Trust author profile: Jeff Todd Titon

We are continuing our series of posts that will profile the authors and artists featured in our latest volume, Trust. Learn more about the Trust volume here. Click this link to order Trust and previous volumes.

by Cherice Bock
Editor, Whole Terrain

Jeff Todd Titon, author of “The Sound of Climate Change” in Whole Terrain’s Trust volume

Jeff Todd Titon, professor emeritus of music at Brown University, is an ethnomusicologist whose interests and career led him into ecomusicology and soundscape ecology. He contributed the essay, “The Sound of Climate Change,” to Whole Terrain’s Trust volume, posing the provocative question, “We see these changes occurring [to the climate]; we feel the temperature change. Can we also hear climate change? If we listen to the sounds of climate change, what else might we learn about nature and about survival?” Through his reflections on storm damage to a forest trail on his Maine property, his knowledge of animal communication and signals, and his awareness of both normal and unusual sound and silence, he guides the reader in an exploration of what the sounds around us might reveal about climate change. From the noisy disturbance sounds from intensified natural disasters to the absence of particular birdcalls in their season, Titon explores the possibility that the natural world is sounding an alarm, if our ears attend.

We wanted to learn more about how Titon became interested in ecomusicology, what it is about sound that is particularly important, and how the study of sound fits into the broader field of environmental practice. Along the way we also learned about his fascinating work developing a “sound ecology.”

WT: Tell us about your journey from ethnomusicology to focusing more on environmental and sustainability themes.

JTT: I’ve been interested in sound, music, and the environment for quite some time, but it wasn’t until around 2004 or so that I started putting that together in a conscious way.

I studied ecology in college, and then pursued graduate work in ethnomusicology. In the 1960s, I was a part of the environmental movement. My alliance with the environmental movement continued when I began teaching in the 1970s, and my research in ethnomusicology continued; but I wasn’t putting them together yet.

I undertook an ethnomusicology project in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where I was studying a group of old-fashioned, independent Baptists, whose preaching and singing I thought were particularly powerful and affecting. Most of their older people had been mountain farmers in the Blue Ridge, up to four or five generations; and so I became very interested in what that life was like, closer to nature, the relationship between nature and belief and environment.

The term “husbandry” turned out to be very important to me in thinking about that relationship. I borrowed the term from Wendell Berry, and it’s a biblical term, so the Old Baptists practiced husbandry in religious as well as agricultural and family ways. It seemed to me that their worldview was shaped in part by that mountain farm life they were practicing, and husbandry became a metaphor for caring in all three realms. In the 1980s as this research continued, I focused on the power of sacred language and its relation to sacred space. For them, the mountains were sacred spaces where farming, family, and spirituality came together.[i]

I continued this research in the 1990s with a different group of Baptists, Old Regular Baptists in southeastern Kentucky, who had similar mountain farming backgrounds.[ii] Around the turn of our new century, as I reviewed their statements about what the singing meant to them, I noticed that many spoke of a particular sound, a unique sound that has what they called a “drawing power”: the power to bring them together into community and with God, as well as the power to bring them back to this mountain region after out-migration for income. They spoke about a sound, not about music.

My interests in sound and environment took another turn on re-reading Thoreau’s journals. I noticed sound was very important to him; he wrote often about what he heard on his walks: birds, crickets, frogs, church bells, cow-bells, all kinds of environmental sounds. Thoreau was way ahead of his time, thinking about sound in the natural world as a kind of orchestral composition.

And that led me to ecomusicology, an academic field that emerged in the early 2000s. Ecomusicology is the study of sound, music, nature, culture, and the environment, and their relations with each other in a time of environmental crisis. I began learning more about sound in the built environment and the natural world, and that brought me to study animal behavior and animal sound communication.[iii]

WT: Thinking in terms of the sounds of climate change, what sounds do you hear that you think species are making that we should pay attention to, in addition to what you already shared about in your piece for the Trust volume?

JTT: When you invited me to contribute to the Trust volume, you invited me to write about how some of the religious groups I studied learned to trust the environment, even in a situation where they’re experiencing great cultural trauma and economic distress, and I was planning to do that. In 2013, I’d written an essay on music and poverty, where I wrote about how mountaintop removal was destroying the very environment the Old Regular Baptists had made sacred through the power of their songs. Now it wasn’t just their singing that was threatened; their whole way of life was becoming unsustainable.

But a couple weeks after saying I would write about that for you, I heard the sound of climate change for myself in this particular storm, and something compelled me to write about that topic for you instead. Of course, I’d read about climate change. I was very much interested in it. But it’s one thing to give assent to it as a threat or an idea, and it’s another thing to experience it for oneself. I heard it: the trees fell down, snapped over; I could no longer walk out in the woods and be in nature the way I had been used to doing because all these trees were down, blocking the path.

Spruce trees fallen across the woods road, with the uprooted earth at the upper right eight feet high. Photo by Jeff Todd Titon, E. Penobscot Bay, Maine, October, 2014.

I felt like I had been robbed, like someone had broken into my house or car. I felt like the land had been raped. These were very powerful feelings. I wondered how the other animals who lived on that land experienced it. I wanted to write about this. When you experience it for yourself, finding language that might be adequate to express your feelings is difficult but important to do. I tried to do that work in that story.

Telling my personal story of loss also required telling a larger story of sound and climate change. Interpreting sounds like this as sounds of climate change requires making a connection between intensifying storms and the changing climate. Global warming changes habitat, which changes the natural sounds that people and animals are exposed to. Bird songs they’re familiar with may go away. We learn to trust our senses, attuned to our habitat, indoors and out. When familiar sounds leave, we become anxious. Where I am in coastal Maine, we have had fewer and fewer white-throated sparrows in the last few years. Their range may be going north. We have fewer hermit thrushes now. We can make the connection between the missing familiar sounds of our locations and climate change, if we reflect on it.

I encourage people to get out and listen: take a sound walk, listen to the sounds around you, whether in the country or the city, and become more aware of the soundscape and how you feel about it. Start a daily sound journal.

WT: What do you notice when you think about sound and climate change that is different from paying attention with other senses?

JTT: Sound is vibrations transmitted through a medium. When we hear a sound, we’re connected through these sound waves with another vibrating body. Sound connects the two of us. We both vibrate to the same frequency. The metaphor for that connection is sympathy—sympathetic vibration. Sight doesn’t connect like that. Touch does connect us to other bodies, but sound can vibrate through a medium, and travels over a distance. Touch has to be right there. Smell also connects, but it’s not like vibrating to the same frequency.

The “sound connection”—I’d like to pun on that—is a more powerful, lasting connection. Sound makes a connection between two beings who are aware of each other, and that connection leads to what I call “co-presence.”

Sound is the most powerful means of co-presence. When we talk about two beings that are co-present, we’re talking about community: a sound connection. Most people who think about how people understand the world take a subject-and-object orientation: “thinking subject” and “external object,” where the Cartesian subject observes science’s external object as something “out there.” Science experiments on objects; if the environment is an external object, it is disconnected and it can be exploited.

But when you take sound as the basis for interacting with the world, you’re making a connection between two or more beings. Once one realizes a sound connection, that leads to an understanding—which is an ecological understanding—that everyone is connected. And if everyone is connected, then everyone is related. And if everyone is related, then everyone is responsible for everyone else. That is trust. An action in one part of this all-connected world is going to have consequences throughout the world, because of that fundamental interconnectedness of everyone and everything. Sound gives you that kind of understanding in a way that is much better than your other senses.

WT: Tell me more about what you’re working on now.

JTT: I’m working out the concept of a “sound ecology.” It is first of all a way of being in the world of sound, a sound ontology. Then, what knowing follows from that sound connection, and then what kinds of action? I think of it as having four different but related aspects: 1) sound experience announcing presence, or co-presence, 2) sound community, 3) sound economy, and 4) a sound view of nature.

In the first aspect, sound announcing presence, any being will announce its presence by sound. There’s a co-presence, connection, among beings, which I mentioned before.

The second aspect has to do with a sound community. Animals create sound communities with sound communication. Human animals also have sound communities. Possibly plants do, also. In music-making communities, humans have peak experiences and feel a sense of oneness with other people in the sound community. The language people use to describe this sound connection is often sacred language, terms that are transcendent.

The third aspect is a sound economy. Economy and ecology have the same root, oikos, or household, in Greek. Ecology means an “economy of nature.” When we think about economy or ecology, we are thinking about nature, economic exchanges, and transactions. I’m thinking of economies in nature: what kinds of exchanges and transactions take place that are governed by and mediated by the natural world and its laws? I’ve also been rediscovering Thomas Aquinas. He had a concept called the “just price,” by which he meant that a just economy would be based on just prices, so that the cost of goods are based on a decent living wage to the working person who made it, plus the cost of materials.

This is where trust comes into my essay for Whole Terrain. Behavioral ecologists distinguish between honest and dishonest sounds, ones that are trustworthy and others untrustworthy. Some animals give off a dishonest sound to fool or bluff other creatures. A bird might present a forceful song so it seems bigger or stronger than it actually is, to scare a rival or impress a mate. Other sounds are trustworthy, like alarm calls to warn of predators. Are the sounds of climate change honest signals? I think so.

In the fourth aspect, I’m developing insights from ecological science in terms of what a sound ecology might look like, and I’m calling it a sound view of nature. Ecology is fundamentally about interconnection and interdependence, and a sound ecology is about relations and responsibility.

WT: What do you think music and the study of sound has to offer to the broader field of environmental studies?

JTT: People have a great interest in natural sounds. They want to keep them intact, so conserving natural soundscapes has lots to offer in terms of healthy environmental practice. Last spring, I was in Tennessee for four months, and I was able to spend time with the biologist Scott McFarland of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. He’s in charge of a national parks initiative in natural sounds with a mandate to preserve the park environment, specifically to conserve sounds. In part, this is to help the creatures living in the park whose wellbeing and ability to communicate with each other are affected by noise pollution. But the park service was also getting a lot of complaints from visitors. Many people come to the parks to get away from the crowded cities so they can be in nature, but when they hear the sounds of park construction, motorcycles, helicopter tours, and all sorts of other loud human-made noises there, it interferes with their experience and they complain. So the park service partnered with acoustic ecologists to try to study noise levels in the parks and to preserve the natural soundscape.

Sound is a kind of language. Thoreau called it “a language without metaphor.”[iv] I would say that sound is the expression of a language, and we need to pay attention to not just the sound, but also the language. We use sound for communication, mainly, but there’s an aesthetic quality to sound performance. There’s a power in sound that brings beings together and makes things happen. For someone who hasn’t thought much about sound, the first step is developing attentiveness.

I hope, if people pay more attention to sound in the environment, they’ll pay more attention to our connection with the environment. This is an insight that’s not original with me, but paying attention to sounds helps us notice how beings and things are connected. We realize we have an impact on everything, and everything and everyone has an impact on us. Through the experience of sound we are led to think in terms of trust, reciprocity, and responsibility, social and ethical, to the world around us.

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Bio: Jeff Todd Titon holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Minnesota, is Professor Emeritus of Music at Brown University, and lives in Maine where he tends an organic garden and orchard. His interest in the environment dates from an internship in human ecology while an undergraduate at Amherst College in the 1960s. Among his recent publications are “Thoreau’s Ear” (for the inaugural issue of the UK journal, Sound Studies), and the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, for which he served as coeditor and contributed two essays. In 2015, his field recordings were elected for preservation in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress. He held the Basler Chair of Excellence for the Integration of the Arts, Rhetoric, and Sciences at East Tennessee State University in the spring semester of 2016. Track his current work in ecomusicology on his research blog at www.sustainablemusic.blogspot.com.

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[i] This research was published in three formats, each titled Powerhouse for God: a recording (University of North Carolina Press, 1982; Smithsonian Folkways CD reissue, 2013), a book (University of Texas Press, 1988) and a film (in distribution from Documentary Educational Resources, Watertown, MA).

[ii] Our common goal was to sustain their singing tradition of lined-out hymnody, which is the oldest English-language religious music in continuous oral tradition in the United States, going back to the 16th century English parish church. Recordings were circulated inside the community to help new members learn the lining tunes; Smithsonian Folkways issued two CDs from these recordings, SF 40106 (1997) and SF 50001 (2003). Both CDs are available from the Folkways website.

[iii] In 2012 I issued an appeal for a sound commons for all living creatures (Smithsonian Folkways Magazine, Fall-Winter 2012)

[iv] Near the beginning of Thoreau’s chapter, “Sounds,” in Walden.

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