A while ago I had a conversation with a scholar who specialised in environmental issues. Our chat touched upon bands and artists, like Finnish Hexvessel, with eco-agendas encompassing everything they do, ranging from music, lyrics and album covers to promotional texts and imagery. My associate considered such extravagant environmentalism a bit dubious. He saw it as musical greenwashing with mostly commercial aims and having little to do with an ecologically critical ethos.
This made me think once more about criteria for evaluating music in the context of nature and environmental concerns: what and how an environmentally critical piece of music really is.
Nature is one of the most common themes in music of all ages. Music’s relationship to our environment, broadly understood, is discussed in many ancient literary documents. The physical vibrations of music connect us concretely to our immediate surroundings. Even views that focus on music as pure sound and abstract structures often compare music to natural, organic processes.
Music can create an experience of being at one with nature, its course and dynamics. Think about John Luther Adams’s Become Ocean (2013), for example. Anna Thorvaldsdóttir from Iceland lets natural processes, spaces and scales direct her compositional principles on a subtle and detailed level. Music can also remind us how natural phenomena have long formed focal points for human cultures. This can be heard in Kalevi Aho’s concerto for percussion and orchestra Sieidi (2010; “sieidi” means a Sami sacrificial stone).
There is, of course, lots of music with explicit environmentally critical messages. Metal band Stam1na’s record Viimeinen Atlantis (The Last Atlantis, 2000) or Kaksi astetta (Two degrees), a project by Jaakko and Pekka Kuusisto with the Rajaton a cappella ensemble (recorded in 2014), are just two Finnish examples. Furthermore, many music festivals are based in specific natural environments, forming what could be described as institutional negotiations of our relationship with nature (see the article here).
This list is far from comprehensive. Common to all of its categories is that they are not strictly about musical depictions of nature. Surely music can depict nature (or anything), but a representation of something means that this something as such is at the same time absent. This is why depicting natural phenomena does not automatically make music environmental in an ecocritical sense.
But let’s not go to the other extreme, either. According to the principles of Modernism, musical innovations are comparable with or even superior to any other form of rational thought precisely because they express human logical faculties in a pure form and without “contaminating” extra-musical contents. This comes close to the idea of absolute music. However, if music existed “absolutely” or “purely” we wouldn’t even know about its existence, because as an “absolute” phenomenon it has nothing to do with our socio-historically conditioned conceptions and perceptions.
In the context of current environmental concerns and against the backdrop of the long relationship between music and nature, a Modernist-Absolutist tenet strikes me as a relatively inconsiderate and eco-insensitive attitude. Modernist music (I’m not saying Modernist composers or musicians) suggests a world-view according to which one should not care about anything outside one’s own realm. Old-school Modernism is, for good or ill, the most anthropocentric aesthetic that exists in music history.
Seeing music as something meant for delivering a message that is related only to its own sounding forms comes close to the idea of seeing too obvious an environmental message in music as a drawback. Both views imply that music becomes inferior if it does not require special skills or experience to be understood. Both views ultimately suggest that good music should be reserved for those who know how to decode its hidden messages, whether they be structural, environmental or whatever. Music becomes modern-day musica reservata; there is good music and there is bad music, and only few of us happen to know how to make the distinction.
No composition can have a true environmental effect if its reception is essentially restricted from the start. No composition can influence our view of nature unless it manages to create an interesting and captivating musical experience and can make conceptual sense in the context of nature without alienating us from it.
How about letting nature decide what kind of music is environmentally bad and what is good? This isn’t as mystical as it may sound. In the light of the long and close relationship between music and nature this is actually much less otherworldly than the still common use of the completely speculative (i.e. mystical) term “absolute music”.
The term “nature” derives from Greek physis. Physis does not denote a collection of things around us but the way things appear. Music’s close relationship to nature can be seen precisely in the ways it alters and affects our relationship to the diversity of our surrounding world – and not only to itself or myself. In the end, what does it matter if a composition is guilty of “greenwashing” or touches large audiences, as long as it brings about heightened eco-sensitivity?