Overlapping Ecomusicological Realms: Teaching Ecomusicology to Graduate Students through Collaborative Exploration

By Donna Lee Kwon

I found my way to ecomusicology by way of an earlier interest in the nexus of music, space, and place. Given its relatively new and interdisciplinary nature, I suspect that many others have come to ecomusicology through a similar inroad. In the spring of 2014, I took the opportunity to explore a few of these interdisciplinary connections to ecomusicology in my open topic graduate seminar titled Approaches to Music, Space, and Place: Theory, Ethnography and Ecomusicology (Appendix I provides a PDF of an abbreviated version of the syllabus). In this brief essay, I will share some of the strategies, activities and approaches that I found effective in teaching ecomusicology to graduate students and offer some critical reflections on issues that emerged from class discussions as well as from the students’ final research projects. Along the way, I will also engage in the important task of introducing the following accompanying articles by graduate students Tanner Jones, Megan Murph, and Ben Norton, explaining how their work arose from this collaborative process.

Although I have been engaged with the literature on music, place, and space for quite some time, ecomusicology was new for me so I tried to take advantage of coordinating its exploration with other programs going on within our department as well as across campus. Within our integrated musicology/ethnomusicology program, we scheduled a range of activities as part of our Friday colloquium series. These included: (1) ecomusicology-related talks by Michelle Kisliuk and Denise Von Glahn; (2) a student-led discussion of an ecocritical musicology article entitled “The Vocal Ecology of Crumb’s Crickets” by Robert C. Cook (2013); and (3) a participatory soundwalk (for more detailed explanation, see Appendix II).

Like many others who have led soundwalks, we added our own tweaks to the process. First, we warmed up our listening ears by performing two of Pauline Oliveros’s Sonic Meditations in our regular colloquium meeting space. Then, we proceeded outdoors on a snow-blanketed day to start the soundwalk. Based on the recollections of my colleague Ron Pen, who once participated in a soundwalk led by Murray Schafer himself, we did ours blindfolded with a partner as a leader. The first group of leaders were instructed to guide their partners to a pre-determined halfway point—the Mathews Garden (a garden featuring native plants that at the time was threatened by construction)—and then we switched partners for the second part of the walk that included a visit to the main library. In this way, all of the participants were able to experience the soundwalk in a dual fashion: led both by the eye and the ear, indoors and outdoors, and as leader and follower. Perhaps it was the snow or the inordinate amount of construction going on that day but this dual technique seemed to make contrasts even starker. It was also an unexpected bonding experience, both collectively and with one’s partner.

The process of attuning oneself to the sonic environment with blindfolds on, entrusting one’s hearing body to others, is actually an apt metaphor for how it felt to teach ecomusicology for the first time. It forced me to be hyper-aware of all things ecomusicological, but I also had to acknowledge my blind spots. In the process, I dove headfirst into areas in which I did not necessarily feel comfortable, and it consequently motivated me search out people with more expertise. For example, when I heard from friends and students about the growing national interest in the University of Kentucky’s own Dimensions of Political Ecology (DoPE) conference, I took a chance and proposed a panel on ecomusicology as I was prepping the seminar a couple of months prior; I thought it would be a great way to make interdisciplinary ties as well as encourage both graduate student and faculty participation in developing their work in this direction. Given Aaron Allen’s relative proximity and background in ecomusicology and larger issues of sustainability, I invited him to be the lead presenter, and he graciously offered to give a “Prolegomenon to a Political Ecology for Ecomusicology” in which he introduced ecomusicology, his current work, and made some initial remarks on what ecomusicology might have to contribute to political ecology. In particular, Dr. Allen discussed how the issue of aesthetics might help provide another humanistic dimension to political ecology and how issues of sustainability intersect with music-making. My colleague, Ron Pen, brought the issue closer to home by incorporating elements of musical performance in a dramatic presentation that personified Appalachia as a “patient” at the emergency room and, by extension, as a community in distress.

I also enlisted three graduate students (Jones, Murph, and Norton), who I knew were going to take the seminar, and I asked them to present on topics in line with their own research. Jones presented his preliminary research on musical modes of protest in response to the construction of a military naval base on the South Korean island of Jeju in a paper entitled “Military Expansion on the ‘Island of Peace’: Protest Through Song.” Since then, he has completed a year of dissertation fieldwork in Jeju on a Fulbright IIE fellowship grant and is currently writing his dissertation. Murph presented a paper entitled “The Placing of Max Neuhaus’s Sound Works” and is currently further developing her topic by contrasting how noise pollution ordinances impacted the work of sound artists Max Neuhaus and Murray Schafer. Norton presented a paper entitled “Green Metal: Environmentalism in Metal and Punk Music” and is currently working as a journalist and activist in New York. I am delighted that all three of these presentations have been further developed and edited for inclusion in the Ecomusicology Review with new titles as follows: Tanner Jones, Military Expansion on the ‘Island of Peace’: Protest Through Ritual”; Megan Murph, Max Neuhaus’s Sound Works and the Politics of Noise”; Ben Norton, “Thin Green Line: Environmental Politics and Punk Music.”

It was highly productive to explore the implications of political ecology for ecomusicology, and I remain intrigued by its possibilities. For Jones, engaging with political ecology encouraged him to focus more on the actual ecological damage wrought by the military base on Jeju island, particularly regarding geographical and marine habitat destruction, wildlife impact, and effects on human and community livelihood. From here, he analyzed specific artistic, musical, and ritual responses to this damage as located in particular places and shrines throughout the island. For Murph, the panel pushed her to look at the politicization of noise as it played out in the artistic and ecological concerns of Max Neuhaus and Murray Schafer. Norton’s account of environmentalist punk engages with issues that have come up frequently in political ecology – anthropocentrism, anti-anthropocentrism, and post-humanism – and also assesses the various political strategies espoused in punk lyrics. Uniting these three articles is that they all probe the potential complications, powers, and limitations of music and sound in effecting political change and awareness.

Because of the early placement of the DoPE conference in the semester that the seminar was offered, Jones, Murph, and Norton had already been working or thinking about these projects prior to the start of this seminar. The rest of the students were encouraged to attend the DoPE panel and were later required to dive into their own projects pertaining to ecomusicology or to issues of music, place, and space. My prompts for the final research project were intentionally open in order to accommodate the varied interests of each student, but I did encourage them to think deeply about what research methodologies, theories, and critical analytical tools might best suit their project. For example, the graduate students drew on a number of methodologies spanning the use of ethnography, ecocritical lyric and text analysis, video analysis, and more traditional modes of primary and secondary source research. Perhaps it is a testament to the growing popularity of these topics but I am happy to report that three additional students – Rebecca O’Brien, Justin Cornelison, and Saesha Senger – were successful in submitting abstracts to three separate conferences (see Appendix II), and Senger later published her paper in the M/C Journal (Senger 2016).

In terms of class content and readings, we explored several overlapping areas in our seminar discussions, including acoustic ecology, performance ethnography, sound installation art, and sound studies. Given how behind musicology and ethnomusicology are in terms of reckoning with recent developments in sound art, I turned to one of my fellow faculty and resident multimedia artists, Dmitry Strakovsky. He invited us to visit his studio and he introduced us to some of his site-specific works and talked more specifically about how notions of place, space, religion, and travel informed his piece “Traveler’s Prayer” that was performed in the NEOBAROK festival in Varazdin, Croatia. Essentially, he recorded a local cantor reciting the Jewish “traveler’s prayer,” later processed the recording in myriad ways on his computer, and then played and manipulated the tracks live in a church ruin in Varazdin. Like much of his other work, Strakovsky likes to explore uneasy juxtapositions between the local/global in approaching the site-specific shaping of space through sound (Strakovsky 2017). He also talked specifically about the influence of sound artist Maryanne Amacher in inspiring him to structure space and place through sound, which helped us contextualize what we were seeing and hearing, in his studio, which itself was located in a historic tobacco factory.

Given the interdisciplinary nature of ecomusicology, approaching the field through its related subjects is not unique. Nevertheless, having gone through this process I do have some further reflections to share. For one, based on the literature we reviewed in the seminar in 2014, I noticed a few critical gaps that would benefit from further theorization. Just as Titon and Allen have both problematized “nature” in ecomusicology, I think the same could be done for place and space. I argue that the notion of place is implicitly central for ecomusicology, and indeed has been the focus of earlier work by Denise Von Glahn for example, and therefore deserves a similar theoretical review. For example, several cultural theorists, anthropologists and geographers, such as Doreen Massey, David Harvey, Yi-fu Tuan, and John Urry, have questioned nostalgic and “regressive” constructions of place that emphasize stability and geographical/physical/cultural boundedness. However, I have not yet seen this addressed in as much depth in the emerging ecomusicological literature with the exception of Daniel Grimley who has interrogated the romanticized and otherwise problematic ideological underpinning of landscape representations in European music. While the notion of landscape is more specific, Grimley’s approach could certainly be applied to developing a more critical stance on place as well (Grimley 2011, 395-396).

In another direction, Titon has turned towards “relational epistemology” as a “promising alternative to economic rationality and scientific reductionism regarding nature” (Titon 2013, 15). The work of geographers and others suggest that this may have potential for place as well. For example, geographer Doreen Massey sees both place and space as relational and integral with time. She further theorizes place as a node in an interlocking web of social relations that is subject to both the heterogeneous effects of globalization as well as to its unequal power geometries (Massey 1994). I look forward to seeing how ecomusicology might contribute to these interconnected debates and help engender progressive and diverse conceptions of nature and place.

Another overlapping area that opens up some critical questions and fascinating commonalities and tensions with ecomusicology is the emerging field of sound studies (also known as sonic studies, soundscape studies, or auditory/aural culture). I first noticed this while thinking about Megan Murph’s paper articulating the differences between Murray Schafer’s and Max Neuhaus’s contrasting approaches to listening to soundscapes. Since then, further reading and attendance at conference panels have brought to my attention many examples of scholars identifying with areas who have been critical of the ways various actors have shaped the discursive and material realities of soundscapes, be they wild, rural, or urban. To articulate another area of common ground, both ecomusicology and sound studies support a philosophical shift from “eye” to “ear” and demand an expanded consideration of sound beyond “Music,” even if the motivations may sometimes seem to come from different places. In any case, I have no doubt that the tensions and overlaps between ecomusicology, sound studies, and other disciplines will continue to foster productive dialogue and debate, as is already evident in the work of Ana María Ochoa Gautier (2016). To conclude, I hope this piece gives some context to the articles presented in this issue by Jones, Murph and Norton and provides some good food for thought to those who are considering teaching ecomusicology for the first time.


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”


Appendix I: Abbreviated Syllabus

Appendix II: List of Ecomusicology and Music and Place-related talks and programs

January 24, 2014: Student-led discussion of an ecomusicology article by Robert C. Cook entitled “The Vocal Ecology of Crumb’s Crickets,” published in the Journal of the Society for American Music (Cook 2013).

February 14, 2014: Soundwalk Colloquium featuring selections from Sonic Meditations by Pauline Oliveros and a soundwalk followed by a discussion. Readings by Murray Schafer and others were distributed beforehand to aid in discussion.

February 28, 2014: Rey M. Longyear colloquium with guest, Michelle Kisliuk (University of Virginia), who gave a participatory talk entitled “Interacting Bodies, Spaces and Voices: BaAka Music and Dance and the Central African Rainforest.” Based on our conversations about orienting her talk towards the concerns of our seminar, Dr. Kisliuk addressed how the BaAka interact musically and otherwise with the rainforest environment. Dr. Kisliuk addressed the impact of violence and conflict in Central Africa and other pressures that are forcing BaAka to re-locate from the rainforests such as
international logging, slash-and- burn farming, and deforestation.

March 28, 2014. Denise Von Glahn (Florida State University) was invited to come and speak to us for the Longyear colloquium series on the topic of “Music and Place: Experienced and Imagined” as realized in the work of American women composers.

October 4, 2014: Graduate student Becky O’Brien presented a paper entitled “The Ecomusicology of ‘A Beautiful Lie’: Spurring Environmental Activism in the Music of Thirty Seconds to Mars” at the 2014 Ecomusicologies 2014 conference.

April 24, 2015: Graduate student Justin Cornelison presented a paper entitled “Nature, Place, and Culture: An Eco-Critical Look at Georgian Popular Musical Texts” at the “Georgia at the Crossroads” conference at Baylor University.

July 3, 2015: Graduate student Saesha Senger presented a paper entitled “Place/Time in MC Solaar’s American Francophone” at the 18th Biennial meeting of IASPM in Campinas, Brazil. She later published a version of this article in the M/C Journal (A Journal of Media and Culture) under the slightly edited title, “Place, Space, and Time in MC Solaar’s American Francophone” (Senger 2016).



Allen, Aaron S. 2011. “Prospects and Problems for Ecomusicology in Confronting a Crisis of Culture.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 64/2: 414-424.

Cook, Robert C. 2013 “The Vocal Ecology of Crumb’s Crickets.” Journal of the Society for American Music 7(2): 123-145.

Gautier, Ana María Ochoa. 2016. “Acoustic Multinaturalism, the Value of Nature, and the Nature of Music in Ecomusicology.“ Boundary 2 43(1): 107-141.

Grimley, Daniel. 2011. “Music, Landscape, Attunement: Listening to Sibelius’s Tapiola.” Journal of the American Musicological Society 64/2: 394-398.

Titon, Jeff Todd. 2013. “The Nature of Ecomusicology.” Música e Cultura: revista da ABET 8(1): 8-18.

Massey, Doreen. 1994. Space, Place and Gender. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Senger, Saesha. 2016. “Place, Space, and Time in MC Solaar’s American Francophone.” M/C Journal 19(3). http://journal.media-culture.org.au/index.php/mcjournal/article/view/1100.

Strakovsky, Dmitry. 2017. “Work.” Accessed June 8. http://www.shiftingplanes.org/work.php .


Donna Lee Kwon is Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Kentucky. She holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley (Ethnomusicology), a MA in World Music/Ethnomusicology from Wesleyan University and a BA/BM (Women’s Studies/Piano Performance) from Oberlin College. She is the author of Music in Korea: Experiencing Music, Expressing Culture, published as part of the Global Music Series on Oxford University Press (2011). Her research interests include North and South Korean music, East Asian and Asian American popular and creative music, gender and the body, issues of space and place, and ecomusicology. Many of these interests are addressed in her second book in progress that stems from her dissertation research that examines the embodiment of space and place in Korean drumming and dance.