AMS/SEM/SMT Ecomusicology Listening Room: Tyler Kinnear

by justindburton on December 5, 2012

New Orleans, New Options: A Reflection on the Ecomusicology Listening Room and Extended Session

The 2012 joint AMS/SMT/SEM Conference in New Orleans featured for the first time an alternative format session in the form of a listening room.  The Ecomusicology Listening Room (ELR) was on display in the Exhibit Hall of the Sheraton Hotel from November 1-3.  Led by Mark Pedelty, design teams representing interest and study groups from the three Societies created seven listening stations exploring ecomusicology informed themes, including place making, animals and music, and sustainability.[1. The groups involved were the Popular Music Study Group and the Ecocriticism Study Group of the AMS, and the Ecomusicology Special Interest Group and the Special Interest Group for Sound Studies of the SEM.]   Each station consisted of a recording and a large-scale image.  Alongside the exhibit was a plaque presenting scholarly literature that informed the design of the listening rooms.  Visitors experienced the stations through headphones and iPods or their mobile phones using QR codes.  The sound-and-image pairs were also presented live during a conference session pertaining to the ELR.

The “rooms” ranged from an environmental Taiwanese popular song (Room 4) to an electroacoustic soundscape composition (Room 7), and from a series of field recordings (with and without accompanying instrumental performance) (Rooms 1, 2, 5, 6) to a movement from a Baroque partita for solo violin (Room 3).  In choosing the pieces, the teams aimed to present an array of compositions that both raised questions concerning the intersections of music, nature, and culture and facilitated discussion relevant to various fields of music scholarship.

In addition to the exhibit, an extended “ELR” session was held Friday, November 2 from 9:00am-12:00pm.  The event expanded notions of a conference session.  Following the opening remarks by Aaron Allen, Mark Pedelty, and Justin Burton, each room (excluding Room 3) was played through stereo speakers with its respective image projected.  For Room 3, violinist Mati Braun gave a live performance of J.S. Bach’s “Gavotte en Rondeau” from Partita no. 3 in E major.  After listening to each piece, a representative from the design team facilitated approximately fifteen minutes of discussion, part of which was stimulated by a question he or she had prepared before the event.  (A recording of the session is available online.)

In his introduction, Burton responded to the question “How does Ecomusicology fit into the broader world of music studies?” Several of his ideas reemerged during the session, including how notions of “space” and “place” inform composition and performance, the distinction between (and blurring of) local and global music communities and the environmental impacts concerning both, connections between identity and geography, and the ecological complexities associated with the resources that serve the consumption of music (e.g., Where do musical instruments come from and where do they go?).

The combination of sound and image was striking for many: several attendees commented that videos would have created an altogether different experience than that of still shots.  In many ways the accompanying photographs reflected the extramusical ideas evoked by their respective recording.  For example, after listening to Hildegard Westerkamp’s “Beneath the Forest Floor” (1992) (Room 7), one participant noted how the curve at the “end” of the walkway in the image portrayed a similar sense of mystery as the sounds presented in the electroacoustic piece (i.e., Where does this trail go?  Where are my ears being led?).

Another topic bridging image and sound was how both mediums deal with time.  As one attendee described, a photograph “freezes” a moment in time, whereas a recording “captures” the passing of time.  In some instances compositions in the ELR enhanced notions of temporality.  For example, several listeners found that the field recording of the Ain River Valley (Room 2) expanded the visual image (e.g., “birds in a tree that are not in the image” or “a car that is behind the listener/viewer”).  For some the projected photography served as a point of contemplation.  Such was the case with the photo paired with Bach’s “Gavotte en Rondeau” (Room 3).  Someone interpreted the image as a shield of armor; another as an abstracted human arm—the image is of pau brasil (pernambuco), a wood sourced for violin bows.  After experiencing Alvin Curran and Pauline Oliveros’s “Rattlesnake Mountain” (2004) (Room 5), a work that features recordings of maritime sounds from the U.S. Eastern Seaboard with an improvisatory performance on accordion, listeners discussed notions of construction and human presence; in particular, whether or not real world sounds were heard as natural given their removal from the environment.

Observing the interplay between images and participants’ listening experiences was interesting, but also rewarding were the questions and ideas that emerged during post-listening discussion.  Arguably the most recurring question was “which sensory modality is given privilege: visual or auditory?”  A second question, one that was voiced towards the end, yet is worth consideration when experiencing multiple rooms is, “where is the line between experience and interpretation?”  Questions facilitated by team leaders during the session engaged such concepts as the capacity for animals to make music (Room 1, Emily Doolittle “Social Sounds from Whales at Night” (2007), facilitated by Mark Pedelty), how music and image combine to create a sense of space and where this positions the listener/viewer in relation to a particular location (Room 4, Kuan-tsu Music Pit, “Goodbye” from Touring the Beautiful Island (1998), facilitated by Justin Burton), and the ways in which sound directs us through a given physical environment and the potentiality for singing to become an act of listening (Room 6, John Cage “Solo for Voice 3” from Song Books (1970), facilitated by Zeynep Bulut).  Through these and other questions, the ELR demonstrates an alternative way to frame discussion within a conference setting and a means to broaden the community of scholars that can participate in that discussion.

Framing a physical location through the use of a microphone or camera heightens the experience of place.  By assembling these “documents” as a series of listening stations, the listener/viewer is invited to explore a series of locations (real and imagined), where certain facets of its ecology are brought to the fore.  In the case of the ELR, many participants left reflecting on ways of listening and also ways of being in the world.  For example, the birds and bells of Room 2 arguably remind us to take time to actively listen to our environment and Room 3 to reflect on the connections music making has on the environment as resource.  Above all, the ELR and extended session provided the opportunity for music scholars from various areas of research to engage in discussions about an important, emerging field.

You may ask: “What applications does the ELR have to the study of popular music?”  In light of the recent stream of “music and cities” gatherings, such as “Music and American Cities” (2011 SAM Conference, Cincinnati), “Sounds of the City” (2012 POP/IASMP-US Conference, New York City) and “City as Medium” (2012 AMS/SMT/SEM Conference, New Orleans), one possible theme for a listening room is “Music and the Urban Environment.”  Another feasible option is a series of stations dedicated to styles within a particular genre, such as urban and rural blues or East Coast and West Coast hip hop.  (The program committee for the 2013 ELR plans to emphasize popular music.)

Listening Rooms such as the ELR allow for a shared experience.  With that in mind I invite you to visit the companion website to the exhibit (, where you can experience the Rooms and share your thoughts through the “comments” option.  Let’s keep the discussion going.

Tyler Kinnear is a Ph.D. student in Musicology at the University of British Columbia.  His research focuses on conceptions of nature in music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


[1] The groups involved were the Popular Music Study Group and the Ecocriticism Study Group of the AMS, and the Ecomusicology Special Interest Group and the Special Interest Group for Sound Studies of the SEM.

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