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Listening to Landforms: Intersections of Ethnomusicology and the Environmental Humanities

  • Author(s): Karvelas, Brian Alexander
  • Advisor(s): Cooley, Timothy J
  • et al.

This thesis addresses the emergence of ecologically and environmentally focused research within ethnomusicology and situates this research within Anthropocene and posthuman discourses in the broader environmental humanities. The opening section begins with an overview of relevant literature in ethnomusicology, particularly in the subfields of sound studies and ecomusicology. Several overlapping yet distinct approaches to the problem of locating music and sound as relevant phenomena within escalating environmental crises are identified within these subfields, and the relevance of environmental crises to music/sound studies is established. In the second section, the multinaturalist framework and its complication of the nature-culture binary, as well as its challenge to the hegemony of scientific and Enlightenment epistemologies, is addressed. Focus is directed on the effects that these hegemonic forces have had on ethnomusicological and anthropological scholarship. The third section discusses the centrality of indigenous perspectives, knowledges and scholarship as decolonizing frameworks. The following two sections offer a synthesis of posthumanist, ecofeminist, and phenomenological perspectives as a theoretical preparation for embodied re-engagement with the more-than-human world. In the final section of this thesis, an experimental field observation is presented which demonstrates a method of multispecies-oriented observation and interpretation of the acoustic phenomena of a creek bed in the Santa Ynez mountains of the central California coast. The methodological and theoretical challenges of listening to landforms are recognized and are positioned in relation to the perceived need to integrate human and more-than-human stories and perspectives in the context of global ecological crises.

The main question that this thesis identifies through synthesis of a wide breadth of interdisciplinary literature is this; how can the study of sound and music contribute to the incorporation of human stories with more-than-human stories? This incorporation, I argue, has been limited in ethnomusicological discourse by a commitment to the primacy of the human mind/body as the site of creative, meaningful musical expression. Recent environmental humanities scholarship, in contrast, offers modes of thinking and acting that destabilize the individual and shift primacy onto assemblage-based collaborations, nested ecosystems, or poly-corporeal beings as sites of creative expression. This thesis proposes a rethinking of musicality and acoustic expression from a posthuman frame, arguing that traditional, discipline-inherited conceptions of music as humanly organized sound can be productively transformed through rigorous engagement with the generative acoustic capacity of more-than-human, poly-corporeal forms.

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