On the Nature of Music

The topic of music and nature is open to many perspectives, if only because the breadth of nature includes so much we still do not understand. When I was young I thought that my life’s work would be in the environmental sciences. Deeply influenced by Wendell Berry‘s 1969 book The Long-Legged House, which seems even more prescient today in its warnings and wisdoms, I also became a believer in James Lovelock‘s Gaia theory. But then in my musical pursuits, I began to see synergy with the new ecology movements: there was Cage (“imitating nature in its manner of operation”), and Feldman (“There was a Deity in my life, and it was sound.”) And from Cage I began to read Buckminster Fuller, and I saw that his Omni-Directional Halo resonated with Lovelock. Soon, I began to view music as one of the environmental sciences, and that if our disconnect with the earth is at the heart of contemporary cultural dis-ease, then music was an area that perhaps I could best work in, even if from the perspective of cultural ecology. Interdisciplinary work is vital to environmentalism, and today we can see it in the work of the Bioneers and what Terry Tempest Williams calls the Coyote Clan.



John Kennedy
Daguerreotype by Robert Shlaer

Over time, the synergies I saw between music and environmentalism led to a great interest for me in the connections between cosmology, physics, and what we know as “music”. I’ve done a lot of theoretical writing in this area, but I think the chief element I would like to open for discussion here is that in speaking of “music and nature” or “music and the environment”, we must go well beyond the obvious and literal—beyond the sensibility that this is only represented by soundscape or environmentalist aesthetics.

Sound is one of the original, magical elements of the Earth’s ecosystem. And where there is no air for soundwaves to travel, there is no auditory resonance or music of any kind. From the perspective of the Gaia worldview, sound and music are thus elements of the Earth’s ecosystem, and like other lifeforms they are dependent on air. Music breathes, and the rituals of giving it breath and beauty that we call music-making, are magnificent triumphs of nature and sentient lifeforms.

Being an unseen waveform, music lives in a place that we endeavor to understand, the space between matter. Space remains an unquantifiable coefficient in the equation of life’s mysteries, an embrace of time and energy. Just as space itself is a mystery, so is the inner space of a human being, the soul space which is said to be intangible but which nevertheless can be “touched” by experiences which include the musical.

What am I getting at here? That music is nature speaking, and one of the most glorious manifestations of life’s mysteries, a dynamic balance of matter and spirit, physical energy making manifest the province of the imagination. The gift of emotional capacity in animals is a wonder of nature, and because music has the power to both articulate emotion and generate emotion in listeners, as composers we have the privilege of working this mysterious alchemy. That the emotional parameter of music is so often ignored and undervalued in our discourse tells us much about ourselves, but to me it is the most precious and that which gives most to the development of human nature. As Fuller said, love is metaphysical gravity which we by god can exert.

We live in an enchanted, musical ecosystem, filled with the polyphonic consonances and dissonances of the spectral harmony of the allsound of that greater organism which is us all. May the poetry of the sciences, the expansiveness of our hearts, and the root of our conscience help preserve and sustain it.