Ecomusicology. Rock, folk, and the environment by Pedelty, Mark
Article first published online: 10 FEB 2014
© 2014 European Association of Social Anthropologists
Volume 22, Issue 1, pages 137–138, February 2014
How to Cite
Hagen, T. (2014), Ecomusicology. Rock, folk, and the environment by Pedelty, Mark. Social Anthropology, 22: 137–138. doi: 10.1111/1469-8676.12065_15
- Issue published online: 10 FEB 2014
- Article first published online: 10 FEB 2014
Pedelty, Mark. 2012. Ecomusicology. Rock, folk, and the environment. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. 242 pp. Pb.: £18.99. ISBN 978–1439907122.
Music's relationship within societies and cultures is a complex topic of research, one that rarely seems to be agreed upon between disciplines. However, we do know that music can be good material for social inquiry as it mediates issues, debates and potential solutions. In his book Mark Pedelty asks the question of how music can be used to promote sustainability. He takes us through the political ecology of rock, using examples in a geographic exposition from global (Live Aid megaconcerts), national (political music in USA), regional (bioregions in North America) to local music. Taking an ethnographic approach, Pedelty interfaces these geographical components with an analysis of music as communication, advocacy and to a lesser degree as art.
Reflecting on the relationship between musical genre and environmentalism, Pedelty's ecomusicology emerges throughout the book. We learn that it includes, among other aspects, environmentally engaged popular musicians (e.g. those who partake in carbon offsetting of their tours), certain musical timbres or instruments, or musicians with ‘environmental intent’, who are considered as having ‘environmental musicianship’ (p. 35). These musicians, argues Pedelty, empower audiences by raising environmental awareness and providing opportunities for action, reconnecting people with nature in both imagination and activism. However, we see little evidence of how this actually occurs besides a handful of trite survey responses and brief analysis of fan blogs (pp. 61–3).
And why rock particularly? Pedelty asserts that rock has become the soundtrack for the world system (p. 22). His argument is that rock de-territorialises consciousness via digital technologies of production and consumption. This leads us to engage and think less at a local level. The scale of the music industry is at the same time its potential in that it affords ‘global networking’ (p. 43). Rock and pop are therefore seen as ‘placeless meta-genres’ that ‘may begin to feel more ecological relevance when generated in specific environmental contexts’ (p. 126). Accordingly, Pedelty's support of local music making is tied to music as a place-making device, mediating space into meaningful place.
The benefit to communities when music is made locally is alluded to in Chapter 4 through description of his band in Minneapolis, for instance by telling us how their audience is often made up of ‘family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues’ (p. 171). Unfortunately the opportunity for ethnographic insight is lost in the writing style and lack of robust, well-worked examples, which seem more appropriate for a blog, especially when Pedelty engages in self-effacing comments about learning or performing music: ‘My microphone technique is crap’ (p. 144). Moreover, the musical learning process never emerges, rather Chapter 4 tells the reader how he became a musician, which includes details of how long it takes to set up for a gig and the cost of his band's first CD, along with numerous photos of him performing that only serve to document a musical event rather than to develop a visual ethnography.
Pedelty states his commitment to understanding music in social, historical and material contexts (i.e. an ecological approach to studying music, not to be confused with ecomusicology, which concerns music, sound and the environment). Music's indexical nature is at the crux of an ecological approach to music, yet Ecomusicology vacillates on this point, or it is ignored completely, as evidenced by the author's discomforting opinions. For example, Pedelty snubs ‘bubblegum pop’ and easy listening (p. 19), explains away electronic music as ‘facilitating escape’ (p. 41), declares Muzak and ‘puritanical art’ as boring (pp. 18–19), labels classical musicians ethnocentrists and braggarts (pp. 135–6) along with unverified claims such as ‘baritone [voices] don't work in rock’ (p. 180) or ‘what music does best is provide pleasure’ (p. 171) and more. There is no supporting evidence to these assumptions and moreover it is far from being an ecological understanding of music's potential within situated contexts of people, places, materials and discourses.
Descriptions as such reinforce genre boundaries, which is an inhibitor in thinking about collective action, communities and the environment. If the goal is to promote sustainability, then divisions as such should be the first to go, particularly since these genres result from corporate distribution, market forces and record label number-crunching in order to categorise and maximise sales, underpinning neoliberal thinking and consumerist practice that Pedelty critiques throughout the book. However, Pedelty is unashamed of these ‘normative judgments about music’ and asserts, ‘music should be able to play some role in fostering environmental sustainability, biodiversity and human well-being’ (p. 202). Music needn't do anything, but it does anyway.