Aaron S. Allen, Ph. D.: Ecomusicology and the Challenges of Sustainability

Are music cultures sustainable?

To answer this question, we must know what sustainability means, but — like ecomusicology, the study of music, culture and nature in all the multifarious understandings of those terms — sustainability has no singular definition. Jeff Titon (2009) has theorized about sustainable music cultures in the context of applied ethnomusicology and cultural heritage management. Titon regards music as “a biocultural resource, a product of human life; further, it is a renewable resource.... In short, sustaining music means sustaining people making music.” He is not concerned with environmental issues, except by analogy. Such an approach, however, can suffer from the very “unintended consequences” that worry Titon: cultural sustainability can be excessively anthropocentric and privilege a sort of cultural sustainability that has the simultaneous potential to cause environmental unsustainability.

I use “sustainability” to mean the long-term preservation of ecologies and natural resources that humans use. My presentation provides a brief introduction to ecomusicology, a series of short case studies to illustrate its intellectual diversity, and a longer study of my own research on sustainability and the violin.

Fundamental to the sound of Western art music, the violin family forms the backbone of most ensembles from chamber to stage. Professional violins depend on two endemic natural resources: Brazilian pernambuco and Italian spruce. Bows are made from wild pernambuco that grows only in Brazil’s Atlantic Coastal Forest. Pau brasil was so important that European colonial powers (who used it to dye regal garments) warred over it with each other and with indigenous peoples; eventually, the country Brazil was named after the wood. Today, the tree is nearly extinct: 8% of the original forest is extant, and only 5% of pernambuco habitat remains.

The red spruce growing in the unique alpine microclimate of the Val di Fiemme’s Paneveggio Forest has fared better. The species is widely distributed, but Paneveggian spruce makes excellent resonance wood for soundboards. Stradivari used this primary material, and his creations have contributed to the renown of the Forest; myths abound regarding his jaunts through the Paneveggio seeking out the most musical trees. Such associations led to this region’s nickname: the “forest of violins.” The Venetian Republic also wanted Paneveggio’s tall, strong trees for their navy, but along with unique topological features, Fiemmesi traditions of conservation since the twelfth century thwarted such threats. Today, more trees grow than loggers harvest. When a luthier says her work is “fatto di Fiemme” (made from/of Fiemme), she acknowledges the unique material that contributes to her creation.

The values accorded to individual tree species (spruce and pernambuco) and to the creations dependent on them (violins) create a ripple effect that reverberates globally. Tracing the history, across centuries and continents, of these two violin woods contextualizes and accords value to the material basis for musical culture. Moreover, it provides lessons about music cultures and the challenges of sustainability: Western art music, sometimes seen as an endangered (if elite) tradition in need of sustaining, contributes to threatening and protecting the unique resources on which it depends.

Aaron S. Allen is Assistant Professor of Musicology in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’. After earning a BA in music and a BS in environmental studies from Tulane University, Allen received his Ph.D. from Harvard with a dissertation on the nineteenth-century Italian reception of Beethoven. Allen co-founded and currently chairs the Ecocriticism Study Group of the American Musicological Society and the Ecomusicology Special Interest Group of the Society for Ethnomusicology. He has published and presented on campus environmental issues, Beethoven, and ecomusicology. For 2011-12, Allen is a fellow in modern Italian studies at the American Academy in Rome.