from American Studies, from Religious Studies, and of course from from the School of Music—attended, along with many students and some from the university community in Knoxville at large. After the lecture, there were many thought-provoking comments and questions, and the discussion went on for about a half hour. I can’t recall when I’ve ever given a lecture to so many people that resulted in such a long discussion afterwards. Many people had a stake in different aspects of the talk: cultural policy, sustainability, music psychology, ecocriticism, cultural criticism, and Thoreau himself.

     The chair of Religious Studies spoke at some length in response to my point about co-presence and the way sound sacralizes space (see this blog, April 18, 2011). She had been thinking along the same lines for some time, but was unable to get her colleagues in comparative religion to pay much attention to sound-worlds. After the talk I was taken to dinner by a dozen or so faculty members, she among them; and she asked me why I thought that was. I said that in some ways this is the fault of those in music who have unwittingly erected a barrier with our special language (musical notation and music theory) to describe sound structures. The result is that many academic professionals outside of music feel ill-equipped to discuss it because they don’t know the language. What we in music don’t realize is that this wall not only shuts others out but it also shuts us in. I will pursue this with her after I return from the conferences in New Orleans.

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