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Max Neuhaus’s Sound Works and the Politics of Noise

By Megan Murph


On December 6, 1974, the American experimental percussionist and sound artist, Max Neuhaus (1939-2009), published a New York Times editorial titled, “BANG, BOOooom, ThumP, EEEK, tinkle.” This editorial protested the “silly bureaucrats” of New York City’s Department of Air Resources’ “dangerously misleading” noise ordinances by stating the city’s “noise propaganda” only made “more noise.” Neuhaus considered this editorial the largest work from his Listen series, which spanned from 1966 to 1979 and included his listening walks. The editorial printed two years after the United States Federal Government passed the Noise Control Act (1972) in conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency’s studies pertaining to the growth of noise across the nation. These studies investigated the psychological and physiological impact of noise on humans, animals, and their landscape. Scholarship pertaining to the shifting meaning and perception of noise has largely neglected Neuhaus’s contributions. I respond to this lacuna by considering how Neuhaus’s editorial rests within his Listen series and call attention to the way he protested the subjection of all urban sounds as “noise.” I argue that these ideas ultimately led towards the creation of his most famous installation, Times Square (1977). I consider works by Neuhaus in conjunction with contributions by R. Murray Schafer and the World Soundscape Project in order to better understand the changing and often conflicted discourses about how the public should listen and about the larger eco-political implications of noise abatement.

Within the context of the seminar we took with Dr. Kwon, my ecomusicological approach was unique for its consideration of sound art, especially since Neuhaus paid early attention to soundscapes and soundwalks that later became critical components of the acoustic ecology movement. I soon became aware, however, that Neuhaus’s ideas and actions did not cohere with ecomusicology as neatly as those of Schafer and others that followed from the acoustic ecology movement. Intrigued by this, I began to explore an approach that combined interdisciplinary ecocriticism (how the selected work illustrates environmental concerns and/or deals with nature) with sound studies (how the sounds of a work are heard, how the sounds interact with the world, and beyond). In this way, I hope to help contribute to a growing dialogue between the two often overlapping complex fields. This paper comes from coursework and research compiled from 2014-2015. The project has since evolved, leading to a presentation on Neuhaus’s Sirens project at the Society for American Music annual meeting in 2016 (Boston) and continuing into my dissertation research.

Fascinated with the idea of Neuhaus writing an op-ed piece about noise and its regulation, I began to read more about noise abatement. I soon began to wonder, how is noise determined? How is it controlled? Who or what is making noise? Who gets the power to control noise? Goldsmith (2012) discusses the long and complex history of noise, the relationship between society and noise, the control of noise, and the use of noise as weapon or protest. The power dynamics of noise control date back to the Greeks. The word “noise” derived from the Latin word “nausea,” meaning seasickness, which evolved into the English definition of noise as an “unwanted or disturbing sound,” which is unwanted when it interferes with quality of life. With the passing of the Noise Control Act (1972), the EPA strived to reduce noise pollution in urban areas and to minimize noise-related psychological and physiological impacts on humans, effects on wildlife and property, and other issues. The agency was also assigned to run experiments to study the effects of noise. These initiatives were a reflection of the greater American concern with urban planning. The government’s negative response to noise created opportunities for sound artists and musicians to combat or defend the acts in unique ways.

During the early 20th century, definitions of noise within western art music have varied from the futurists to John Cage. Futurist composers and artists glorified the industrial sounds from their time and encouraged others to take part in the new sonic experiences, as explained in Filippo Tommaso Marrinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto” from 1909. By the 1950s, advances in electronic instruments allowed for sonic explorations made by Varèse, Cage, Stockhausen, and others (Ouzounia 2013, 89). John Cage’s definitions of music, sound, and noise changed throughout his lifetime, but in his 1937 “The Future of Music: Credo” he wrote on the incorporation of noise within music:

I believe that the use of noise to make music will continue and increase until we reach a music produced through the use of electrical instruments which will make available for musical purposes any and all sounds that can be heard. Photoelectric, film and mechanical mediums for the synthetic production of music will be explored….Wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating. (Cage 1937, 3)

By the end of his life in 1992, he stated:

They say, “you mean it’s just sounds?” thinking that for something to just be a sound is to be useless, whereas I love sounds just as they are, and I have no need for them to be anything more than what they are. I don’t want them to be psychological. I don’t want a sound to pretend that it’s a bucket or that it’s president or that it’s in love with another sound. I just want it to be a sound. (Cage 1992)

Thus, Cage saw sound, noise, and music as fluid based upon artistic intention. Similarly, Neuhaus, a friend, admirer, and performer of Cage’s works, dealt with the meaning of sound and noise through audience interaction.

On the afternoon of March 27, 1966, Neuhaus took his audience outside of the concert hall when he met a group of participants who had been invited by word-of-mouth in the Lower East Side. They met to experience a “Concert of Traveled and Traveling Music” with Neuhaus leading them around this neighborhood to listen to their surrounding environment, hearing sounds from a rumbling power plant, highways, river, people in the streets, and so on. The Sunday afternoon walk concluded at Neuhaus’s studio apartment, where he performed many works of his standard percussion repertoire (Dekleva 2003, 45). Neuhaus saw Listen as his “first independent work as an artist” (Neuhaus 1990, 1). Eventually, he stamped the participants on the hand with the word “LISTEN” instead of providing them with a program or itinerary. He recalled:

As a percussionist I had been directly involved in the gradual insertion of everyday sounds into the concert hall, from Russolo through Edgard Varèse and finally to John Cage where live street sounds were brought directly into the hall. I saw these activities as a way of giving aesthetic credence to these sounds – something I was all for. I began to question the effectiveness of the method, though. Most members of the audience seemed more impressed with the scandal of “ordinary” sounds placed in a “sacred” place than with the sounds themselves, and few were able to carry the experience over to a new perspective on the sounds of their daily lives. I became interested in going a step further. Why limit listening to the concert hall? Instead of bringing these sounds into the hall, why not simply take the audience outside? (Neuhaus, n.d.)

The piece included “do-it- yourself” versions, which involved Neuhaus printing posters or postcards “LISTEN,” instructing that they be placed in locations selected by the cards’ recipients (Neuhaus 1990, 1). This version required the audience to interact with the work, selecting locations where future listeners could experience sounds.

The largest iteration of the Listen series, however, was the 1974 editorial (Neuhaus 1990, 1). As Neuhaus saw it, “a million people” could have read the paper and been exposed to his ideas on listening and noise. Prior to writing the editorial, Neuhuas had encountered a pamphlet created by New York City’s Department of Air Recourses titled “Noise Makes You Sick,” which was disseminated along the streets and subway. While he agreed dangers to hearing could occur from listening to excessively loud sounds at prolonged levels, he criticized the pamphlet for making urban dwellers afraid of their sound environment. Neuhaus criticized the Department’s definition of noise as “any unwanted sound” and supported a more progressive attitude that human response to sound is socially conditioned and that no sound is “intrinsically bad.” He stated: “How we hear [sound] depends a great deal on how we have been conditioned to hear it.” Neuhaus feared the department’s attitude towards urban sounds and attempts at publicly controlling would only force their citizens to be anti-noise as well. He concluded his article by stating, “silencing our public environment is the acoustic equivalent of painting in black,” believing that if the urban sounds were oppressed, the true character of the urban sonic space would be as well (Neuhaus, 1974).

Robert A. Baron, author of the 1970 anti-noise book, The Tyranny of Noise, wrote to The New York Times in response to Neuhaus’s editorial. Baron stated:

Of course electronic percussionist Max Neuhaus does not like noise abatement. At one concert he added electronic amplification ‘so that not only the initial impact tore at the ears, but the echoes as well.’ No wonder he would have us believe excessive noise is harmless…Sound does affect the glands and internal organs…noise irritates, disturbs the sleep stages and awakens New Yorkers…Our ears are for hearing, and it is precisely for that reason that we must fight as hard as we can to protect them from hearing loss. And one source of hearing loss, it should be noted, is amplified music. (Baron, 1974)

Neuhaus was more bothered by the condemning attitude that all noise is “bad” than the physical symptoms of noise overload. This resonates with Jacques Attali’s analysis of the politics and discourse of noise as something that is affiliated with disruption, violence, and social deviance. Attali argues that the musical process of controlling noise mirrors the political process of structuring society (Attali 1977, 10). In this vein, Neuhaus’s editorial, and his Listen series as a whole, challenges listeners to expand their conception of music and sound and resist governmental efforts to control noise. His series ultimately could be read as an intervention against governmental or societal encroachments on how we as humans listen and interact in various sonic environments.

In his essay on the Listen series, Neuhaus recalled taking hundreds of students from a “university somewhere in Iowa” on a listening walk. The faculty was expecting a lecture and was outraged when Neuhaus took them out of the auditorium to walk and listen rather than speaking to the students about listening. Neuhaus recalled: “A number of years later, when Murray Schafer’s soundscape project became known, I am sure these academics didn’t have any problem accepting similar ideas” (Neuhaus 1990, 2). This statement shows Neuhaus’s Listen series may have predated Schafer’s conceptions and suggests Neuhaus’s awareness of Schafer’s soundwalking.

Already concerned with noise in his 1967 book, Ear Cleaning, Schafer offered ear training exercises not only to prepare his music students for contemporary music but also to get them thinking about the sounds they hear in connection with their environment. Schafer went on to create the World Soundscape Project, which surveyed sounds from across urban and rural areas within and outside of Canada. Coming from an anti-noise approach, Schafer, backed by the findings of the WSP, published The Book of Noise in 1970 and A Survey of Community Noise Bylaws in Canada in 1972. The Book of Noise served as an introduction to noise pollution on an international level and its impact on any citizen. Like Ear Cleaning, The Book of Noise was suitable for music education and children. A Survey of Community Noise Bylaws in Canada served as a compendium of noise regulations from Canadian cities, with commentaries and statistical analysis to guide the reader and even offer legal advice on ways to deal with noise on a local, municipal level.

Most well known is Schafer’s 1977 book, The Soundscape: Our Sonic Environment and the Tuning of the World. In this book, Schafer examines pre- and post- industrial soundscapes and puts forward methods of analyzing soundscapes. He discusses the evolution of nature and urban sounds as well as the perceptions and ideals connected to sound and music. In The Soundscape, Schafer also offers commentary on the soundwalk and how it may differ from a listening walk: “A listening walk and a soundwalk are not quite the same things…a listening walk is simply a walk with a concentration on listening…The soundwalk is an exploration of the soundscape of a given area using a score as a guide” (Schafer 1977, 212-213).

Schafer’s comments above seem to suggest that he may have been aware of Neuhaus and his Listen series. While Schafer explicitly differentiates listening walks from soundwalks, I believe that the two share strong commonalities even if their intentions were different. Schafer’s earlier goals were to help students clean their ears from noisy, unnatural, urban sounds that were polluting the once pure environment. His concern for noise pollution and environmental awareness contrasts with Neuhaus’s 1974 editorial. While both are dealing with similar concepts and influences, the two project their responses to listening in slightly different ways. Neuhaus’s listening walks explored the environment and the physical space the sounds were in. Neuhaus embraced the urban, post-industrial sounds within his city environment while Schafer placed more appreciation on “nature.” Some scholars, including David Toop (2010) and Steve Goodman (2010), have criticized Schafer’s idealized view of nature and see nature as a weapon of power. Tom Kohut questions the separation of urban/ modern sounds with rural/nostalgic sounds and discusses the use of nature as a weapon of power during noise abatement’s history, arguing that this served as a mode of social control (Kohut 2015, 5-8). This critique resonates with historical geographer Neil Smith’s views on the production and the exploitation of nature for the sake of bourgeois control and aligns with recent work by urban political ecologists intended to address the active role of the city in history (Smith 1990; Heynen, Kaika, and Swyngedouw 2006; Cronon 1995). We might even consider the overtones of Schafer’s ideals: his access to rural living and romanticizing of the wilderness could be seen as coming from a place of middle-class privilege, as Andra McCarney has suggested (McCartney 2014, 212-213).

Neuhaus’s Times Square is a great example of an interactive sound work that challenges the public’s definition of noise within a permanent space. In 1977, speakers were installed underground in Times Square for what would become Neuhaus’s best known permanent installation. Sounds “resembling the after ring of large bells” emerge from the subway grille as one walks through the middle of the triangular pedestrian area at the intersection of Broadway and Seventh Avenue, between 46th and 45th streets (Tomkins 1988, 116). Metal sidewalk grates separate the area where the sounds emerge underground from the area where the pedestrians walk above. The sounds are created by amplifying the resonance of the space in a pre-existing ventilation chamber built below the street. Neuhaus linked underground electronic sound generators to a loudspeaker that resonates the exact frequencies of the chamber (Rockwell, 1987). What occurs is a meditative drone, although the amplified sounds differ slightly depending on the sounds moving around the chamber – altering depending on the location and perception of the pedestrian. The sounds blend into the rich energy and activities of the hectic city, and many passers-by are unaware of Neuhaus’s piece and dismiss the sound as the result of underground machinery.

The piece ran almost uninterrupted from 1977 until Neuhaus moved to Europe in 1992. Upon his return, the piece was reinstalled in 2002 and has been running twenty-four hours a day since his death in 2009, supervised by the Dia Art Foundation. The work is unmarked, which means the public becomes aware of the piece as they notice it, or as Neuhaus says, is “ready” to notice it (Loock 2005). Since it is permanent, it is inscribed in the social space and is in contact with millions of people, from different cultures, over decades on a daily basis. According to Ulrich Loock, a curator of the Kunsthalle in Bern, Times Square departs from traditional conceptions of music because Neuhaus separates sound from the dimension of time (Loock 2005). Even for those aware of Neuhaus’s work, the specific source of the continuous and unchanging sounds may remain a mystery. Continuing day and night, Times Square has little in common with a musical composition whose structure is articulated through time; instead, the formal boundaries that define Times Square are essentially spatial ones. The structure is open and the public may decide to experience the work for just a few seconds or for a longer period of time. The listener’s positions shape their experience of the work to a considerable degree. Times Square also differs from most concert performances in its ambient nature, disappearing into the city’s soundscape for those pedestrians who do not even recognize its existence.

Ulrich Loock wrote that “listening [and] perceiving in Neuhaus’s work is an activity, a question of orientation, of differentiating, of exploring, of shifting…” (Loock 2005). Neuhaus’s concern for the public’s shifting perspective of sound in a city resonates with Michel De Certeau’s ideas on the tactical uses of power in urban space. In Times Square, we see temporal and spatial dimensions continuously altered; the act of walking or driving through a city becoming variable due to the shift in spatial and aural perceptions of each individual. Times Square also emphasizes the tactical because it can only be experienced at ground or subterranean level, not accessible for those in the buildings above (De Certeau 1984, 91-92).

The place, Times Square, is a monument of historic, economic, and popular culture with 39 million visitors annually. Every day approximately 330,000 people, both locals and tourists, pass through the area (Owen 2013). It is a symbol of the intersection of homogenized commercialism with complex developmental histories of ownership, spatial control, and mobility. In this context, the meaning of Neuhaus’s piece is constantly in flux. In his New York Times review of the work, John Rockwell stated:

Times Square is so many things to too many people, but one thing it is to everybody is noise…but for those who listen closely, there is another kind of noise… not everybody realizes they’re in the presence of art, or of anything at all. Pedestrians routinely march across the grate without giving the slightest sign of recognition. But for others, the piece is an invitation to stop and contemplate with a sudden, almost furtive pleasure. (Rockwell, 1987)

Neuhaus’s Listen series, which included his listening walks and the “BANG, BOOooom, ThumP, EEEK, tinkle” editorial, and his Times Square all challenge boundaries that separate artistic mediums and disciplines. He raises the fundamental question of how we place and perceive works that call for the audience to experience a particular space or location through noise. Going beyond works meant to be appreciated in a concert hall, these works engage the public at large who interact with them in everyday life. Yet, his output connects to the public on a political level by opposing the subjection of all sounds as “noise” and rejecting the control of artistic and social norms. Neuhaus’s editorial in particular attacks the New York City Department of Air Control public policies by questioning what is agreeable sound. His emphasis on listening, moreover, may be seen as a more inclusive and early articulation of the attention to soundscapes later espoused by Murray Schafer and the acoustic ecology movement. Unlike Schafer, however, Neuhaus refused to qualify soundscapes and embraced all sound, even those that could easily be associated with excessive urbanization or deemed harmful to humans or other forms of life. Lastly, Neuhaus challenges us to re-think noise, making us confront it and reckon with its material and emotional effects, especially in the urban or otherwise developed soundscapes where much of humanity resides. Thus, complicating the history and legacy of Schafer’s soundwalks and focusing attention on Neuhaus, who offered an alternate discourse about how to approach noise and sound, offer particular nuances to the connections between sound studies and ecomusicology.


Papers from this panel:

1. Donna Lee Kwon, “Overlapping Ecomusicological Realms: Teaching Ecomusicology to Graduate Students through Collaborative Exploration”

2. Tanner Jones, “Military Expansion on the ‘Island of Peace’: Protest Through Ritual”

3. Megan Murph, “Max Neuhaus’s Sound Works and the Politics of Noise

4. Ben Norton, “Thin Green Line: Environmental Politics and Punk Music”


Attali, Jacques. 1977. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Baron, Robert Alex. 1970. The Tyranny of Noise. New York: St. Martin Press.

—. 1974. “What Noise Does to Us.” New York Times. December 21.

Cage, John. 1961. “The Future of Music: Credo.” In Silence: Writings and Lectures, 3-6. Middletown: Wesleyan Press.

—. 1992. Interview. In Listening, a film by Mirosalv Sebestik. DVD. Paris: JBA Productions.

DeCerteau, Michel. 1984. “Walking in the City.” In The Practice of Everyday Life, 91-110. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Dekleva, Dasha. 2003. “Max Neuhaus: Sound Vectors.” MA thesis, University of Illinois at Chicago.

Cronon, William. 1995. “The Trouble with Wilderness.” Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, 69-90. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Environmental Protection Agency. 2014. “Definition on Noise.” Accessed on April 24, 2016.

Goldsmith, Mike. 2012. Discord: The Story of Noise. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goodman, Steve. 2010. Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Heynen, Nik, Maria Kaika, and Erik Swyngedouw, eds. 2006. In the Nature of Cities: Urban Political Ecology and the Politics of Urban Metabolism. London and New York: Routledge.

Kohut, Tom. 2015. “Noise Pollution and the Eco-Politics of Sound: Toxicity, Nature and Culture in the Contemporary Soundscape.” Leonardo Music Journal 25: 5-8.

Loock, Ulrich. 2005. “Times Square: Max Neuhaus’s Sound Work in New York City,” Open!, November 1. Accessed January 1, 2017.

Massey, Doreen. 1991. “A Global Sense of Place.” Marxism Today, 24-29.

McCartney, Andra. 2014. “Soundwalking: Creating Moving Environmental Sound Narratives.” The Oxford Handbook of Mobile Music Studies, 2: 212-237.

Neuhaus, Max. 1974. “BANG, BOOooom, ThumP, EEEK, tinkle.” The New York Times. December 6.

—. 1990. “Listen.” Accessed on January 24, 2017.

—. n.d. “Walks.” Accessed on February 19, 2014.

Ouzounia, Gascia. 2013. “Sound Installation Art: From Spatial Poetics to Politics, Aesthetics to Ethics.” In Music, Sound and Space: Transformations of Public and Private Experience, edited by Georgina Born, 73-89. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Owen, David. 2013. “The Psychology of Space – Can a Norwegian Firm Solve the Problems of Times Square.” New Yorker. January 21.

Ratcliffe, Carter. 1987. “Max Neuhaus: Aural Spaces.” Art in America 75(10): 154-63.

Rockwell, John. 1987. “Beneath a Street, Art Soothes.” The New York Times, November 10.

Schafer, Murray. 1970. The Book of Noise. Vancouver: Price Milburn.

—.1977. The Soundscape: The Tuning of the World. Vermont: Destiny Books.

—. 1988. The Thinking Ear: Complete Writings on Music Education. Canada: Arcana Editions.

Smith, Neil. 1990. Uneven Development: Nature, Capitol, and the Production of Space. Basil Blackwell Publishing.

Tomkins, Calvin. 1988. “HEAR.” New Yorker, October 24.

Toop, David. 2010. Sinister Resonance: The Mediumship of the Listener. New York: Continuum.

World Soundscape Project. 1972. A Survey of Community Noise Bylaws in Canada. Burnaby:
Labatt Breweries of Canada.


Megan Murph is a Ph.D. candidate in Musicology and Ethnomusicology at the University of
Kentucky with a dissertation titled, “Max Neuhaus, R. Murray Schafer, and the Challenges of
Noise.” She has presented research at SAM, IASPM-Brazil, Acadprog (Dijon, France), SEM-
Midwest, AMS-South, DOPE (Dimensions of Political Ecology), Boston University’s Graduate
Student Conference, UK, LSU, USC-Upstate, and Brevard College. Megan has taught Creativity
and Innovation in Rock Music (MUS 222) and Introduction to Music (MUS 100). She served as
national student co-chair of the Society for American Music’s Student Forum and the President
of UK’s FOCUS (Graduate Music Research Association).

Thin Green Line: Environmental Politics and Punk Music

By Ben Norton



In this paper, I focus on “classic” or hardcore punk, a genre that has thus far been given relatively little attention in ecomusicology despite the fact that environmental themes are fairly common in the overt politics of the genre. Emerging out of the urban working class, punk has tended to exhibit populist themes.[1] While rightist and reactionary tendencies are not absent, the vast preponderance of this influence is of the leftist variety. Today, scholars of popular culture largely take for granted that punk has deep roots in situationism, anti-authoritarian socialism, and anarchism. Tricia Henry, writing at the zenith of influence of the hardcore punk scene in the late 1980s, noted that, like “members of earlier avant-garde movements, [punk musicians] were anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist” (Henry 1989, 1). Within this context, the expression of environmentalism in punk should not be surprising. The following constitutes a cursory survey of the employment of ecological themes in punk music.[2] While ecological themes can also be found in metal (including such sub-genres such as death metal, trash metal, black metal, doom metal, etc.) and hybrid metal/punk genres (including sub-genres such as metalcore, deathcore, mathcore, grindcore, crust punk, and more), here I focus mainly on analyzing environmental themes in the music of bands in the tradition of “classic” punk or hardcore punk.

While other spheres in punk, such as fashion, stagecraft, movement/gesture, and video production, are certainly relevant to the expression of environmental ideas, I have chosen to focus primarily on the lyrics and, to a lesser extent, their relationship to the music. In the examples here, I find that it is most effective to view the lyrics as the primary vehicle of extra-musical meaning. This is not to say that the music serves no larger dramatic purpose; the music may (and, in the punk tradition, typically does) affectively reflect the general meaning of the text, but rarely does it reflect individual words or more discrete units of meaning. Text painting is, for the most part, absent. The sound of a heartbeat may sporadically be implied with a dotted kick drum rhythm, yet this is the extent to which the music is used in this way. To my knowledge, no examples exist in the repertoire in which distorted guitars and growled vocals are supposed to depict, say, the screaming of the natural world, and of the life—human and non-human—within it, as it is destroyed. Along these lines, reading affective meaning from music and text relationships in punk is especially problematic because standard conventions of affect in Western art music (specifically of the classical and romantic periods) and some popular music genres simply do not translate in punk. Traditionally positive or “happy” attributes and aesthetics (such as consonance or smooth vocals and instrumentals) are intentionally rejected and subverted in punk and other similar genres. The highly distorted guitar, the shouted vocals, the dissonance, and the fast tempos are merely part of the musical style; together, they may imply a dark, foreboding, disconcerting mood, but they are generally not supposed to convey an extra-musical or programmatic narrative.

Methodologically, given the importance of the text in conveying environmentalist themes in much of this music, a more traditional, theoretical approach to musical analysis will not be employed here. While some attention will be paid to aspects of the musical style, my emphasis will be placed on interpreting lyrical texts and their attendant discourses within their historical, social and cultural contexts. (Full lyrics are provided in the Appendix.) In this way, my approach borrows techniques of lyrical analysis and interpretation used in popular music studies, musicology and ethnomusicology and is ecocritical in the way I view punk lyrics as texts that speak to humanity’s destructive impact on the environment. While my fellow contributors from Dr. Kwon’s seminar have similar contextual concerns and methods, my approach can be distinguished by its attention to the lyrics, which I argue are the most pertinent carriers of semantic meaning in regards to environmentalism in punk.


Environmental Themes in the Punk Tradition


I consider Crass to be the first punk band to employ environmental themes. As one of the earliest punk bands, Crass is arguably the most overtly political of the music’s progenitors. Formed in 1977 in the United Kingdom and disbanded by 1984, after facing legal trouble from the British government, the band released five studio albums: The Feeding of the 5000 (1978), Stations of the Crass (1979), Penis Envy (1981), Christ The Album (1982), and Yes Sir, I Will (1983). Although early punk music was certainly political, in its iconoclastic, anti-establishment perspective, one might say it was largely emotionally political, although not necessarily intellectually political. In less abstract terms, one might say early punk was a reaction against the status quo, but one that ultimately presented little alternative as to how one should address the criticized social issues, or, even more importantly, as to how to organize a society in which such ills are not present, aside from simply “rebelling.” This punk was largely about deconstruction, and not necessarily about construction. In contrast, Crass was prominent in constructing goals in which punk’s angst and endless energy could be manifested, directing it toward meaningful political activity instead of diverting it into drugs and self-destruction. Anarchism was seen as the motivating political philosophy. The realization of the goals of anti-authoritarianism, horizontalism, egalitarianism, and liberty were deeply planted as the very roots of the culture, buried firmly in the center of its very ideological and philosophical existence.

This is not to say that these punk musicians stopped raging against the machine; on the contrary, rebellion remained perhaps the most prominent discourse. Rather, it is to say that this raging was directed toward a particular goal. Anarcho-punk, a style of which Crass was one of the most important founding members, never firmly took hold in mainstream Western culture, but many of its ideas later trickled down into the wider punk tradition. The Clash, also formed in the U.K., albeit one year earlier, in 1976, also put politics up front in its music, but not to the degree of Crass and the anarcho-punk community. To Crass, the musical and the political were not separate entities. Their symbol (Figure 1)—the letters CRASS with a circle around the large letter A (creating a circle A, the most well-known symbol of anarchism), with a machine gun breaking on its triangular zenith—demonstrates that politics came first and foremost in their art. The band would often play shows surrounded by posters reading things like “No war,” “anarchy & peace,” and “Fight war not wars, destroy power not people.” The band spoke very openly about issues such as anarchism, socialism, pacifism, anti-capitalism, egalitarianism, feminism, anti-racism, non-human animal rights, environmentalism, direct action, and sexual liberation.

Musically, Crass characterized much of which is now firmly implanted in the punk tradition, including fast tempos, eschewing of tonality and harmonic movement, purposefully un-rehearsed and “raw” performances, non-technical instrumental parts, a Sprechstimme-esque vocal style etc. Crass, however, in its use of sound collages, spoken word performances, free improvisation, and other techniques associated with avant-garde music, was furthermore a founding figure in what is today called “art punk,” a sub-genre synthesizing avant-garde and punk music.

As has been the tradition in much of the punk community, Crass was not so much a clearly delineated band as a somewhat loose collection of musicians who played with each other at various times. Co-founders vocalist Steve Ignorant (born Steven Williams) and drummer and vocalist Penny Rimbaud (born Jeremy John Ratter) could perhaps be seen as the band’s permanent members, yet the lineup was fluid. Most notably, the band sometimes included two additional female vocalists, Even Libertine and Joy De Vivre [sic]. Women featured prominently in much early punk music. Unfortunately, as punk developed further, and especially after hardcore largely coalesced with metal, it came to be more male-dominated, even while bands continued to advocate for feminist messages and themes. Crass stood as an important early platform for the visibility of women in punk music.

Crass inspired a community of radical anti-capitalist, anti-war, intersectional activists around it; its legacy is still felt in many punk venues today, where members of leftist organizations often hand out pamphlets, brochures, fliers, and more. The band was operating in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, a time before the environmentalist movement had come to the forefront of the leftist movement. Environmental themes are therefore not necessarily most prominent among those the band chooses to address; they are, nonetheless, still evident.

In the most prominent examples of environmental themes in Crass’ music, we can look to the band’s second album, Stations of the Crass (1979). Track 17, “Contaminational Power,” stands as a firm testament to the anti-nuclear movement of the time. In the song, nuclear power is seen as a potential “death shower”—for humans, animals, and for the environment more generally. The band censures the apology that nuclear power is justified in its provision of jobs for workers, seeing it as a disingenuous “gesture of equality,” a guarantee of employment in a capitalist system that is already rigged against the worker, and one that offers only temporary employment—as the use of nuclear power will turn us all into “rotting corpses, staring at each other to see who’ll make it first.”

The principal fear in “Contaminational Power,” as the title suggests, is that of nuclear contamination. In this approach, Crass sees the danger of nuclear power in that it “settles in your pores,” it pollutes all of nature, and poisons us in the process. Nuclear power is not simply about creating another source of electrical power, they insist; rather, it is another thinly-disguised form of militarization, serving and employed by those in power, at the expense of humans and the natural environment. According to the song, militarism will only “BLOW YOU RIGHT AWAY” (sic). In a theme common in much of Crass’ music, the band calls for action, asking its audience to get up and do something, to cause “a disturbance, cause a fucking noise.” In this song, Crass largely foreshadowed the ensuing powerful anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s. In this way, Crass joins a wide array of fellow punk bands who began speaking out (or better: screaming out) against social ills before they were in the discursive limelight.

In another environmentally-themed song off of this same album, “Mother Earth,” track 1, the band addresses the misogynistic underpinnings of human representations of nature, pointing out multiple levels of hypocrisy of the social order. Non-human nature is seen as a feminine entity, to be conquered, exploited, destroyed by and for humans. The natural world is devalued, just as, in a patriarchal society, “feminine” genders and sexualities are devalued. The band is specifically addressing an infamous incident on modern British culture: the torture and murder of five British children, from 1963 to 1965, by serial killers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. The ways in which the British media treated Hindley exemplified a widespread underlying collective misogyny. Tabloids often referred to her as “the most evil woman in Britain” (BBC News 2002). In a remarkable display of overt sexism, she was often likened to Greek mythology’s Medusa. Helen Birch writes that Hindley had become “synonymous with the idea of feminine evil.” (Birch 1994, 32).

The reasons why Hindley came to commit such horrible atrocities were seemingly of no importance. The BBC notes “her supporters say she was coerced into her crimes” by Ian Brady, with whom she was infatuated. Brady, the man who largely inspired her to commit the crimes with him, was rarely, if ever, mentioned in the press. That Brady was probably a Nazi, having studied Mein Kampf and having read about Nazi atrocities with great interest, was ignored; instead, the media preferred speaking of the “evil” Hindley, constantly making references to her gender. Most of the mainstream press at the time conveniently glossed over Hindley’s horrific upbringing, beaten regularly by her violent alcoholic father, preferring instead to paint Hindley as inherently “evil.” In this way, the band criticizes what it sees as levels of intense hypocrisy: most superficially the hypocrisy of supposedly “goodly Christian people” wishing so much pain and suffering on another human being; but, even worse, the hypocrisy of those who, while “tear[ing] that women limb from limb,” beat, brutalize, and destroy their very own mother, Mother Earth. The band also espouses its pacifist beliefs, insisting “that violence has no end,” and that seeking violent retribution on a murderer only furthers the chain of violence.

Crass’ approach to environmental themes—as with most of those addressed in earlier forms of punk and metal—is ultimately an anthropocentric one. The environment is seen as a necessity for human survival, and thus as an extension of humanity. Later bands criticize environmental destruction in its own right, condemning the cost of non-human animal life and of the natural world as contemptible concerns in their own right.

Much of the lyrical content in the punk tradition, overall, is very direct. It is not that the text lacks subtlety; it is that the text is not supposed to be subtle. The ways in which these direct messages are communicated, nonetheless, differ greatly. Crass appeals to audiences, asking for them to take action, to get involved in direct action and change the world around them, but through a combination of poetry and prose. In some styles—especially more metal-influenced ones—this kind of pro-active approach is absent; instead, we are merely left with a dark, often pessimistic critique of the order of things. These musicians do not necessarily ask their audiences to try to change the world; they merely speak to the world’s horrors. These contrasting environmental approaches in punk are highly resonant with the classic ecocritical paradox in literature in that they vascilate between direct action and indirect witnessing.


Reagan Youth

Hardcore punk (often referred to simply as “hardcore”) is a later musical development that many see as the culmination of punk. Punk historian and music critic Steven Blush calls hardcore, which emerged in the late 1970s, the punk “extreme: the absolute most Punk” (Blush 2001, 18). As hardcore developed on the West Coast, Reagan Youth, a hardcore band based out of Queens, New York, along with a small wave of young punk bands, started an East Coast movement. Formed in 1980, Reagan Youth was an explicitly political collection of young anarchists, as their name suggests. (The name satirizes the Hitler Youth and deliberately associated Reagan with Hitler—as seen in one of the band’s album covers evince, in Figure 2).

Before breaking up in 1989 (coinciding with the end of Reagan’s presidential term), the band recorded its third album, Volume 2 (a sequel to the previous year’s Volume 1) and was released in 1990. Opening the album, Reagan Youth penned a somewhat environmentally themed song titled “It’s a Beautiful Day.” The song juxtaposes middle-class American suburban ideals of barbecues with both ecological destruction and the threat of military destruction. The song paints a picture of privileged Americans standing outside barbecuing hot dogs and burgers, listening to transistor radios, while fish “choke polluted water” and die from “toxic seebees, dumpin’ in our stream.” In the turn of the penultimate refrain, the scene swiftly darkens: “This time the hot dog is you.” A scene of military destruction by bomb comes into focus; the Americans become the hot dog, the beef; their political leaders and their spokesperson, the newsman, blame the destruction on “a failed negotiation.” Reagan Youth also juxtaposes ecological destruction with military destruction. In “It’s a Beautiful Day,” however, the average citizen is not a mere bystander; the average citizen is complicit, just as in Crass’ condemnation in “Mother Earth.”

Musically, “It’s a Beautiful Day,” exhibits a kind of binary repeated AB form, alternating between a satirical R&B style, including a melodic vocal line and guitar arpeggios, with hardcore punk sections, including a fast, driving drumbeat and distorted guitar power chords. This musical alternation serves as a kind of mimetic parallel to the textual alternation between scenes of suburban American dreams and suburban American destruction.

On the same album is “Acid Rain,” a track devoted entirely to the discussion of ecological themes. Like Crass, Reagan Youth expressed deep concerns about militarization and its destruction of the planet. In this song, the band depicts a dark, almost dystopian view of today. A little boy is advised not to go outside; his father warns him of acid rain and insists they hide in the basement and pray. The band then follows up in the second and final verse, pulling no punches: “The factories are dumping toxic poisons in your air. They’re gonna drop and kill you.” As anarchists, the band is, of course, referencing capitalism. The capitalist system, they explain, is “fucking up” itself, but it doesn’t care. The well-known quip—most often attributed to Lenin, although historians doubt the veracity of the attribution—comes to mind: “The Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” In this way, a hardcore band like Reagan Youth was effective in shaping its environmental concerns into a larger systemic critique of capitalism.


Oi Polloi

Reagan Youth were by no means alone in the hardcore band scene in addressing environmental themes. Scottish band Oi Polloi made it one of the primary concerns in their music. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s, while hardcore was developing on the West, and later, the East Coast of the U.S., the Oi! movement was developing in the U.K. The Oi! movement inspired a number of bands and was largely an attempt to bring the punk movement, which was seen as having drifted toward more educated, intellectual segments of the population, back to its working-class roots. Musically, this meant returning to a “simpler” style, even sometimes drawing from British folk musics. Oi! bands, however, are more difficult to characterize than many other sub-genres of punk because they were politically more complex than other styles. For example, Oi! was rather unique in its attempts to welcome the skinhead community, the two of which were, at this time, largely separate. The politics of the skinhead movement were even more convoluted and varied. With origins in Jamaican music and black British immigrant populations, the scene began largely diverse, internationalist, and leftist (its earliest manifestations were even black nationalist in character). In the early 1980s, as the skinhead and punk scenes began to coalesce, more radical leftist punk influences trickled in. In response, many Oi! bands that started out apolitical began to turn to the right. A minority of skinheads (mostly white, but even, at first, including some black skinheads) in the late 1960s had become right-wing extremists, notorious for participating in hate crimes against South Asian immigrants, which racist skinheads colloquially called “Paki bashing” (Brown 2004, 157-61). (It is for this small contingent, and for the mainstream media’s exaggeration of their influence, that the skinhead movement has its largely negative reputation today.)

An overtly racist, white supremacist, nationalist, and neo-Nazi skinhead faction began to emerge and develop throughout the 1970s, forming in 1978 a loose group of bands under the moniker Rock Against Communism (RAC). The skinhead movement grew in tandem with the resurgence of white supremacist movements in the U.S. and in other parts of Western Europe. RAC shared stylistic similarities (and even philosophical similarities, in the desire to return to a “simpler” kind of music) with the Oi! movement, the latter of which was still largely comprised of militant anti-racist, internationalist leftists (Marshall, 1991, 143). When the Oi! movement wanted to reach out to anti-racist skinheads, in order to build a larger working-class base, it had to deal with this right-wing contingent. It was in response to this growing right-wing threat that punks and leftist skinheads in the U.K. organized Red Action, in 1981, and Anti-Fascist Action, in 1985; and in the U.S. organized Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARP), in 1987, and Anti-Racist Action (ARA) in the late 1980s (Brown 2005, 170). These organizations, through acts of intimidation and interruption, sometimes even resorting to violence, at shows and outside of shows, forced the right-wing contingents underground (to the point that many racist skinhead groups could only organize and conduct concerts in secret, afraid to be disrupted by leftist anti-racist skinhead and punk organizations). In 1993, the anti-racist, socialist, intersectional feminist Red and Anarchist Skinheads (RASH) formed in the U.S.; since then, it has spread globally, and dominates much of the contemporary skinhead movement.

Oi Polloi developed in 1981, in the middle of this political subcultural turbulence. The skinhead movement in Scotland and northern England had been largely anti-racist and leftist in its political orientation so the band did not deal significantly with racism. Like the rest of the anarchist community, Oi Polloi spoke out vehemently against racism, sexism, cisheterosexism, capitalism, fascism, and imperialism. The band celebrated Anti-Fascist Action at its shows, and encouraged audience members to “smash the fash” (smash fascism). Ecological themes, nonetheless, became perhaps the groups’ primary concern, with members inviting listeners to become part of Earth First!, the radical environmental organization. In concerts and songs, the band would urge the audience to participate in environmentalist activism and direct action, adopting as its motto “No Compromise in Defence of Our Earth.”

Since 1981, Oi Polloi has released over 20 albums (often split with other punk bands), many of which are explicitly environmentalist in nature. Its 1986 album Resist the Atomic Menace (and its title track) displayed a cover depicting Death, scythe in hand, looking down at a tube of nuclear waste pouring a pollutant into the water (Figure 3). Its 1986 album Unlimited Genocide includes songs titled “Go Green,” “You Cough/They Profit,” and “Nuclear Waste” and its 1987 album with Toxik Ephex, Mad As Fuck L.P., includes songs like “No Filthy Nuclear Power.”

Oi Polloi’s 1990 album In Defence of Our Earth devoted itself largely to further exploration of environmental themes, including songs titled “Whale Song”; “Anarcho-Pie,” a long, detailed recipe for a vegan pie; and “What Have We Done?”, a reflection on how much humans have destroyed the natural world (“Pollute and kill – Is that all that mankind can do?”, the song concludes). The opening song, titled “Thin Green Line,” situates the “thin red line” idiom (referring originally to the way the British press romanticized the 25 October 1854 Battle of Balaclava) in a contemporary environmental context, with activists standing as the small line of soldiers defending the planet against complete ecological destruction. The band begins “Thin Green Line” by setting up the urgency of the situation. We are into “the nineties, running out of time.” They are, however, not pessimistic about the future. “Extinction of our planet has already begun but don’t let them tell you nothing can be done,” they insist. A battle is being waged, and they, the green line, can ensure that it is won. “Some of us are angry and fighting back. Non-violent direct action is a means of attack.” Like Crass, and unlike Reagan Youth, Oi Polloi turns the song into a call for action. Listeners are urged to engage in non-violent direct action to save the planet from ecological destruction by greed-filled humans. “Eco-sabotage in the dead of night” is called for; the band goes through a list of prominent Earth First! tactics, including trashing nuclear plant sites; “sab the hunt,” i.e. sabotaging and interfering with hunting activities; smashing bulldozers and destroying corporate equipment; and putting sugar in gas tanks. The band understands that they could face legal repercussions from the state for engaging in these actions, but they “don’t care if that’s what it takes to save the whales … our Earth, [and] the wilderness land.”

In the closing song of the album, “World Park Antarctica,” the band continues these calls to action to save the planet—and the non-human life within —from destruction. Analytical bent is largely lacking from much of Oi Polloi’s music. Instead of addressing why things are the way they are, the band prefers a pragmatic approach, responding to contemporary ills and how to address and allay them. In this song, nonetheless, they begin explaining the reason “wilderness had to die” was because of “naked greed.” In “World Park Antarctica,” the band speaks ominously of Antarctica transformed into a world park, a mere object of exploitation of corporate power. Corporations “rape and plunder whatever they find – sea polluted and minerals mined. Poisoned animals slowly die as they suck Antarctica dry.” Again, the band insists, “Mass action could stop them – but you’ve got to start it.” The song stresses the responsibility of the individual listener in this call to action and save the environment from corporate plunder. “So will you really just stand by and watch the last great wilderness die?” Vocalist Deek Allen (the only permanent member of the band, having gone through over 50 members in the past 30 years) then moves to a spoken-word section, detailing in prose the extent to which greed has rendered the planet polluted and lifeless. He insists, “unchallenged, such commercial exploitation will simply kill this continent. Then, governments and multinationals will move on, leaving it poisoned and scarred.” Ultimately, his insistence shifts responsibility to the listener to prevent this ecocidal insanity; “only one thing stands in their way – you.”


Concluding Thoughts

In both the “Thin Green Line” and “World Park Antarctica,” Oi Polloi stress the destructive nature of humankind. They gesture towards an ideological stance where humans are no longer the primary locus of ecological concern. In this way, Oi Polloi – and to a lesser extent Reagan Youth – presaged an anti-anthropocentric discourse that took hold later in more metal-influenced versions of punk. This significant shift is resonant with changes occurring in the radical environmentalist movement at the time. Oi Polloi insisted that it is humans who are destroying the natural world, murdering all non-human life in it. Other bands tried to remove humans almost entirely from the picture, which led to an “anarcho-primitivism” movement in the 1980s that romanticized pre-industrial life. “Primitivism” (admittedly an unfortunate designation) became highly influential in many forms of punk and metal—especially in black metal. In some more metal-influenced subgenres of hardcore, including metalcore and grindcore, the anthropocentric condition is almost completely abandoned, often substituted instead for what could even be considered an overtly misanthropic perspective. Regrettably, this is not the space to further explore these trends but it does certainly point to an area of future ecomusicological research.

In the brief survey presented here, my main goal has been to dispel certain popular misconceptions about punk music, demonstrating that the thematic relationship between humans—or more specifically industrial, capitalist human civilization—and the environment is not a mere outlier for this genre. Within this sample of three prominent bands, for example, we can see that issues of political ecology and environmental justice were central themes that certainly had an influence on others in the punk movement. Through an understanding of this thematic legacy and its historical context, a more thorough picture of metal and punk music becomes clear, one that should be recognized as a significant form of sonic activism, raging against a world of ever-increasing environmental degradation and destruction.




Papers from this panel:

1. Donna Lee Kwon, “Overlapping Ecomusicological Realms: Teaching Ecomusicology to Graduate Students through Collaborative Exploration”

2. Tanner Jones, “Military Expansion on the ‘Island of Peace’: Protest Through Ritual”

3. Megan Murph, “Max Neuhas’s Sound Works and the Politics of Noise

4. Ben Norton, “Thin Green Line: Environmental Politics and Punk Music”



Birch, Helen. 1994. “If Looks Could Kill: Myra Hindley and the Iconography of Evil.” In Moving Targets: Women, Murder, and Representation, edited by Helen Birch, 7-32. Oakland: University of California Press.

Blush, Steven. 2001. American Hardcore: a Tribal History. Los Angeles: Feral House.

—. 2007. “Move Over My Chemical Romance: The Dynamic Beginnings of US Punk.” Uncut, January.

Brown, Timothy. 2004. “Subcultures, Pop Music and Politics: Skinheads and ‘Nazi Rock’ in England and Germany.” Journal of Social History 38(1): 157-178.

Henry, Tricia. 1989. Break All Rules: Punk Rock and the Making of a Style. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press.

Glasper, Ian. 2009. Trapped in a Scene: UK Hardcore 1985-1989. London: Cherry Red Books.

BBC News. 2002. “Myra Hindley: A hate figure.” Accessed January 5, 2017.

Marshall, George. 1991. Spirit of ’69 – A Skinhead Bible. Dunoon, Scotland.



Crass. Stations of the Crass. Crass Records 521984. 1979, double LP.

Reagan Youth. Volume 2. New Red Archives NRA12. 1990, LP.

Oi Polloi. Resist the Atomic Menace. Endangered Musik EDR 5. 1986, EP.

—. Unlimited Genocide. Children of the Revolution Records GURT 12. 1986, LP.

—. In Defence of Our Earth. Words of Warning WOWLP10. 1990, LP.

Oi Polloi / Toxik Ephex. Mad As Fuck L.P. Green Vomit Records, Puke 2½. 1987, LP.



[1] Historically speaking, punk grew out of working-class, predominately white, largely male subcultures. The subject of race and gender in this music is unfortunately beyond the scope of this research. That the music—and its more overtly political strands in particular—has had immense, indelible influences from women and people of color (especially African Americans) goes without saying. At the expense of grossly over-simplifying the subject, for the purposes of this work, it can be assumed that much of the music and its concomitant cultural scenes addressed herein will be dominated by white males.

[2] For the purposes of this paper, I use the terms “environmental” and “ecological” essentially synonymously. I furthermore employ “the natural world” and “non-human nature” roughly synonymously. Specific nomenclative discussion and delineation of the terms’ distinct denotative and connotative significances, although important, is unfortunately not permissible within the confines of this work.


Ben Norton is a Ph.D. candidate in musicology and ethnomusicology. He is done with his course
work, and will be working on a dissertation about progressive math metal. Ben completed B.A.s
in film, television, and digital media and Spanish while also pursuing concurrent graduate work
in composition and musicology at the University of Kentucky. A composer and musician in
addition to an ethnomusicologist, he writes in a variety of styles, particularly jazz and avant-
garde art music, and has an avant-garde metal solo project called Peculate. On the side, Ben is
also a political journalist and has written for a variety of publications.

Music, Climate, and Therapy in Kallawaya Cosmology (Part 2): Dysfunction of Seasonal Change, Climatic Reversal, and Musical Worlding


By Sebastian Hachmeyer[1]



Valley of Niñocorin (Sacred Mount Akhamani in the background)



Ecomusicology –  the study of “relationships between music and sonic issues, both textual and performative, related to ecology and the natural environment” (Allen 2011, 419) – offers an interdisciplinary toolkit needed to study music in times of environmental crisis (see also Titon 2013). One of the most profound manifestations of the environmental crisis is anthropogenic (i.e. human-influenced) climate change. The conventional environmental science discourse focuses on fossil fuel combustion and exponential greenhouse gas emissions and on humanity’s impacts on the global atmospheric system: global warming. The impacts of climate change and global warming are plentiful, depending on local contexts: glacier retreat, desertification, water scarcity, sea-level rise, inundation, floods, changing local weather patterns, migration, to mention just a few. Also dependent on local context is how diverse peoples understand climate change and how they produce climate change related knowledge. Many studies of indigenous people and climate change in the Andes take for granted a conventional understanding of climate change and the predominant scientific explanation of its appearance. In such studies (e.g. Lara & Vides-Almonacid 2014; Vidaurre et al. 2013; Nordgren 2011), local knowledge may well serve for climate change impact detection or as an adequate and cost-efficient source for alternative adaptation strategies increasing resilience.

There are ecomusicological studies about the relationship between music, sound and climate change (e.g. Titon 2016; Allen 2013; and various authors in Allen and Dawe 2016). Some themes touched upon are musicians’ evocation to nature as a source of inspiration, dealings of environmental issues in activist music, the ecological (and carbon) footprint of live music, world tours and recordings, the sustainability of prime material use for instrument making (i.e. deforestation and included liberation of CO²), as well as changing animal behavior, especially bird sounds and communication. What all these aspects have in common is that they tie in with naturalist understandings of “Nature” as something universal and objective. Descola (2013) defines naturalism as typical to Western ontologies, which supposes a metaphysical dualism between nature, the domain of necessity, and culture, the domain of spontaneity, separated by metonymic discontinuity (see also Viveiros de Castro 2012). Titon (2013) states that most ecomusicologists accept “Nature” as real, external and objectively knowable. He further argues for a more ecological construction of “Nature” based on a relational epistemology of diversity and interconnectedness. Ethnomusicology can contribute to denaturalize assumptions about “Nature” while studying other-than-Western epistemologies involving sound and music, so called “acoustemologies” (Feld 1993). In an aurally minded society, Ingold (2000, 284) argues, people would express their ideas of knowledge or understanding by drawing on metaphors from the realm of acoustic experience.

Hence, in relation to ecomusicological research, consider the following question: How do diverse peoples engage in local and situated musical practices that produce climate change related knowledge? In the context of the Northern Bolivian Kallawaya, I argue that music is a local and situated knowledge practice” (Strathern 1990) that produces climate change related knowledge in a local relational field. Thus, in order to better understand the present situation of climate change in the Kallawaya region, it is worth listening to the cracking sound of melting glaciers, to bird songs appearing in different time-spaces, to sirens singing songs of rivers drying out, and, ultimately, to music being played with different musical instruments, each of them telling a story about their unique ecology and meaning in a meaningful and “radical different world” (Blaser 2013, 549). In the end, this opens up ontological questions about the very idea of climate change “as we know it” (Viveiros de Castro 2014).

The sonorous and musical meshwork in Kallawaya cosmology

The Kallawayas is a Quechua and Aymara speaking ethnic group known for its naturopathic medical tradition, ancestral agricultural and ritual practices, and famous musical genre called qantu. Today, the Kallawaya region mainly corresponds with the province of Bautista Saavedra in the Northern Andes of the department of La Paz, Bolivia. As I have shown in part I of the article (Hachmeyer 2017), a musical and sonorous meshwork integrates different dimensions of cyclic life of the immersion in what is called pacha in Quechua. Besides meaning cosmos and time/space, pacha also refers to weather and climate relating to a particular meteorological succession during the main climatic seasons of the year, called ch’aki pacha (dry season) and paray pacha (wet season). For the Kallawayas music (once reduced to a byproduct of rituals and agrarian practices) is an organizational principle of time and the cosmological centrality for the transformation of climatic seasons with their respective meteorological succession. Archer (1964, 29) argues that “we expect a music to be shaped by climate”; but the Kallawayas would respond that they rather expect climate to be shaped by music.

Local climate as a “physical-symbolic complex” (Rivière 1997, 34) is the direct manifestation of established reciprocity with a pantheon of Kallawaya deities and Andean spirits being responsible for adequate climatic conditions favoring agrarian production. Music establishes an emotional and ethical context for ecological relationships that extend into a visible and knowable past (ñawpa) and orients towards an invisible, but hearable, thus anticipatable future (qhipa), depending on the maintenance of reciprocal relationships between human and other-than-human subjectivities (see also Simonett 2016). This is related to what I have called “musical performativity” (Hachmeyer 2017 and 2015), which describes basic conditions required for the success of a “musical speech act.” Musical sound has to be produced by specific instruments relating to a particular time-space condition during the “orchestration of the year” (Stobart 2006), which primarily relates to repercussions on local climate and meteorological events (wind, rain, frost, etc.). Due to the agrocentrism in Kallawaya cosmology, this orchestration of the year plans and integrates different agricultural tasks, during which climate related collective rituals play a major role in securing agrarian production. These rituals literally take place at particular, i.e. sacred, places, in which a specific musical expression (sound, harmony, rhythm, tempo, etc.) can unfold its cosmological potential within a relational and animate world (Rösing 1996).

If music and climate assume such an interdependent relationship, how do Kallawayas perceive changes in these two interdependent realms?

Climate change in an animate world

Descola (2013) defines animism as endowing natural beings with human dispositions and social attributes, where the elementary categories structuring social life organize the relations between humans and natural species, thus defining a social and moral continuity between nature and culture (see also Viveros de Castro 2012). Considering the Andean context, I propose that climate, instead of being a description in terms of the mean and variability of relevant meteorological quantities over a period of time, rather might be seen as a description of relevant human and other-than-human moral qualities, relating to reciprocal relationships with Andean deities and spirits. Climate change would be understood as an unprecedented change in that same moral behaviour between human and other-than-human subjectivities. In Kallawaya cosmology, telluric processes cannot be separated from corporeal processes (Bastien 1985). The body is not considered dualistically as a material vessel of organs apart from mental, emotional or cognitive processes happening in mind. The body, for instance, also comprises the inner self (ibid.). Health, or the “wholeness of body” in Kallawaya terms, is seen as a process in which centripetal and centrifugal forces pull together and disperse fluids that provide emotions, thought, nutrients and lubricants for the “members” of the body (ibid.). Fluids of the body are governed by similar dynamics within the environment, so that they “flow back and forth between the body and the mountain” (Bastien 1985, 598). Hence, ultimately, it “extends beyond dualistic confines of inner and outer” (ibid.). Feeling, thinking, and nurturing are processes happening not just inside one’s own body. It might be more adequate to talk about these relationships in terms of an inseparable person-mountain-body unit, as well as corporeal and mental extensions in an ecological approach to feeling, thought, and nurture (cf. Clark & Charmers 1998; Gibson 1979). The person is attached to mountain, as much as the mountain is attached to person, through their bodies, in which fluids, i.e. materials and energy, flow interchangeably. This interchange is basically sustained through agriculture, rituality, and, especially, musical sound reciprocally mediating between the person and the mountain (in which ancestors and deities are literally embodied).

In the case of Kallawaya physiology, reciprocity might be seen as a mental, spiritual, cognitive, material, and particularly sonic exchange between a person in environment and vice versa, having the ultimate goal to blur boundaries between both. Hence, “we can no longer think of the organism, human or otherwise, as a discrete, bounded entity, set over against an environment. It is rather a locus of growth within a field of relations traced out in flows of materials. As such, it has no ‘inside’ or ‘outside’” (Ingold 2013, 10). According to Descola (2013), in the reciprocal mode of interaction, humans and other-than-humans are substitutes for one another, contributing jointly, by their reciprocal exchanges, to the general, in this case climatic equilibrium of the cosmos. Ultimately, the corporeal is not separated from the cognitive, as much as the natural is not separated from the cultural, behavioural or moral. The very adversity or even “sickness” (Vergara Aguilar 2013) of climate (as an expression of pacha) is related to a) an improper circulation of fluids within the person-mountain-body and b) to the sphere of the moral and behavioural, since the universe is a social and moral order governed by moral and ritual law (Radcliffe-Brown 1952).

Dysfunction of seasonal change

A good climate among the Kallawaya is an adequate climate for agrarian production. Hence, it is worth looking at how local testimonies report about changes in such a typical meteorological succession, usually allowing for particular agricultural tasks. My host in Niñocorin explains that

this is a real problem. In times of sowing it is not raining. Sometimes we repeat qallay [rain ritual practiced in November], because it doesn’t rain. The watapurichiq [collective ritualist of the community] once said that it is as if weather does not correspond to our rituals, and that seasonal changes don’t work. But then, during times of crop growth, a lot of rain impedes the correct preparation of crops, as soil turns into mud. And also after Carnival, where rain normally diminishes, heavy rains and especially hailstorms destroy our agricultural yields right before harvest. (F.P. 2014, personal communication)

After harvest, special and ancestral preservation techniques require strong and continuous frost over several nights (e.g. dehydration of potatoes that convert into ch’uño). This process of dehydration is sometimes interrupted because of mild winters and an absence of strong frosts. It becomes obvious that climate change impacts undermine the reproduction of indigenous technologies and knowledge. This is evident during such processes of food conservation, but also with regard to ritual practices, as my host indicated. The repetition of rain rituals is related to prolonged droughts during sowing and a delayed transformation from dry to rainy season (see also Nordgren 2011).

Against this background of adverse climatic conditions for agrarian production, Rösing (1996, 52) states that Kallawaya ritualists argue that prolonged droughts during times of sowing are caused by a “cultural and moral decomposition.” Furthermore, local people from different Kallawaya communities perceive adverse climatic conditions as “pain and penalty” of deities and spirits, as reciprocal bonds have been interrupted (ibid.). The abandonment of ritual practices as something “backward” after the agrarian reforms of 1952 coincided with one of the heaviest droughts of the twentieth century, which people related directly to abandoning ritual practices, especially rain rituals such as qallay in Niñocorin and Kaata (Spedding & Llanos 1999, 105f). The very adversity of local climate is related to human failure and irreverence with respect to the cosmological tension of reciprocity in such a relational local field (see also Rivière 1997).

Hence, changing climatic conditions are about changing human and other-than-human relationships in an animate world. Such changes tell a story about patterns of moral and behavioral deterioration. Given this local understanding of adversity within this specific physical-symbolic complex of climate, it is worth looking at how this moral and behavioral change manifests itself in the sphere of music as the mediator of cyclic life and seasonal change.

Musical change as indicator of moral and behavioral change

Merriam (1964) proposes a model of musical analysis indicating emic aspects of musical change grounded in an analysis of musical dynamics, which mainly focus on the conceptualization of music, the behavior in relation to it, and musical sound. In relation to Kallawaya music, analyzing these aspects implies discussing changes in musical performativity and social relevance. Although a performative understanding of musical practices in relation to agriculture and spirituality is still vivid to some degree, it is possible to identify certain changes. First and foremost, the time-space condition of music is partially disarticulated, as a musical instrument appears at “wrong times” or “out of its season.” After a patronal feast in a vicinal community, where Niñocorin’s qantu ensemble were contracted to play in middle of November, my host argued that

this is always like this. If there is a contract to be fulfilled, they would do it. They play qantu out of its season, it does not give them a lot of importance. They always play qantu all the time, as Charazani [the regional capital] always plays its pifano, or Cañizaya [a community close to mount Akhamani] its chatre. And then they wonder why it is not raining. (F. P. 2014, personal communication)

This generalization of music during the orchestration of the year would consequentially cause certain repercussions on the local climate and agrarian production. My host, for instance, argues that playing qantu panpipes at the end of dry season in November or during rainy season in general prevents it from raining, which would drastically diminish the agricultural yield (for similar testimonies see also Langevin 1991).

Regarding behaviors in relation to music, this generalization of musical genres and instruments can be related to a transformation of former meanings of music making in relation to agrarian production and rituality. For example, consider, among others, musical re-interpretations within younger generations, relating musical practices to social and civil acts and the creation of new Kallawaya identities, and a regional specialization on musical instruments and genres alongside different communities that would always present their specialization during public festivities. Hence, with regard to this shift in meaning of music making, it is worth looking at the contemporary social relevance of music.

Here, I would like to take Gutiérrez’s (1991) idea of endogenous and exogenous dynamics within Andean music performance as a starting point. Gutiérrez (1991) states that the brass band can be considered a perfect example of the endogenous dynamic of music in Bolivian rural societies. This endogenous dynamic is caused by contact with a “Western” music culture and can be seen as an attempt to maintain rhythm and melody with well-tempered instruments (see also Mújica 2014). Rather than being considered an expression of an acultural entity (cf. Gutiérrez 1991), brass bands are primarily considered more prestigious than autochthonous music ensembles, as they are considered the more expensive and louder option (Stobart 2006). Moreover, brass band musicians are affirmed certain professionalism with regard to playing instruments, which might be related to formal learning processes. One musician from Niñocorin’s qantu ensemble argued during an akhulliku, the collective act of coca leaf chewing (which provided a context for my focus group discussions),

we are often not considered proper musicians. It would help us if we got some recognition for us, like the Kallawaya healers, they got recognition of their practices. Then, nobody would say that only brass bands consist of musicians. (M.R. 2015, personal communication)

This can be interpreted as a sort of discrimination towards rural indigenous music that seems to lack socio-economic status and professionalism. Hence, the endogenous dynamics go far beyond the insertion of well-tempered instruments and the reproduction of certain elements within brass band music. In the context of the Kallawaya, endogenous dynamics are moreover finely nuanced around the perception of precision, professionalism, and participation within autochthonous music groups in relation to such a comparison with brass band music (Hachmeyer 2015).

Integration through musical participation is understood as one of the main purposes of musical practices in indigenous communities (Stobart 2006). Participation does not so much depend on the precision and professionalism of instruments and practitioners (Turino 1989). Turino (2008) divides between two fields of live performance: participatory and representational performance.[2] The former is sometimes related to “hobby” musicians while the latter is sometimes related to “professional” musicians.[3] Based on Turino’s (2008) conceptualization of live performance, an analysis of Niñocorin’s qantu ensemble should highlight this fundamental behavioral shift.


Participatory Performance Representational Performance

Frequency of rehearsal

Main participation in dance

Rhythm: ostinato and constant

Short sectional forms

Dense Texture

Minimization of individual virtuosity

Importance of sound

Disappearing of ad hoc integration

Professionalism and precision

Formalized learning

Individual and anthropocentric creativity

Centralized leadership

Social Activity Object, Commodity

Some characteristics of participatory performance have been maintained, basically those corresponding to the song structure, which are a constant ostinato rhythm, short sectional forms, the dense texture and the related minimization of individual virtuosity. The main participatory element is dance, which integrates a majority of people with an active and performative role. Rehearsals are infrequent, although they might increase in the context of representational performances. On the contrary, some aspects changed towards representational performances. First and foremost, musical sound becomes more important, so that an untypical sound quality is introduced (Turino 1989), manifesting itself through the disappearance of ad hoc integration and a precision of instruments, as well as a professionalization of musicians. The latter might correspond to formalized learning processes, which replaces practical and embodied learning in a collective situation (can be interpreted as a means to counter discrimination in comparison with brass band music). Moreover, the social organization and leadership is centralized around the “president,” who assumes most administrative and organizational tasks (which also might relate to the social organization of brass bands).

According to Gutiérrez (1991), the formation of a Bolivian identity of folklore and neo-folklore involves exogenous dynamics that generate competition, change music’s logic towards an artistic ideal of individual and temporary pleasure, and elaborate a music for every audience, moment, and place (see also Mújica 2014). In a heritage context, legitimate cultural expressions and cultural rights are conceptualized in terms of past history and the continuity of present actors with that past history (Llanos & Spedding 2009). In this sense, potential conflicts arise over the proper and “real” musical expression of qantu music, being related to conflicts over the legitimacy of expressing “real” Kallawaya identity through music. This is why some actors (mainly musicians from rural indigenous music ensembles, the elderly, etc.) define musical re-negotiations as “stylization” of or “alienation” from a certain ideal of rural indigenous music corresponding to a particular symbolic meaning and social relevance (in relation to agrarian production and rituality).[4] Talking about the transmission of musical practices during another focus group session, one musician of Niñocorin’s qantu ensemble argues that

we play original qantu music, with panpipes, drums and ch’inisku [metal triangle]. Yes, there are some youngsters who play qantu, but rather with modern instruments, like guitar and charango, or even with keyboards, but this is not original, and not proper to our context. (P.A. 2014, personal communication)

Pachakuti as climate reversal or turning

These tendencies in the realm of music reflect certain conceptual and behavioral changes that are perceived by some involved actors as “loss of tradition” and thus have certain adverse repercussions on local climate patterns. Analogically, this means a rupture of a constant cosmological equilibrium, which is firstly noted within climatic conditions, as they are direct manifestations of reciprocal relationships between human and other-than-human subjectivities manifested through musical sound. Against this background, the loss of ritual and musical tradition is directly related to adverse climatic conditions.

In the Kallawaya region, there is a distinction between personal and collective rituals. While personal rituals are directed towards healing, collective rituals are directed towards the wellbeing of the whole community, such as adequate climate conditions relating to agrarian production. These collective rituals are divided between cyclic and temporal rituals. Cyclic rituals take place every year and relate to the cycle of agrarian production. Temporal rituals take place, for instance, when a calamity occurs, such as the lack of rain for sowing or crop growth (e.g. the repetition of qallay rain ritual). These temporal rituals need to be invoked by the community council or the collective ritualist, the watapurichiq. Since the watapurichiq is sometimes referred to as machula (meaning grandfather in Quechua), he is considered the ancestors’ representative or the “man of enlacement” (Rösing 1996, 64) who is able to communicate between worlds. The Quechua word watapurichiq literally means “one who makes the year walk” (Rösing 1996, 537). Therefore, he is also called the authority of pacha (especially in the sense of climate/weather) (Vergara Aguilar 2013). Against this background a loss of ritual tradition might be seen as if there is no one making the year walk or proceeding with the cyclic stations of life, thus a situation of being in a vital limbo or of not being able to predict what is going to happen next in life. This feeling of unpredictability is directly associated with climate change. One farmer in Inca Rosa, another Kallawaya community a two-hour hike south of Niñocorin, stated in early March that

we cannot predict weather. This is horrible. We, as farmers, are very vulnerable to these rapid changes in weather. It continues raining without end. Look, the problem is, what shall we do? We need to use all these pesticides and everything against fungus, plagues or diseases that appear as never before. (F.I. 2015, personal communication)

The introduction of new synthetic agricultural technologies is considered necessary to confront climate change impacts, because local, ancestral and appropriate technology apparently reaches its limits. The “unreadability” of meteorological events is also related to the use of local biological indicators. Talking about the whistle of a bird locally known as chiwanku (the glossy-black thrush, Turdus serranus) announcing the proper time of sowing, my host in Niñocorin explains that

the chiwanku is not announcing anymore the correct time of sowing. For us, it is not an indicator anymore, because the chiwanku itself seems to be confused about all these changes. [Laughs.] When, then, should we sow? We do not exactly know this. The only thing we can do is wait for an appropriate time, we have to wait for rain. You know, actually it would be good if the climate once and for all changed, because afterwards we could properly read nature again to make proper decisions. (F.P. 2014, personal communication)

What my host expresses here, i.e. the wish that the climate finally changes once and for all, can be interpreted as a return to stable and predictable climatic conditions in an unknown future. It might symbolize a re-balancing of the world through a tumultuous turn of adverse climatic events, which can be referred to with the Andean concept of pachakuti (world turning). In this context pachakuti could be interpreted as the restoration of the world’s balance by means of a climatic reversal or turning.


How should these empirical findings be interpreted against the background of a climate justice discourse in relation to indigenous peoples? At first glance, these empirical findings obviously might be interpreted as if less privileged people blame themselves for something to which they have contributed very little, as indigenous peoples are among the most vulnerable confronting the most direct impacts of climate change (Burman 2015). Within such (ethnomusicological) contributions to climate change, we see some sort of crisis of (ethnomusicological) knowledge (Salmon 2013). All ethnographic data with regard to climate change and local knowledge run the risk of consequentially being downplayed as a system of beliefs or an inferior and illusive cultural (mis-)representation of one universal reality of climate change already sufficiently explained by positivist climate sciences. This is somewhat similar to what Latour (1991) calls “particular universalism,” stating that one specific “Culture” has privileged access to “Nature.” And this is why the critique also goes like this: Local knowledge may well recognize the existence of climate change, but different “cultural perceptions” may even lead to its denial (see e.g. Baer & Reuter 2015; Milton 1996).

Undoubtedly, in a capitalist world-system that diffuses its economic and rationalist logic into every single corner of the world, scientific knowledge as its epistemological backup also circulates within the Kallawaya region, diffused by national and international actors. While the question of whether these people playing “wrong” musical instruments at “wrong” times are responsible for climate change in that specific local context does not make any sense, if you tie local realties (ontologies) to your theoretical and conceptual framework (an attempt to take the people seriously you work with), it would still be an important question to ask with regard to indigenous peoples, climate justice, and colonialism. Beyond the monolithic concept of climate change as a universal reality, various peoples experience, understand, and address climate changes in local contexts and discuss issues of climate justice in local relational fields, turning into spaces of political struggles, not only about the production of legitimate climate-related knowledge but also over “what there is” (Blaser 2013, 561), about the natures or realities of climate change, and about their legitimate explanations (Burman 2015).

In Latin America, there is a body of scholarly literature discussing issues surrounding epistemic dimensions of continuous colonial domination and the existence of epistemic violence (Burman 2016 and 2015; de Sosa Santos 2012; Mignolo 2009 and 2000). Indigenous peoples are the most vulnerable to climate changes, but indigenous knowledge, although regarded as an alternative and viable source of adaptation strategies for climate change, is rarely seen as being equal compared to “Western” scientific knowledge (Burman 2015). Both might coexist in a certain context, but they do not always assume an egalitarian and symmetric relationship as the word “coexistence” suggests (ibid.). Still, it is not only about how to know, but also about what to know. This is why Burman (2016) argues that there is something missing in the debate about the “coloniality of knowledge” – that is, questions of an ontological nature.

Stobart (2006, 52) argues in the context of Northern Potosí that the “use of musical instruments to influence atmospheric phenomena was conceived at a highly practical level.” This is indeed true, but concrete and situated practices are embedded in concrete places in a “dwelt-in-world” (Ingold 2011, 42) and are therefore ontologically informed and materially conditioned (Burman 2016). Knowledge and reality, Burman (2016) argues, are mutually formative, playing major roles in constituting each other. The local and situated musical “knowledge practice” correlates with the constitution of a certain ensounded reality. This raises further ontological questions about the natures of climate change and the particular reality, which is constituted by music as a local and situated knowledge practice. Obviously, “climate change” discussed by indigenous peoples such as the Kallawayas is not the same thing as “climate change” discussed by scientists or environmentalists. Here, “climate change” emerges as a different reality depending on the (knowledge) practice under consideration (Mol 2002).

I prefer to frame these empirical findings in terms of the political dimensions of potential ontological conflicts. Drawing on the ontological turn in social theory (e.g. Escobar 2007) and on the project of political ontology (e.g. Blaser 2013), an ontological conflict is not a conflict between different cultural perceptions about one single, objective, and universal nature; rather, it is about conflicts between different worlds in what Strathern (2004) calls the “pluriverse.” Similar to the coloniality of knowledge, Burman (2016) argues that there also exist ontological dimensions of continuous colonial domination. Drawing on Viveiros de Castro’s (2014, 10) notion of “war of worlds,” Burman (2016, 10) states that a dominant reality “imposes itself on other realities in an ontocidal process of colonial ontological warfare.” In this sense, ontology is not “just another word for culture” (Carrithers et al. 2010), as culture is somehow taking for granted its own ontological status (in terms of Cartesian metaphysics) (Blaser 2013); rather than thinking about ontology in the same manner as culture – i.e. as objective, reified, discrete, and mutually excluding – ontology could instead be conceptualized as a constant and ongoing formation of premises, which “overlap, intersect and connect” (Burman 2016) and which form “complex interplays” and “multiple engagements” (Jensen & Morita 2012, 365). Hence, it might be better to talk about “ways of worlding” (Blaser 2013, 551) in a processional sense. Understood in its epistemological dimension, music making is always knowledge making about a particular world (“acoustemologies”). But understood in relation to its ontological dimension, music making, consequentially, also has to be musical worlding.

Another aspect of the concept of ontology might be of consideration here. Holbraad (cited in Blaser 2013, 551) states that ontology as a concept

gets us out of the absurd position of thinking that what makes ethnographic subjects most interesting is that they get stuff wrong. Rather, on this account, the fact that the people we study may say or do things that to us appear as wrong just indicates that we have reached the limits of our own conceptual repertoire.

As a heuristic device, Salmon (2013) refers to an “ontological delegation,” which forces the scholar to risk the robustness and transportability of one’s own ontological assumptions by letting them be counter-analyzed by indigenous knowledge practices with their own requisites, propositions, and postulates (see also Viveiros de Castro 2014). But why should it be necessary to do so, apart from “betraying otherwise the existing multiplicity of words or realities” (Blaser 2013, 551)?

If the environmental crisis – and its most profound manifestation: climate change –  is first and foremost a “crisis of reason” (Plumwood 2002) of a dominant anthropocentric culture believed to have privileged access over nature (see also Allen 2014 and 2011), then issues of epistemic and ontological violence (including acts of disobedience from the subaltern) should be addressed in order to properly discuss social and climate justice in relation to indigenous peoples. Such peoples’ knowledge may well serve for climate change adaptation, yet too often their reality of climate change is not allowed to exist (Burman 2016). As Burman (2016) argues (drawing on de Sousa Santos 2012), there cannot be global social and climate justice without global cognitive justice (i.e. epistemological and ontological justice). The ontological turn in social theory is surely debatable and controversial. But I think that it is worth asking if  a radical critique of the capitalist world-system necessarily should be articulated form within ontological premises underpinning unsustainable mechanisms (i.e. unequal ecological exchange or environmental waste disposal) and the social organization of production and consumption of that very capitalist world-system (Burman 2016).

While in the confines of this essay I cannot address fully this ongoing anthropological debate, I do think that ecomusicological perspectives do well to overcome the naturalist cradle of its foundation in order to a) actively participate in contemporaneous and interdisciplinary academic debates relating to the environmental crisis and sustainability, and b) to do justice to the discipline’s critical outlines ultimately aiming at transcending the academic sphere in order to be fruitfully informed by other-than-academic, critical, and disobedient musical artists and thinkers from the subaltern. Ontological questions do very much inform ecomusicological research: the “Natures” we talk about are indeed very important.



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[1] PhD Candidate in the Music Department, Royal Holloway University of London. B.A. in Social Sciences and Economics at Erfurt University (Germany), specialization in environmental sociology, M.Sc. in Human Ecology at Lund University (Sweden), specialization in environmental anthropology and political ecology. Contact:

[2] “Briefly defined, participatory performance is a style of artistic practice in which there are no artist-audience distinctions, only participants and potential participants performing different roles, and the primary goal is to involve the maximum number of people in some performance role. Representational performance, in contrast, refers to situation, where one group of people, the artists, prepare and provide music for another group, the audience, who do not participate in making the music or dancing.” (Turino 2008, 26)

[3] Turino (2008, 28) overtly argues against such a distinction, but considers it as somehow existing.

[4] Against the background of a certain musical performativity, it is worth looking at the repercussions of such exogenous dynamics on the sound of qantu music during processes such as folklorization, a theme which I explore in detail elsewhere (Hachmeyer 2015). Because of the framework of this essay, it is not possible to go further into detail. The main repercussions are: Substitution of musical instruments, performance techniques, harmony, rhythm and tempo, as well as change of music’s communication strategy.



In Kallawaya cosmology autochthonous (indigenous) musical practices are closely related to the social, natural, and spiritual environment. This is evident from processes surrounding the construction and tuning of instruments, activities in the cycle of agrarian production, collective ritual and healing practices, and communications with ancestors and deities relating to local weather events and climate. This article examines the interrelation between musical and climate change in the Kallawaya region. The impacts of musical sound on local weather events are of great importance to understand the complexity of climate change in this local context. The Northern Bolivian Kallawayas refer to changes in climate as a complex of alterations in local human and non-human relationships based on a rupture of reciprocal relationships in an animate world, in which music plays an important role for the cosmological equilibrium. This situation demonstrates the relevance of indigenous knowledge and cosmologies in relation to climate change discourses, particularly regarding questions of climate justice.

This website provides information and resources regarding ecomusicology. The professional organizations sponsoring and contributing to this webpage are the Ecocriticism Study Group (ESG) of the American Musicological Society (AMS), and the Ecomusicology Special Interest Group (ESIG) of the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM).

The Grove Dictionary of American Music (Oxford University Press, 2014) defines “ecomusicology” (or “ecocritical musicology”) as:

… the study of music, culture, and nature in all the complexities of those terms. Ecomusicology considers musical and sonic issues, both textual and performative, related to ecology and the natural environment.

The 2016 book Current Directions in Ecomusicology (edited by Aaron S. Allen and Kevin Dawe, with further information and resources here) elaborates considerably on the complexities of those terms and provides numerous examples of ecomusicological inquiry. The remainder of the Grove article continues below. (If you would like to know more about how that Grove article was written, see this page.)

The field of ecomusicology is young and growing. This website is a portal to find out more about ecomusicology, to stay informed through our low-volume email list, to find out what’s happening, and to pursue your own research. Feel free to contact us if you have any suggestions or comments or you would like to get involved. In addition to the very brief bibliography of citations below, which are limited for the print edition of AmeriGrove, check out the extensive bibliographical resources we provide; here is a collection of short articles on ecomusicology by five authors published in 2011 in an academic journal. If you have comments or ideas, then get involved in the discussion!

The AmeriGrove entry continues:

Interest in ecomusicology has paralleled increasing environmental concern in North America since 1970, a period of greening in academia when environmental studies developed in the physical, natural, and social sciences as well as the humanities. The term “ecomusicology” gained currency in the decades around 2000 in North American and Scandinavian academic circles. Early uses of it (e.g. Troup) reflected scientific ecology, i.e. interrelationships among organisms and their physical environments. More recently, however, it is “ecocriticism” that combines with Charles Seeger’s holistic sense of “musicology” to form “ecomusicology.”

Literary ecocriticism (“ecological criticism”) studies cultural products that imagine and portray human-environment relationships. Ecocritical scholars describe such connections and offer interpretive, political, and/or critical approaches: ecocritics read into the subtexts of various media from literature to film to advertising, encourage awareness of and concern for environmental crises, and self-critically subject such interpretive and political positions to scrutiny (Garrard). Music scholarship has a history of drawing on literary methodologies (e.g. gender and sexuality studies), and ecomusicology continues this trend.

The “musicology” of “ecomusicology” is more precisely what Seeger propounded as including what today are historical musicology, ethnomusicology, and other related interdisciplinary fields. On the one hand, this encompassing sense results in ecomusicology as an implicit umbrella term that may bring together fields that do not usually interact. On the other hand, such broadness allows scholars considerable flexibility to combine diverse disciplines in ecocritical studies of music. “Nature” is one of the most complex words in the English language, and the study of it, as with the similarly contested words “music” and “culture,” can take many approaches.

The label ecomusicology may be applied to a diverse array of scholarly and artistic endeavors. Early concerted efforts to connect human and non-human soundworlds came from soundscape studies and acoustic ecology. R. Murray Schafer founded the field with the World Soundscape Project (since 1993 the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology), which spread from Canada to the United States, Europe, and beyond, and which blends approaches from composition, sound design and engineering, acoustics, and general music and cultural scholarship in an effort to understand and manage sonic environments. Acoustic ecologists and sound and soundscape artists take both artistic and activist approaches to represent the world around them and to increase awareness about issues such as urban development, water pollution, hearing loss, and noise pollution. Another interdisciplinary field is biomusic, in which scientists and musicians collaborate to study non-human soundworlds, e.g. of birds or whales, in relation to human evolution and musicality (Gray and others). The development of hydrophones in the 1960s allowed cetologists to record whales, whose songs captured artistic and public imaginations. Recent multi-species engagements have resulted in historical and cross-cultural studies, semiotic approaches in zoomusicology, and philosophical considerations of interspecies musicking.

Ecomusicological approaches to considering human musical systems, traditions, perceptions and compositions include studies of influence, mimesis, and/or reference of the natural environment using textual, sound, and/or extra-musical means. Such studies have come primarily from ethnomusicology and historical musicology, whose professional institutions reflect this interest: in 2011 the Society for Ethnomusicology established the Ecomusicology Special Interest Group, and in 2007 the American Musicological Society established the Ecocriticism Study Group, which maintains an Internet ecomusicology bibliography. Considerations of place are a common ecomusicological theme, as with Feld’s classic study of Kaluli acoustemology in Papua New Guinea. Ethnomusicologists normally connect sound and place, but Guy has encouraged a more explicitly ecomusicological agenda that approaches the political and critical more than the descriptive and interpretive. Historical studies of places and regions in North America have considered the influence of local environments on music (Von Glahn, Toliver). Sustainability concerns arise when using unique local material resources for global musical instrument culture (Allen) and when considering local and global pop music making (Pedelty). Ecomusicological topoi (birds, the pastoral) are considered in most historical epochs, and the diversity of approaches continues with popular music, gender, opera studies, and Western music theory. The number of German musicological examinations of nature since the 1990s led Rehding to conclude that ecomusicology is not just a “hot topic” of the moment but rather is a serious field well-suited to ask fundamental questions, such as “what is this stuff called music?” (pp. 305 and 320).

Indeed, ecomusicology can offer fresh approaches to confronting old problems in music and culture via a socially engaged scholarship that connects them with environmental concerns.



M. Troup, ed., Guildhall School of Music and Drama Review (1972)

S. Feld: Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression (Philadelphia, 2/1990)

P.M. Gray and others: “The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music,” Science (5 January 2001), 52–4

A. Rehding: “Eco-musicology,” JRMA, cxxvii/2 (2002), 305–20

D. Von Glahn: The Sounds of Place: Music and the American Cultural Landscape (Boston, 2003)

B. Toliver: “Eco-ing in the Canyon: Ferde Grofé’s Grand Canyon Suite and the Transformation of Wilderness,” JAMS, lvii (2004), 325–67

G. Garrard: Ecocriticism (London and New York, 2004)

N. Guy: “Flowing Down Taiwan’s Tasumi River: Towards an Ecomusicology of the Environmental Imagination.” EthM, liii (2009), 218–48

A.S. Allen: “‘Fatto di Fiemme’: Stradivari and the Musical Trees of the Paneveggio,” Invaluable Trees: Cultures of Nature,1660–1830, ed. L. Auricchio, E. H. Cook, and G. Pacini (2012), 301-315

M. Pedelty: Ecomusicology: Rock, Folk, and the Environment (Philadelphia, 2012).

Ecocriticism Study Group of the American Musicological Society, Ecomusicology: Music, Culture, Nature (n.d.), <>

Aaron S. Allen

This article was originally written for the forthcoming second edition of The Grove Dictionary of American Music, published by Oxford University Press in 2014. It also appears on Oxford Music Online <>. For more information, e-mail