- Music and the Skillful Listener: American Women Compose the Natural World by Denise Von Glahn
In October 2013 the University of Redlands hosted its third Frederick Loewe Symposium in American Music. Part music festival and part academic conference, the event honored the composer Joan Tower and also included an academic [End Page 192] symposium inspired by Denise Von Glahn’s new book on American women composers and nature, the subject of this review. In her keynote speech at the Loewe Symposium, Von Glahn poignantly recalled a childhood experience of sound and place, describing the specific sounds that marked her arrival at her grandparents’ summer cabin. This vivid sonic experience provides an excellent illustration of one of the core themes that recurs throughout Music and the Skillful Listener: for sensitive listeners, even the smallest sounds of nature can transcend their seemingly quotidian origins and instead become entwined within a meaningful—or even transcendent—experience.
After driving from the city on all kinds of paved highways, and then cutting off into an overgrown, rutted, dirt road that my father and grandfather had cleared through a stand of trees, we’d finally come within a hundred feet or so of the cabin, and I’d hear the sound of the pebbles that they’d strewn demarcating where we could park the car. I would listen for that sound the entire trip because it signaled that we’d arrived. To this day I hear it clearly in my memory. It remains one of my favorite sounds, because it is inseparable from the place where I would be free for a few weeks to get dirty, make mud pies, tromp through the woods, discover Indian peace pipes growing in clusters under the trees, hear all kinds of birds whose calls and songs didn’t cross the acoustic threshold of my city row house, and just be. And all these sensations and promises were contained in the sound of crunching pebbles.1
Von Glahn has applied this lifelong gift for careful listening to her second full-length study of music and place, Music and the Skillful Listener: American Women Compose the Natural World. A counterpoint to her earlier book, The Sounds of Place: Music and the American Cultural Landscape (2003), this new monograph provides a different perspective on nature and American art music, representing a shift in focus from the works and composers discussed in her earlier project, which explored how “large, iconic places” (22) had inspired a group of (almost entirely male) composers (the only woman composer discussed was Ellen Taaffe Zwilich). In contrast, Music and the Skillful Listener features “an unheard chorus of women nature composers” (22) in order to examine how these women “have understood nature and brought that understanding to their music” (23). Weaving together a vast array of archival and primary sources, beautifully written prose, and compelling discussions of individual compositions, Music and the Skillful Listener offers a meticulously researched and richly provocative examination of the intersections between nature and gender in more than twenty-five works by nine different American women composers.
One of the major strengths of Music and the Skillful Listener is its true [End Page 193]
interdisciplinarity, as Von Glahn draws on a diverse collection of scholarship (such as ecocriticism, musicology, ecomusicology, American studies, and nature writing) to explore a variety of approaches to “nature composing” by nine different women. Although Von Glahn’s project has intersections with a number of different disciplines, it overlaps most strongly with ecomusicology, a subfield within musicology that has increasingly come into prominence over the past fifteen years. Broadly defined, ecomusicology examines “music, culture, and nature in all the complexities of those terms” and encompasses “a diverse array of scholarly and artistic endeavors.”2 Recent scholarly activity in ecomusicology includes projects such as the Ecomusicology Listening Room (elr), a special issue of Music and Politics, and a jams colloquy on Ecocriticism and Musicology, to cite just a few examples.3 Yet amidst this flurry of research, contributions by women composers of “art music” still...