Understanding music’s influence on the environment

Graphic featuring a headshot of Kirsten Paige and the cover of the journal 19th Century Music

It’s easy to see the impact of humanity on the planet in terms of physical changes made, such as building cities or clearing trees for farm land, but what about the impact of the sounds and the music we make? 

The latest issue of the journal 19th Century Music, guest edited by Assistant Teaching Professor Kirsten Paige, is the first collected set of essays in music studies focused on music’s role in the Anthropocene—the geological age in which human activity has been the dominant influence upon Earth’s climate and geology—and how it could shift the work and field of musicology.

The articles Paige curated and wrote for the special issue titled Music and the Invention of Environment explore the impact of music, aural technologies and other forms of human-generated sound creation on our planet’s geology and climate, the cultural and political issues related to that impact, and how music and the cultures surrounding it have reflected on the Anthropocene as it unfolds. 

In Paige’s article titled “Tectonic Microphonics,” she explores the use of microphones by seismologists to study the subterranean movements of the earth in the early 1900s, and the impact that study had on the world’s geopolitics. Using the microphone in this way gave the countries with the technology a geopolitical currency, in the form of predictive ability and agency over the planet and its resources that other countries did not have.

“My own article is a departure from my typical work on Wagner, but was a topic that allowed me to explore for the first time issues of geopolitics, sound and aural technologies around the turn of the century,” said Paige. “It also allowed me to think about transnational and trans-imperial politics, as the article stretches across scientific practices and rhetoric in Britain, Japan and Italy. The microphone hasn’t been written on all that much in music and in sound studies, as it’s very much a ‘background’ technology, and I wanted to offer a political perspective on its history and on the dominant ways other scholars have approached it.”

Paige’s work, including her forthcoming book Richard Wagner’s Political Ecology under contract with the University of Chicago Press, explores how forms of scientific and environmental knowledge reshaped musical practices and aural cultures in nineteenth and twentieth century Germany, with a special focus on global cultural and scientific exchanges. Working on the journal issue provided an opportunity to demonstrate how nineteenth century music studies might begin to think of music and nature together in new ways.

“I’m very much hoping that the volume will drive more work in [the area of the Anthropocene and musicology] by scholars across music studies, and more interlocution and collaboration with scholars in other humanities and social scientific fields already deeply invested in it,” said Paige.

In addition to the journal, Paige is developing a research network dedicated to the Anthropocene in/and music studies with colleagues at five universities across the country. The network will plan workshops and conferences focused on these topics to foster collaboration and dialogue.