Sustainable Music


Sunday, February 28, 2016

Essays on Thoreau's Sound Observations

H. D. Thoreau (1856)
    The last in my series of essays on Thoreau and sound, titled “Thoreau’s Ear,” has just been published. It may be downloaded as a pdf from the inaugural issue of Sound Studies, a UK-based journal edited by Michael Bull and Veit Erlmann. (The other essays in the series include “Why Thoreau?,” which was published in Current Directions in Ecomusicology (Routledge, 2015), edited by Aaron Allen and Kevin Dawe; and “Thoreau and the Music of the Natural World,” in Discourses in Music (2012), edited by Anthony Paul De Ritis.)
    Thoreau is all over this blog, especially in the past four years. Thinking with Thoreau has enabled me to expand my research from music and sustainability to the concept of a sound ecology. Although he wrote about sound in Walden, most famously when the train intruded on the pastoral of the Walden woods, screaming like a hawk over a farmer’s yard, most of his writing on sound may be found in the millions of words that he left in his journals, especially those from 1850 until his death. He considered himself the natural historian of the town of Concord and its surrounding area, and in his journals he meticulously recorded his observations of the natural world, not only what he saw but what he heard. In Walden, his carefully selected observations always lead to conclusions, some of which seem to claim more authority than is warranted, or to deliver a sermon when the reader does not want one. In his journals his voice is more open and tentative, as he reveals his “curious ear” and speculates on what might be the meanings of what he sees and hears. In his journals he has a conversation with himself; he doubts, he allows himself to reveal his ignorance in ways that he could not in his published writing. In his journals he advances tentative conclusions; he wonders; he changes his mind. Revealing the way his mind proceeded from observing natural facts (sounds included) to ideas about what they might signify, he offers in his journals an open-ended method of approaching sounds and thinking about their patterns and meanings.