Experiencing Environmental Crises Through Music

by Sini Mononen (University of Turku, Finland)

Finnish musicologist Juha Torvinen is working on a personal research project entitled Music, Nature, and Environmental Crises: A Northern Perspective on Ecocritical Trends in Contemporary Music. The project is funded by the Academy of Finland. His project is the first in Finland to have significant funding for a study in the field of ecomusicology. Being a five-year (2014–2019) full-time research project, it is unique in the whole ecomusicological world, too. We discussed the main themes of the project with Torvinen.


SM: In your current research project you have studied environmental and ecocritical themes in contemporary classical and popular music. How do you think music engages ecocritical issues today?

JT: Well, music can deal with ecocritical themes in many ways, and these ways have already been studied in depth by the pioneering figures of contemporary ecomusicology such as Aaron S. Allen, Mark Pedelty, Denise von Glahn, Kevin Dawe and many others. The most obvious way is that a piece of music has a more or less clear “message” that it aims at changing our views through specific title, lyrics, motto, program or other explicit link to ecocritical subject matters. And there are obviously lots of artists whose whole oeuvre is based on an ecocritical ethos. Think about, for example, works of John Luther Adams, the dark ambient of New Risen Throne, or the black metal of Wolves in a Throne Room. The recording No Holier Temple of the Finnish progressive folk band Hexvessel could even be considered an ecocritical Gesamtkunstwerk.

However, I think that consciously and intentionally ecocritical forms of music and music making are, perhaps surprisingly, only a minor and not necessarily the most important part of contemporary eco-sensitive musical repertoire. We have witnessed a wide and heightened musical interest in nature and environment in recent decades. In Nordic contemporary music, for example, one can discern various approaches to the topic of environment ranging from Romantic nature mysticism and topophilic musical treatises of local environments to themes of urban environment, celestial bodies, and musical depictions of the elements of water, snow, and ice.

We are living in the age of environmental crises. This means that environmental concerns are fundamental for the experiences of our time. This is why environmental concerns also change our ways of hearing, listening, and sensing the world around us. And this is why we are able and entitled to hear ecocritical “messages” even in music where such messages are not obviously evident. Indeed, one of the main tasks of ecomusicology is, in my opinion, to open our ears to ecocritical listening, to show that it is not only music making itself but it is also our ears that are molded by environmental concerns whether we are aware of this or not. This emphasis on context is where ecomusicology mates with the main principles of cultural musicology.


SM: One of the defining themes in your project is the North. How do you understand the North in this ecomusicological context? Is it aesthetics, such as the dark sound and northern mythology in the music of one of your case studies Swedish progressive metal band Opeth, or is it apocalyptic scenes such as oil drilling in Arctic?

JT: Focusing on northerly music in my project has at least two main reasons. The one is quite practical: one cannot study everything, one has to delimit one’s objectives, and I will concentrate on northerly music because it is closest to me both musically and nature-wise (I’m a Finn born near the Polar Circle).

The other reason for focusing on northerly music is that northern music has a special potential for providing inspiration for global environmental thinking. This is because northern cultural forms are often closely connected to the still relatively unpolluted and uninhabited northern nature. Think about, for example, Icelandic artists Sigur Rós and Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Sámi rappers, or various nature myths in Nordic metal that you mentioned.

Norwegian architect Christian Norberg-Schulz (1996) wrote on Nordic architecture and how it reflects northern lighting and our experience on the northerly environment. Life in north is characterized with extreme light conditions, pitch-dark winter and midnight sun. Depictions of light are a very typical theme also in northern ecocritical music. For example Finnish composer Kalevi Aho’s Eight Seasons (2011) is a concerto for theremin & chamber orchestra dealing with delicate characters of eight seasons of Sámi tradition. Climate change is threatening the seasons, diminishing them into fewer and leaving the habitants of the Lapland in the mercy of darkness and light. For instance, snow has an important role in starting the sixth season, the threshold of winter. Snow softens the hard darkness as it reflects the faintest light in the landscape. The theremin has a significant and interesting role in the concerto, as the instrument has a cultural history distinct from the conventional chamber music tradition. It is standing alone before the chamber orchestra, trying to defend its history, subjectivity and tradition.

Typical for the overall sound of the northern music is avoidance of (musical) subjects in favor of ambient fields of sound, blurring of musical foreground and background, and depictions of desolate landscape. But these are only typical, not essential traits of northerly music. Similar traits can be found in any music and, conversely, not all northerly music includes these features. For example, Alaskan John Luther Adams composed a dystopian dream in Become Ocean. The whole theme of the piece is an apocalyptical future, where humanity is sliding back towards the ocean. We came from the ocean, and now the ocean is pulling us back. John Luther Adams is a good example of a composer composing subjectless voids. The similar feel is present in the oeuvre of New Risen Throne and Wolves in a Throne Room. The north and environment give a slow-paced feel to their music. There aren’t many musical subjects or events. North appears as a huge space, movement of a light, and togetherness with the environment as the borders of the subjects disappear and everything dissolves into same big whole.

But I’d like to repeat myself: not all northerly music includes these features. Still I think that above-mentioned features are more common in northerly music than in music in general. Our immediate natural and cultural surroundings mould and affect our ways of thinking, acting and experiencing things. Northern nature affects the nature of music of northern countries. How could it even avoid of doing this?


SM: It seems to me that discussing North in particular is an attempt to turn from global to local: is this a conscious ecocritical choice?

JT: I agree. How can you really, and I mean really deeply, care about anything with which you haven’t had any physical immediate contact? The extreme nationalist movements of the 20th century have somewhat poisoned the idea of locality and topophilia. Gradually we are getting rid of such labels – and, ironically, much because of environmental crises, because they are often disturbances in local physical contacts with the world. However, you must not make the mistake of thinking that your locality is the best (not to mention only) way to think, act and experience. For example highlighting the particularities of northern environment may help others to see the uniqueness of their different environments.

Furthermore, there is a more philosophical reason for my northern focus. Peter Davidson (2005), a specialist in the culture of the northern regions, has pointed out that in Western literary history the north has long acted as a metaphor for something that is, for better or worse, beyond the knowable world. Also music is often seen as something beyond knowable or, at least, controllable. Can the homologous use of music and north as metaphors for something beyond the here-and-now find a new topicality in current socio-cultural negotiation environmental problems? Global warming is moving the climatic North more and more to the North. Is this a symptom for our inability to face the fundamental questions?


SM: A significant part of your previous work is studying this side of music through Heideggerian phenomenology. Heidegger is still very up-to-date, although also widely criticized especially in post-phenomenology such as object-oriented-ontology. Do you find Heideggerian philosophy still relevant in ecocritisism and ecomusicology?

JT: My doctoral thesis back in 2007 discussed the forms of affectivity in musical experience as temporary and transitory “attunements” of the primordial and pre-subjective existential-ontological anxiety (Angst).

Indeed, Heideggerian thought has much to offer also for environmentally oriented music research, just like it has had much to offer for ecocritical and ecophilosophical thought in general. Heidegger’s analysis of human existence as being-in-the-world (that we are what we are only in and through our interaction with the world), his anti-humanist critique of Western metaphysics of subjectivity, as well as his thoughts on technology can be considered important precursors for today’s critiques of anthropocentrism in all forms of environmental research.

Heidegger’s critique of technology (for example in the essay The Question Concerning Technology) is aimed at technological understanding of Being that manifests not only as tools, machines etc. but primarily as our general need to control and organize the world and nature according to our standards, as seeing everything (including humans themselves) as standing reserve for fulfilling contingent human needs. In this context even science is always technological because its raison d’être is to make our ability to disclose the world (tekhne) as a rational system (logos). Heidegger’s main concern was that technological understanding of Being can become the governing and only view to reality. It seems that this is exactly and unfortunately what has happened. Various environmental crises tell us that our needs do not meet the benefit of the rest of the reality. It is interesting for a musicologist that in order to avoid the negative aspects of technological understanding of Being, Heidegger informs us to listen to Being. By its essence the ear is less discriminating (i.e. less technological?) than the eye.

Heideggerian philosophy is also among the main backdrops for Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy of nature and, consequently, today’s ecophenomenology including the writings of Ted Toadvine (2009), Gernot Böhme (2001), Edward S. Casey (1997) and many others. Ecophenomenology – Heideggerian or not – is an important methodology for my research, because I am first and foremost interested in experiences of nature and environment (especially ones that are devoid of subject-object divide) as conveyed and negotiated through music and musical practices in our age of environmental crises.


SM: You have told me that you prefer term nature to ecology or environment. I can remember opposite choice in ecocritical discourse that emphasizes the loss of nature and thus turn to discussing environment. Why did you choose to turn the other way?

JT: I am relying on Heideggerian tradition here, too. Heidegger analyzed the pre-Socratic philosophical tradition where our surrounding world was seen not as a collection of static beings but as a dynamic process of appearing. This appearing, the way in which things manifested themselves, was called in Ancient Greece physis. Through a Latin translation we are nowadays accustomed to call this same phenomenon nature (natura, engl. nature, birth, character). It seems to me, however, that when we use terms such as ‘ecology’ or ‘environment’ we are unconsciously referring to things and wholes that are more static and, thus, easier to be divided in opposing realms. For example, for something to be an environment some kind of center is, quite logically, required. And this center is often a human being or a human form of being. In Greek tradition, on the other hand, the term ecology originates from oikos, which stands for household, house or family. Thus both environment and oikos, or environment and ecology, are, historically and experientially, determined through human needs and human perception. Of course, in practice things and the different meanings of terms are not this straightforward. But by choosing the concept of nature I wish to stress the post-humanist and anti-Cartesian point of view. Ecophenomenological critiques of the terms of ecology and environment are found in Dillon’s (2007) and Toadvine’s (2009) texts. Philosophers Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly, on the other hand, have analyzed the phenomenon of physis in depth in their book All Things Shining (2011).

All this doesn’t have to mean that the human experience isn’t essential.

For example, I believe that while we humans are part of the bigger picture, we are tied to nature through a meaningful bond, which is ranging from intellectual to affective and bodily experiences. In Merleau-Ponty’s account (see e.g. Toadvine 2009), we humans become attached to the world through our bodies. For Merleau-Ponty being in the world is foremost a bodily experience. However, body does not separate us from the world. While it defines limits for the individual being and thus separates us from the world, this separation is at the same time artificial. We are attached to the world through our bodies; in fact, we are one with the world, and ‘flesh’ was Merleau-Ponty’s term for the fundamental uniting factor of all being. We are not separated from the world, because everything is the same flesh.


SM: To be listening to music is also fundamentally a bodily experience, and not only as it resonates and vibrates in our bodies. Jane Bennett (2001) refers to an exceptional kind of bodily experience, enchantment, in relation to ethics. She defines enchantment as a state of wonder where one is spellbound, which is entirely affective. She is also discussing music in this context: music is both metaphor and an example of enchanting force, which evokes our need to act for a common good. This brings us back to ecocriticism. Do you understand music as an enchanting and affective force?

JT: I’m not familiar with Bennet’s book and I thank you for introducing it to me. In any case, the affective nature of music is very important, almost essential. When observing the development of ecological crises and the knowledge we have about them, it becomes evident that in order to change our ways of acting we cannot separate affective states from ethics. Like I mentioned before, in order to take care of the world, one needs to have affective relationship to it. Music is dealing directly with the affective side of being. When affect meets knowledge, the change is more likely to start.

I somewhat disagree with environmental philosopher Timothy Morton (2007), who states in his Ecology without Nature that nature writing (and also nature composing) are deceiving, because they have aimed to depict and evoke immersive experiences that rely on the illusion of our original unity with nature. I think that we need immersive experiences simply because they are a major part of our experiential faculty. But it’s like with topophilia: you cannot rely on immersive experiences only. They move you but they do not tell why and where to move. On the other hand, purely symbolic meanings can tell you this “why” and “where” but they do not necessarily (make you) move. If you get the affective power and dynamism from immersion, you also need symbolic meanings and experiences to figure out why and how this dynamism should make you think and act differently, in a more, say, eco-sensitive way. In other words, enchantment is important but one also has to be able to step back from it.


SM: Back to (northern) ecocritical music: When you first mentioned some of your case studies, like Opeth and Wolves in a Throne Room, I had this idea of almost dystopian of apocalyptic musical spheres. But this is not surprising. Environmental music is almost overwhelming in its essence; it is at the same time both conceptual and affective. Conceptual, as it speaks of transcendental and sublime experience. Affective, as it forces us to face the current crises. Thus the essence of ecocritical music is hard to grasp and verbalize.

JT: It seems, generally speaking, that recent environmental music touches the whole of our experiential capacities. What I mean by this is – and this is partly an answer to your previous question, too – that many contemporary forms of music making seem to resemble a broadly naturalistic outlook on human experience (on which I rely) where evolutionarily later and more structured areas of human experience are seen as arising from (and, therefore, explanatorily dependent on) less structured and more archaic areas of experience. Music evokes highly structured, reified and subjective experiences but it also evokes pre-individual, pre-conceptual and asubjective experiences. To have an ecocritical potential in an experiential sense, music has to hover between these two extremes, I think.

Ecocritically interesting music has attained a good balance between these experiential extremes. At the moment I am studying these layers of experience in the context of at least three musical examples. In Kaija Saariahos’s music one finds fascinating combinations of celestial themes with highly suggestive sound-world that can be considered a contemporary “environmental” form of sublimity (or Morton’s hyperobjectivity (Morton 2013)). The bodily environment is the focus in my work on how the curved shapes of Fender Stratocaster have influenced the temporality of guitar improvisation. Moreover, my study on Nordic metal, especially the Swedish band Opeth you mentioned previously, ponders the relationship of nature-related texts to strong affectivity of the sound of music.

For more information, contact Juha Torvinen directly juha.torvinen@uniarts.fi or visit www.utu.fi/mnec.  See also http://www.ecomusicology.info/music-nature-and-environmental-crises-a-northern-perspective-on-ecocritical-trends-in-contemporary-music/ .



Bennett, Jane. 2001. The Enchantment of Modern Life. Attachements, Crossings, and Ethics. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press.

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Casey, Edward S. 1997. The Fate of Place: A Philosophical History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Davidson, Peter. 2005. The Idea of North. London: Reaktion.

Dillon, Martin C. 2007. Merleau-Ponty and the Ontology of Ecology or Apocalypse Later. Teoksessa Cataldi, Suzanne L. & Hamrick, William S. (toim.) Merleau-Ponty and Environmental Philosophy. Dwelling on the Landscapes of Thought. New York: State University of New York Press, 259–272.

Dreyfus, Hubert & Sean Dorrance Kelly. 2011. All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age. New York: Free Press.

Heidegger, Martin. 1977 [1954]. The Question Concerning Technology. In The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Trans. William Lovitt. New York & London: Garland, 3–35.

Morton, Timothy. 2013. Hyperobjects. Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. Minneapolis London: University of Minnesota Press.

Morton, Timothy. 2007. Ecology Without Nature. Re-Thinking Environmental Aesthetics. Cambridge London: Harvard University Press.

Norberg-Schulz, Christian. 1996. Nightlands: Nordic Building. Cambridge, Mass. & London: The MIT Press.

Toadvine, Ted. 2009. Merleau-Ponty’s Philosophy of Nature. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Torvinen, Juha. 2007. Musiikki ahdistuksen taitona. Filosofinen tutkimus musiikin eksistentiaalis-ontologisesta merkityksestä. Helsinki: Suomen Musiikkitieteellinen Seura.

Torvinen, Juha. (forthcoming). Northern tone and the changing climate. Study on psychedelic folk of Hexvessel and theremin concerto of Kalevi Aho. In Sweers, Britta (ed) Climate Change, Music and the North. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Vadén, Tere & Juha Torvinen. 2014. Musical Meaning in Between. Ineffability, Atmosphere and Asubjectivity in Musical Experience. Journal of Aesthetics and Phenomenology 1:2, 209–230.