Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sound and sustainability at AASHE

     In early October, Aaron Allen, Denise Von Glahn and I spoke in a plenary session to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, or AASHE (pronounced HEY-she with the H silent), at their annual conference, in Nashville, Tennessee. Aaron Allen, the Academic Sustainability Coordinator at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, received the initial invitation, then asked Denise Von Glahn and me to join him. Plenaries are special events at conferences, and so our photos and bios were prominently placed in the program.[1] Von Glahn is a professor of musicology at Florida State University; she is very active in ecomusicology and the author of two books on American composers, nature, and place—her latter book is specifically on women composers.[2] Allen is also a professor of musicology and one of the leaders and guiding spirits behind the ecomusicology movement. It was Allen who convened a group of musicologists to write essays for a colloquy about ecomusicology in JAMS (the Journal of the Musicological Society), and who was asked to write an entry on ecomusicology for the New Grove Dictionary of American Music.[3] Although I’m relatively new to the (relatively new itself) ecomusicology movement, Allen was aware of my recent research in ecomusicology via Thoreau, and of my longstanding interests in sustainability—hence the invitation.
     Our topic was sustainability and sound, while the conference theme was resiliency and adaptation, a theme which readers of this blog know has occupied me here for years in connection with ecological models for musical and cultural sustainability. We held forth at the plenary for 90 minutes with a mix of prepared statements (from Aaron, explaining ecomusicology and its relation to sustainability; and from Denise, tracing her interests in nature, sound, music, and listening) and an interview (Aaron interviewed me about my research in sound and sustainability, touching on my plea for thinking about the earth’s soundscape as an acoustic commons for all living creatures [4], and my research on the sacralization of place by sound, particularly in Appalachia.[5].
    Most college and university campuses today make an effort to “be green,” to involve their staff, students, and faculty in energy conservation and recycling, and to lower their campus’s carbon footprint. AASHE brings together the leaders from those campuses, so they can talk to each other about common concerns and their efforts to make their institutions more sustainable. According to its website, AASHE’s mission “is to empower higher education to lead the sustainability transformation. We do this by providing resources, professional development, and a support network. . . “ [6] Not only professional campus sustainability administrators, then, but also students engaged in various sustainability projects on campus, and faculty involved with sustainability and environmental studies, were present at this very large conference of nearly two thousand people. It was about three times the size of the conferences of the Society for Ethnomusicology or of the American Folklore Society, the two I’ve attended faithfully each year since the early 1970s in connection with my own research and teaching. Like the invitation I received two years ago when I spoke to the University of New Hampshire’s Sustainability Academy [7], this was an invitation where people involved with sustainability, chiefly from the perspectives of science and engineering, wanted to hear from humanists about their own involvement with sustainability—to bring the humanities into the discussion.
    Allen, who has thought about bridging those gaps for some years now, is convinced, as I am, that humanists do have something to say to scientists and engineers about sustainability. The reverse is also true, of course. Ecomusicology, as he presented it at the conference, builds on ecocriticism, which is a three decades-old movement in literary history and criticism that takes as its primary subject the interactions of people, culture, and nature within literature, at a time of environmental crisis; and it, too, involves some scientists. That is, ecocriticism is concerned with literature and the environment, broadly conceived. Ecomusicology, then, is the critical study of music and the environment: of music, culture, and nature at a time of environmental crisis.
    Many ecomusicologists, myself included, prefer an ecomusicology that goes beyond music to include the study of all sound, and its relation to all creatures in the environment. In moving from music to the broader concept, sound, we think that ecomusicology shares common ground with other fields that focus on sound, fields such as acoustic ecology, sound studies, and soundscape ecology. I will save for another time a description of the differences of emphasis in these allied fields; suffice to say that Allen, Von Glahn and I spoke to the AASHE conference not only about music and sustainability, but about sound and sustainability.
    By their questions afterwards, the audience seemed as interested in music as in sound. They wondered about the future of musical genres they like, whether classical, folk, hip-hop, etc. Indeed, the majority of entries on this blog have been about music, not sound and environmental policy. But in the past two years, as a result of my work with Thoreau, sound has become more important, as I continue with a line of thought I introduced more than twenty years ago, theorizing a phenomenology of sound, a way of taking listening to sound and music rather than reading and interpreting a text, as the paradigm case of being in the world, and one which leads to a relational epistemology based on fieldwork and friendship.[8]
    In my part of the plenary, I tried to make the point that colleges and universities ought to manage their soundscapes for the health of all the inhabitants, and that this should be part of campus sustainability initiatives. Campuses after all are unusual in the amount of planning that goes into their spaces (pathways, landscaping, architecture, etc.) and their upkeep. Campuses are managed landscapes, and like gardens and country houses they are managed to be pleasant (usually pastoral) retreats from the jumble of appearances characterizing people’s workaday lives. Why not manage the soundscapes as well? I mentioned studies that have shown that soundscape interference (noise) is unhealthy, causing both physical and psychological damage.[9] I asked them if they thought they had any stress on their campuses; when they laughed in agreement, I suggested some of that stress might result from the soundscape. They already manage, or try to manage, certain soundscapes, such as dormitories. Roommates have to agree on the soundscape of their living quarters at any given time, for example; and there are “quiet hours” in some dorms, and so forth. But there is no coordinated campus effort to manage the soundscape for health and general well-being; for curbing the sounds of leaf-blowers, for example, or for attracting birds and other wildlife specifically for their contributions to the soundscape. In many campus buildings, the sounds of ventilator fans, heating apparatus, and air conditioners are omnipresent and noticeable, causing a kind of background stress that most people aren’t aware of until they go outside, and maybe not even then.
    Here, then, Allen and Von Glahn and I were concerned about sound, sustainability, and health and well-being. Von Glahn teaches her students to listen to all sounds, not just music. Attentive listening is a skill that can be learned. Once it is learned, people will pay more attention to the soundscape and its effects on life, human and non-human alike. Allen’s task was more general, to act as interlocutor and to explain the relationship of ecomusicology to sustainability, which he did by saying, among other things, that it introduces an aesthetic dimension that might otherwise be missing if the conversation is confined to scientists and engineers.
    In a sea of presentations on various efforts at sustainability and their outcomes, on campus and in the community at large, mostly involving engineering projects and group activities meant to conserve energy, our plenary must have provided some relief (including comic relief). About 500 people attended it, one of the larger audiences I’ve spoken with. It was a great pleasure to make common cause with Aaron Allen and Denise Von Glahn in this effort to link sound to sustainability for environmentalists, and we may get a chance to do it again. Plans are afoot for a visit to the University of Minnesota, where some interested parties have applied for a small grant to bring us there to coordinate with their own campus environmental sustainability efforts. I’d like to go, to try to give something back to them; for it was at the University of Minnesota that my own graduate education in the humanities took place many years ago.

[1] For the bios, see
[2] Denise Von Glahn, Music and the Skillful Listener: American Women Compose the Natural World (Indiana University Press, 2013) and The Sounds of Place: Music and the American Cultural Landscape (Northeastern University Press, 2003).
[3] Aaron Allen, “Ecomusicology,” The New Grove Dictionary of American Music (Oxford University Press, 2013), also available at; and Aaron Allen, Daniel Grimley, Alexander Rehding, Denise Von Glahn, and Holly Watkins, “Colloquy: Ecomusicology,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 64, no. 2 (2011): 391–424.
[4] Jeff Todd Titon, “A Sound Commons for All Living Creatures,” Smithsonian Folkways Magazine, 2012, at
[5] See
[6] See
[8] Jeff Todd Titon, “Knowing Fieldwork,” in Gregory Barz and Timothy Cooley, Shadows in the Field (Oxford University Press, 1996), pp,. 87-100 and Jeff Todd Titon, “Knowing People Making Music: Toward a New Epistemology for Ethnomusicology.” Etnomusikologian vuosikirja, vol. 6, 1994. Helsinki: Suomen etnomusikologinen seura. [Yearbook of the Finnish Society for Ethnomusicology]

No comments:

Post a Comment