IASPM-US Interview Series: Mark Pedelty, Ecomusicology: Rock, Folk, and the Environment

by justindburton on July 23, 2012

Popular Music: Pedelty Hypoxic Punks

Just released by Temple University Press, anthropologist Mark Pedelty’s Ecomusicology: Rock, Folk, and the Environment examines whether music and musicians can help make the world more sustainable.  He explores obvious difficulties for environmentally conscious musicians, such as rock’s need for hi-tech equipment and lots of noise, and more generally the music industry’s reliance on overconsumption and stadium shows.  The opening of the introduction reads, “U2 hates the planet.  At least their 360° Tour made it seem that way” (1).  At the same time, he explores entrepreneurs’ and musicians’ innovative efforts to alleviate the environmental consequences of musicking and to promote environmental issues.  A strong advocate for participant-observation ethnography, Pedelty even formed his own band, the Hypoxic Punks, to see what pitfalls and opportunities environmentalist musicians face.

Pedelty is an Associate Professor in the University of Minnesota’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, affiliated with Communication Studies and Anthropology.  Besides his research on ecomusicology, Pedelty has completed major ethnographic studies about Mexico and Central America.  In his first book, War Stories: The Culture of Foreign Correspondents (Routledge, 1995), he examines the institutions, myths, practices, rituals and experiences that shape the lives of reporters who covered El Salvador’s civil war (1980-92).  Pedelty’s second book, Musical Ritual in Mexico City: From the Aztecs to NAFTA (U. of Texas Press, 2004), explores the roles that musical rituals have played in governance, resistance and social change.  Also a fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment (IonE), he completed a documentary about Metro Blooms’ raingarden project in the Powderhorn neighborhood of Minneapolis, an innovative attempt to improve water quality in the Twin Cities and beyond (see below for more information).

Popular Music Ecomusicology Pedelty

Eric Hung:  How did you become interested and involved in the young field of ecomusicology?

Mark Pedelty: After completing an ethnographic project in Mexico, I wanted to take on a more participatory form of participant observation in my music research. However, several themes from the Mexico research carried over: musical rites as politics as well as a focus on the relationship between music, ideology, and environment. As this project developed, the latter aspect came to the fore. I became a Fellow at the Institute on the Environment (http://environment.umn.edu/), and that got me involved in local water issues, which further cemented a link between my ethnographic research, musical performance, and environmental questions.

Joining the Ecocriticism Study Group (ESG) of the American Musicological Society (AMS) provided an enormous boost as well. As you note, ecomusicology is a very, very young field, and it is uncertain whether it will continue as a scattered multi-discipline, inter-discipline, or something else altogether. Regardless, ESG is currently ground zero. They are incredibly open to all musical genres. However, the IASPM is the natural home for popular ecomusicology, so I am looking forward to see environmental studies of music take off there as well, which it is starting to do. At the New Orleans IASPM a few years back, I presented the only paper on environmental issues, but interest seems to be picking up quickly.

In your mind, what is the current state of ecomusicology and what are some of the promising paths in that field?

At this point, there are at least four, rather disparate subfields. There is communication across each area of interest, but each has a fairly distinct history and trajectory: (1) soundscape studies, including the foundational Canadian tradition (R. Murray Schafer, etc.), (2) ecocriticism (see above) and also David Ingram’s The Jukebox in the Garden, (3) biological sound studies, including animal communication in relation to human musics, and (4) historical studies, tending toward a focus on biographical and theme oriented research, such as the work of Denise Von Glahn, Willfrid Mellers, and Brooks Tolliver, to name a few. Some of the best work cuts across these categories, such as that of Aaron Allen, whose research on the relationship between instrument production and forestry is extremely compelling. There is also a great deal of ethnomusicology with a strong ecological basis, such as Steven Feld’s work. I provide an overview of these in the book but am currently completing a more complete review to summarize the field and think about its future in popular music studies.

I believe the most compelling work is that which cuts across these areas in order to become fully “ecological” in the sense of being more holistic, relational, systemic, and focused on sustainability and biodiversity (as opposed to “environments” in a more nebulous and generic sense). Too narrowly tailored, the work can lose that sense of relevance. For example, doing semiotic deconstruction of terms like sustainability, biodiversity, nature, etc., is important, but the seminarian’s task seems incomplete until such research engages environmental meanings in relation to events, institutions, power, and even material impact. A new generation of scholars seems to be heading in that direction and environmental exigencies are bringing renewed emphasis on ecological questions as well. Based on a few of the presentations I’ve made, I would say that an older generation of post-structuralists are less enthusiastic, having had to fight so hard to contest the power of reductionistic positivism. They see any incorporation of the corporeal, sensory, or material as positivistic retrenchment. Having been bred on post-structural theory in anthropology during the 80’s, I find the interdisciplinary ferment very exciting, and a way to get past the simplistic and equally reductionistic reaction. Knowing that all knowledge is partial, why wouldn’t we consider all that science, social science, the arts, and humanities bring to the table? That appears to be happening in ecomusicology. Classically trained musicologists are talking to ethnomusicologists. Sound scientists are talking to musicians, and so on.

One of the exciting aspects of your book is that you study the environmental impact of such a wide spectrum of popular music—everything from stadium shows to local clubs.  You also used a wide variety of methodologies in your study.  Can you discuss why you chose these different approaches to study global, national, regional and local scenes?


I chose scale as the organizing device for three reasons. First, it became clear to me on the local level that larger scale forces, markets, ideologies, and institutions were at play in the “ethnographic present.” Ethnography begs for that wider contextualization just as broad scale work requires more fine-tuned research (e.g., ethnography) to explicate difference and diversity at the local level, the ways in which global trends are contested, reinterpreted, remade, etc.

Second, in addition to using the ecological concept of “progressive contextualization” to develop a cursory sense of how these levels form part of an entire system, disconnects between these levels became apparent as the research developed. For example, there is a protective mythology surrounding music making at a local level, a discourse that represents the desire of musicians and audiences alike to be part of something larger—when the actual meanings and functions of music are often radically different for local vs. national or global musicians and musics. The “___ (insert city name here) music scene” rhetoric often belies that desire.

Therein lie some of the most interesting issues in relation to place, music, and sustainability. Frankly, the most promising local popular music in regard to fostering community, sustainability, and biodiversity found a way to disregard the powerful pull of larger markets, ideologies, and fantasies for sake of creating something interesting in place, a “Love the one you’re with” sort of vibe, as opposed to always having one eye on “making it” (which almost nobody does; and hardly ever in the mythical way audiences imagine). On the other hand, there is a constant tension between making a living (cover bands for weddings, corporate events) and making something that approximates “local music” as rhetorically conceived.

Third, I am an ethnographic coward. The entire book was going in the direction of ethnographic narrative and analysis, when I started to wonder if such work could enter into dialogue with other types of scholars and audiences. I feared it would become merely an idiosyncratic one-off rather than a work that might engage with larger questions. Physicists study atomic particles because they are, quite literally, part of larger matter, rather than because they are fascinating in and off themselves. The music I was witnessing at the local level fascinated me, but I wanted to see how it might intersect with larger worlds of musical experience. Ultimately, I am glad that I made that broader choice. I am not sure how much a reader in London or Denver would care what sort of environmental performance musicians were doing in Minneapolis, Minnesota or Olga, Washington, unless those larger questions were addressed. As for methods, the survey really helped me to understand how activist audiences thought about music, reinforcing some of what I had experienced via ethnography, but also providing a wider window when it came to age and genre. For my generation, it was about Punk and Peter Gabriel, for example, whereas for older folk it was more likely, well, folk or folk-rock, and for younger activists, hip-hop and post-punk hybrids. There was great appreciation across genres among the activists, but people seem to identify with the music of their “day” (ages 16-24, more or less) and first political involvement. That is just one more thing that makes The Hypoxic Punks relics, and self-consciously so.

You noted that, for popular music to have a major impact on the environmental movement, the biggest stars need to be much more aware of the environmental impact of what they do.  What are some ways rock stars have attempted to lessen their carbon footprint?  Do you think they are effective?


Big stars, little stars, local musicians, you, me, everyone. I hope that I don’t give the impression that I am finger pointing. Ultimately, U2 and their friends are ritually enacting our collective conundrum.

Michael Martin is a foundational figure in the movement to make rock more sustainable (http://www.effectpartners.com/). The most important innovations were instituted by Martin via his work with David Byrne, Jack Johnson, U2, Dave Matthews, Ben & Jerry’s, and the list goes on and on, starting with his production of the first major Earth Day concert, on the mall in DC. Michael called me, volunteering his time to teach me about all what he, his organizations, and his clients have been doing to confront the conundrum of making rock more sustainable. Michael, more than anyone, recognizes the difficulty of turning massive tours and shows into a sustainable act. From replacing plastic water bottles with free water stations to proactive educational displays, a great deal is being done. I deal with that problem at length in the book, but suffice it to say here I am impressed by Martin’s efforts and those of the rock and hip-hop musicians that are making these efforts, while working with audiences, and in some cases even mobilizing new groups and movements (Jack Johnson). I wish I had included the Mexican group, Maná, in the book. Their Selva Negra foundation is a shining example. Information about them and others can be found at ecomusicology.net.

Another thing that I don’t deal with enough in the book is the possibility that changes will simply be forced on rock acts, given rising energy costs, dwindling expendable income, etc. In other words, rock stars might experience the same thing as the other “1%”: no one will be able to buy their product anymore, if that product remains a costly tour and live show.

Michael believes that convincing Tide to produce a cold water detergent did more for the environment than all of the alternative eco brands combined, and feels somewhat the same in relation to U2 and other multinational companies/rock acts. He makes a good point. However, history demonstrates that such systems are often dialectically undone rather than simply reformed, and in this case I can imagine the growth of new popular styles, public rites, and genres that incorporate a more sustainable sensibility. I was raised on rock and love it, but frankly, I have my doubts as to whether it can expand beyond its traditional genre expectations to become a more sustainable way of making music. That includes local rock as well. As I illustrate at the very beginning of the book, this is not purely a matter of reducing scale. Just as an economy of scale in food production can sometimes do more for ecological health, sustainability, and biodiversity than boutique “farming” on the local level (e.g., unsustainable horticulture), so too, the local rock act is not necessarily the right answer to what ails us in terms of musical production, distribution, and performance. Disarticulating power rock from the age and system that spawned it is possible, theoretically, and stadium rock will undoubtedly inform what comes next, but rock as we know it will change beyond recognition, one way or the other. Like Debra Rosenthal, I am much more optimistic when it comes to environmental hip-hop than environmental rock, which still seems like somewhat of an oxymoron.

You argue that placelessness is an increasing problem in contemporary society.  So, what does placelessness mean to you?  Why do you think this is so, and what are some musical solutions to this problem?

I mean it in a relatively literal sense. While taking soundwalks or other deep listening exercise, one becomes aware of how little “non-anthropogenic” (avoiding “natural”) sound we tend to hear on a daily basis. As Schafer argued, most of the sounds that surround most of us are mechanical, digital, or human, what environmental scientists black box as “anthropogenic.” As with all of our senses, our ears are cybernetically incorporated into a global sound system, via iPods, cell phones, and the urbanized soundscape. I am the “worst” example, running through woods and wetlands with music pumping through my headphones.

On the other hand, one could overstate the need for aural connection to immediate environments. One can listen to Peter Gabriel, Ani Difranco, Mos Def, or Ke$ha and still join up with others to make our communities more sustainable and surroundings biodiverse. However, in practice it is my sense that opportunities are being lost when local music consumption loses all connection to local space and local communities.

Fortunately, from the Honk! band movement to resurgence in local music festivals, there are promising signs in that regard. Frankly, academics are perhaps the last people who should be preaching the gospel of locality. For example, I spend a bit of time around climate scientists on campus. They travel the world preaching the gospel of sustainability, using the single worst form of transportation to do so, flight, as do we all when we go from conference to conference. As opposed to cash strapped businesses, we have failed to take advantage of online technologies and falling travel budgets to simply replace travel conferencing with more sustainable alternatives. I have become very aware of that contradiction in my own scholarship, just as becoming a performing musician for sake of this research made me more aware of the environmental conundrums faced by working musicians. But, it has only slightly influenced my travel decisions.

When it comes right down to it, one of the main problems in regard to deterritorialized consciousness is the incredible incentive for mobility—consider the value placed on international research as opposed to more local engagements—and the corollary disincentive for local research and community engagement. We love to talk it, but are loath to do it. The same is true for musicianship and sound work of all sorts. Musicians and scholars alike want to “make it,” and that brings with it the need to expend a great deal of not only metaphoric, but also literal, energy.

And that only covers those of us with a relative freedom of choice. For most of the world’s people, including musicians, mobility and unsustainable lifeways are made essential for subsistence. In other words, there is a Brahmanic aspect in the call for greater engagement with local ecologies and communities, much as there is with the call for local food sourcing and organic consumption. Only an elite can do it when “it” (sustainable life) is imagined in an overly narrow manner, and it might have more to do with the accrual of cultural capital than making a difference ecologically speaking. On the other hand, the best models for music made in, of, and for local ecologies come from relatively subaltern communities, the nostalgic yearnings of new age movements notwithstanding. In so much of this, my mind turns to the popular cliché, “the perfect becomes the enemy of the good.” Sophistries and perfect models are just as easy to dismiss as current realities are to critique. Therefore, in music and environmental activism alike I am intrigued by the growing emphasis on “radical incrementalism,” rather than falling into traditional oppositions: arguments for incremental change vs. advocacy for structural, policy, and institutional transformations, local vs. global, etc. As Billy Bragg sings, “Start your own revolution and cut out the middle man.” That is why activism and activists are so important to ecomusicology, they remind us that the world is a messy place and that the seminarians’ world is just one of many.

I truly admire you for forming a band and becoming a professional musician to help your research.  What did you learn from this experience?  Can you tell us how you came to name your band The Hypoxic Punks?

I taught this small performance class with Heather Dorsey, a professional theater director. We focused on water as the main theme and, in particular, the Dead Zone in the Mississippi River Delta. Minnesota is one of the primary contributors to that problem. The Dead Zone is a large, hypoxic area of water, meaning that it is “starved of oxygen.” The band took on that name after the course was over, inheriting it from a professor-student collaboration. It fits better than ever, because we are now a bunch of old dudes, starved of oxygen. Plus, the name helps us fulfill the eco-aims of the project. People ask us what it means all the time. We then have a captive audience and a way to let people know about the dead zone and how to use better lawn maintenance strategies, water catchment, to point their downspouts away from concrete and onto the lawn, and so on.

It is hard to answer this question without repeating Chapter Four of the book. Many things that were previously neat and clean in my world of theory, got productively messed up and knocked around in becoming a performing musician. As an anthropologist, I have never been terribly comfortable in the role of unsullied critic. Ethnographers are professional learners, listening to informants and becoming participant-observer apprentices to uncover taken-for-granted patterns. Enculturation is a powerful thing, and going through it is one of the best ways to make intersubjective (albeit always partial and context-dependent) discoveries about how a particular community or practice works. It is also hard and sometimes frustrating work, not to mention always incomplete. Children learn by making mistakes, receiving guidance, correction, encouragement, and so on. So do ethnographers. As I point out in explaining the work in Chapter Four, doing participant observation research alongside (or in this case, paralleling) professional musicians does not make one a professional musician any more so than planting milpa with Mayan farmers makes one a Mayan farmer. However, it is a pretty good way to learn about profound proscriptions, prescriptions, and patterns of culture that interviews alone, public performances, and texts may not reveal. On the other hand, it is just one of many ways of understanding music, as incomplete as any other, and just as dependent on the others. As an ethnographer, I rely heavily on others’ scholarship for broader geographic, temporal, political, and economic context, for example.

To pull out one specific example from the research and book, I better understand why songwriters are so reticent to discuss what a song means. As critics, we often assume that it is an artistic impulse, the desire to keep a text sufficiently polysemic to be interpreted as needed by the audience. There is that, of course, but it is equally the case that even for the composer, there is no single definable “there there.” There is so much that goes into crafting lyrics and sounds that the end product often bears no resemblance to the original idea, and like much anonymous folk music of old, even purposely composed songs are “combinatory,” with bits and pieces thrown together until you have a whole that is, quite often, less integral for the writer than for the listener. The listener has the benefit of receiving a song as a finished work, articulating it to a single time and place. People will tell me what they assume a song is about, often in not so many words, and then ask if they are “correct.” Their interpretations tend to be much better than mine, because after the long process of additions, deletions, changes, memories, and new associations—each song is a Frankenstein’s monster with a life of its own. I had the privilege of reading through all of Woody Guthrie’s diaries and lyric books. I could tell that it was the same with his music. Each song changed with every edit and performance, yet when you read what critics and audiences say about Guthrie’s music, it is as if they were conceived by a magical hand, whole cloth, with foresight and intent. In truth, Guthrie worked his ass off and you can tell in reading his diaries and lyric books that he was constantly fighting with himself and his songs to express something new. That final thing, the song, is never final, and can never be reduced to a simple, singular, or even holistic meaning, especially for the songwriter. That is what makes didactic music so boring, and why there will probably never be a simple genre of “environmental music.”

Can you talk about one of your songs, perhaps “Energy”?

“Energy” might be a rare exception to the above explanation of songwriting. It is a very young song, written explicitly to express anger at a political movement and moment. Written from the perspective of a Tea Party-style, “get off my land” libertarian, it is one of the few songs reducible to its explicit lyrical text. I needed a new song for a “sip of science” event and knew that this kind of song would work for that particular audience. As such, it is a collaborative production. Feeling uncomfortable preaching, I also like to write from a parodic perspective, taking on the pirate-like persona of a person who is OK with his or her desire to take whatever they can, however they can, for whatever immediate pleasure they might want to indulge in. It was funny when I interviewed the bass player, Bryan Mosher, and discovered that that was his intended stage persona as well, a character that he saw as in opposition to my eco-sincerity. In other words, I need to get a whole lot better at performing my “Energy” persona on stage, because even my own band didn’t see it coming across. That seems to be happening a bit more in some of my solo open-mics this summer, as I gear up to go at it with the band again starting in September. However, it is easier to perform a persona around those you don’t know than those you do.

Back to the actual song, “Energy,” it was one of the few cases where no explanation was needed for the audience to hear what I was thinking, because it is a pretty simple, denotative tune. Frankly, it is very cathartic acting out your inner Fox news pundit. I imagine Bob Geldof felt the same way playing a fascist in the movie version of The Wall. As for the inspiration, “Energy” was about the Keystone pipeline controversy and the way that every new, manufactured crisis is used to justify more of the same tactics of use-now-think-later. Naomi Klein refers to it as The Shock Doctrine. The pipeline issue comes pretty close to home, literally, but aquifers and flyways have little clout compared to the Koch brothers. However, if all I did were to act out that kind of rage, either in composition or onstage, I’d go crazy and/or be perceived as such. It is particularly difficult for older musicians to stay that angry, for that long, and keep performing. I think that, at our best, we give off a bit more of a bemused feeling about it all. However, I am still at the stage where I have to think too much about chord changes, lyrics, equipment, and microphone technique to perform in the manner of a true professional. Watching other acts with whom we share the stage–a courtesy expected of local musicians and one that I enjoy—I see how unreflexively fluid most professionals are onstage.

The Hypoxic Punks – “Energy”

[ca_audio url=”http://iaspm-us.ipower.com/Audio%20Files/Energy%20FX.mp3″ width=”450″ height=”27″ css_class=”codeart-google-mp3-player”]

You were involved in a community environmental project and a film called A Neighborhood of Raingardens.  The Hypoxic Punks also recorded the music for this film.  Can you tell us about this project and film, and what you learned about ecomusicology from it?

The film came about after discussions with Becky Rice, Executive Director of the local group Metro Blooms. It can be watched or downloaded in HD at raingardenmovie.org. It was a wonderful collaboration that, like the band, is taking on a post-research life. We are repeating Rock for Raingardens for Metro Blooms in December, at their request.

Once again, I would have to refer to the book for the more complete answer regarding the film. However, it does remind me of something I was thinking about while referring to the question about “Energy.” I was picturing a marshy “pothole” out on the prairie when answering that question, the wetlands migrating birds use to make long journeys across the plains. That image seems almost essential to communicate what is at stake in the Keystone pipeline debate. When talking to distance audiences about the issue, you want to hold up a photo and say, “see?” There is a reason that Hunter Hensley shows a video when performing his hauntingly beautiful Requiem for the Mountains. My point here is that we experience the world through all of the senses, that they are integrated, but that each has distinct qualities. That came to the fore during film production (including in terms of what did NOT work in terms of joining image, sound, and narrative—but I’ll leave that for the audience to determine). Sound is peculiarly context dependent and emotive. Granted, every sense and medium involves emotion and is context dependent, but sound is extreme in that regard. Note how we say “in the world of the novel…” or film or play, etc. We don’t often say “in the world of the song,” because it is so rare to experience music in that all-encompassing, abstracted way, especially popular music. Musical meanings are formed in association with time, place, narrative, image, and so on. “Aces High,” the same song used as a Nazi march in the film The Longest Day, would later become one of the RAF’s favorite themes. They adopted the song as their own and put it to their own, antithetical purposes. Conversely, it is hard to imagine a group of neo-Nazis taking on the film The Longest Day to further their cause. Songs are emotional signifiers, but rarely denotative texts in and of themselves. The Western “art music” tradition has often attempted to abstract musical sound from visual, tactile, and kinesthetic contexts, but that is not the case for most world musics, nor even for popular music traditions in the West. To a certain extent, music videos are just the latest representation of the desire to marry sound with sight and movement. Many languages have no word for abstracted sound in the form of “music,” but rather, as in several Mesoamerican languages, have different terms that express integral arts of sound in relation to performance, image, movement, and the like.

That is a long-winded way of saying that it was fun playing with music set to film, or the reverse. I’ve never been much of a fan of sitting and watching someone make music. When I perform, I prefer to make people feel comfortable continuing to talk, laugh, dance, drink, or whatever they choose to do, rather than feeling as though they have to watch us make music. Either that, or perhaps it would be good to give them more to watch while listening.

Karl Demer, our sound engineer and video editor, is particularly adept at putting sound to image. He has won a Grammy, an NAACP award, and other accolades for prior projects, and his video game production experience has served him particularly well when it comes to combining sound, vision, and movement. Karl would take songs whose lyrics have absolutely no bearing on environmental matters, cut out the vocal tracks, and combine them with the film in interesting ways. I felt like the two musical montages in the film went a bit long, but deferred to Karl on that one. Audience members have commented a lot on the montages, either finding them a bit distracting or else liking the mood they set. It is partly a question of how much they were into the topic of the film and how they identified with the subject matter (e.g., gardener, environmentalist, student, etc.).

That is the other thing one realizes when making music, just how differently two people will respond to the same song. Setting music to film helped me think about how people listen to, and interpret, popular music, especially local popular music. We imagine listeners soberly sitting, listening, and thinking through a song, the way audiences do with a film. Audiences might listen to music that way while driving and listening to a favorite artist, but such listening is often a matter of relative sensory deprivation (forced focus) rather than choice. I go into detail in the book regarding how people listen and dance to local music as opposed to globally distributed pop, but suffice it to say that it was interesting to craft a song and then watch it do very different things–and sometimes practically nothing–in very different contexts. The film and Rock for Raingardens concert for Metro Blooms were two examples where it felt as though the musical project started to fulfill environmental aims in a meaningful way. The club performances are hit and miss in that regard, but a lot of fun regardless. The next step might be to combine video and live performance.


Is there anything else you would like to say?

Ecomusicology.net; Raingardenmovie.org

Mark Pedelty is overseeing a multimedia installation called The Ecomusicology Listening Room at this fall’s joint conference of the American Musicological Society, Society for Ethnomusicology, and Society for Music Theory in New Orleans. The exhibit is scheduled for 9a-12p on Friday, November 2nd and will be accompanied by a website for discussion of the exhibit.

Eric Hung is Associate Professor of Music at Westminster Choir College of Rider University. His research focuses on Asian American music, film music and experimental music.  Eric is Executive Director and a member of Gamelan Dharma Swara, the Balinese music-and-dance ensemble based at the Indonesian Consulate in New York City.  He is also an active pianist and koto player.

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