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Ecomusicology: Rock, Folk, and the Environment by Mark Pedelty (review)

From: Notes
Volume 70, Number 3, March 2014
pp. 452-455 | 10.1353/not.2014.0038

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Over the past decade, musicologists and ethnomusicologists have become increasingly interested in ecomusicology, a mode of inquiry that Aaron S. Allen has described as “the study of music, culture, and nature in all the complexities of those terms” (“Eco musicology,” in The New Grove Dictionary of American Music, 2d ed., [New York: Oxford University Press, forthcoming]; Ecomusicology, http://www.ecomusicology.info, accessed 20 September 2013). Interest groups devoted to the development and refinement of ecomusicological methods are currently recognized by the American Musicological Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology, and, in 2011, the Journal of the American Musicological Society published a series of essays by several noted ecomusicologists that outlined the need for musicological methods that engage with ecological crises, articulated ecomusicology’s relationship to existing musicological preoccupations regarding the connections between music and the natural world, and reflected upon the ethical implications of ecocritical research in music (“Colloquy: Ecomusicology,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 64, no. 2 [Summer 2011]: 391–424). Using a rich combination of textual analysis and ethnographic participant-observation, anthropologist Mark Pedelty’s recent book, Ecomusicology: Rock, Folk, and the Environment, extends current ecomusicological discourse through a careful consideration of the ecological impacts of rock and folk production and consumption and challenges readers to engage in what Alexander Rehding has described as “awareness-raising, praxis (in the Marxian sense), and activism” (“Ecomusicology between Apocalypse and Nostalgia,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 64, no. 2 [Summer 2011]: 410). Whereas much ecomusicological scholarship has, to date, focused primarily on specific musical texts, Pedelty works to broaden the term “ecomusicology” from its current use—describing specific modes of critical inquiry—and to transform it into a way of life, arguing that we should add “sustainability to the long list of musical values and expectations” (p. 202). Through a series of case studies, he interrogates the ways in which music making—and rock and folk music in particular—have been mobilized for the greater ecological good or contributed to environmental degradation. Furthermore, he offers some general advice to assist communities in creating more sustainable modes of music making and to build local communities. Although the book occasionally mobilizes utopian rhetoric, Pedelty is quick to observe that music’s “[ability] to play some role in fostering environmental sustainability, biodiversity, and human well-being” (p. 202) is complicated by inevitable negative environmental impacts, the varying levels of engagement of audience members, and the skill level and professional ambitions of the musicians themselves.

Pedelty opens the book with a detailed exploration of the environmental impacts of contemporary rock touring practices and the organizations that are working to mitigate the negative consequences of global touring. Using U2’s 2009–11 360° Tour (which required hundreds of trucks, as well as ships and airplanes, to transport equipment and personnel) and Al Gore’s anti-climate-change Live Earth concerts as examples, he demonstrates that, regardless of the socially-oriented rhetoric of concert organizers and musicians, touring contributes to climate change, unsustainable land use practices, and localized pollution. Criticizing carbon offset programs used to counteract the emissions of tour buses and trucks and drawing attention to contradictions between the pro-environmental rhetoric of many national and international rock and pop stars and their lifestyles, he notes that “ ‘eco-friendly’ rock is still about celebrity and spectacle, massive apparatuses and media designed to project individual personas onto giant stages for large audiences to enjoy” (p. 32). Furthermore, Pedelty asserts that fascination with and consumption of this “celebrity and spectacle” has unmoored us from the very environments that we inhabit, filling our soundscapes with invasive non-native species that make it “hard to imagine sustaining local places . . . [because] so few of us are still deeply engaged in them” (p. 39).

The second chapter, “The Musical Nation: Popular Music and the American Soundscape,” investigates “the ecological implications of American popular music” (p. 49) through an examination of several musical compositions. Beginning with such national songs as “America the Beautiful,” “God Bless America,” and “This Land Is Your Land,” and continuing through contemporary compositions such as Ani DiFranco’s “Your Next Bold Move,” Pedelty uses textual analysis to demonstrate the powerful role that folk idioms and production practices...



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