Art and politics are often seen as existing in separate realms. This is even more true when it comes to western art (“classical”) music. Dylan Robinson’s Hungry Listening blows that tired myth out of the water once and for all, showing us the ways that art music is inextricably linked to the politics of sovereignty and Indigenous nationhood for Canadian First Nations communities. This might at first seem like a strange marriage of topics, but that is precisely Robinson’s point: through a twin focus on “inclusionary” music practices, where non-Indigenous composers selectively incorporate Indigenous music and musicians into western musical forms, and a focus on Indigenous songs as sovereign actors and living beings that “sound” a nation’s sovereignty, Robinson politicizes the act of music listening itself, challenging music listeners to hear with new ears and develop what he calls critical listening positionality.

“Hungry listening” is defined as a settler’s starving orientation toward sound, or listening that “fixes” and “fixates” on resources provided by Indigenous musical content. But hungry listening is also a habitus, a state of perception into which we are socialized as listeners, and thus is irreducible to a single racial identity (3). The book is both a trenchant critique of what Robinson (Stó: lō) calls the whiteness of Sound Studies and an exemplar for how Sound Studies might look otherwise. Part of this is done through the “event scores” provided throughout the book, which act as affective and sensory counterparts to the dense analysis of sound, performance, politics and composition provided in each chapter. More importantly, the event scores—many of them written in poetic prose based on the author’s direct experience of a live performance analyzed elsewhere in the book—model the kind of resurgent listening the author is calling for throughout the pages of Hungry Listening. This kind of listening builds on Kahnawake anthropologist Audra Simpson’s concept of ethnographic refusal (2007), where the idea that all knowledge should be available to all people is fundamentally queried: “Event Score 1,” for example, is designated for Indigenous-identified readers, only, and settler readers such as myself are asked to “meet” the author on the other side, where the next chapter begins.vi Other event scores, such as “Event Score for those who hold our songs,” are aimed at settler composers, ethnographers and museums, situating the book’s intended audience as both Indigenous and settler readers, artists and scholars.

Each chapter of Hungry Listening focuses on a different performance, song or piece within the Canadian art music canon, many of them attended as live events by Robinson. Art music, for the purposes of Robinson’s analysis, is broadly defined, and includes contemporary classical music, musical theater, dance accompanied by music, performance art, and early (Baroque) music performed by contemporary art music ensembles. While many chapters are critiques of composers and compositions, many others also offer examples of pieces or collaborations that more successfully navigate the interface of “Indigenous + art music.” Of central importance in each chapter is the idea of songs as treaties and the idea of “writing with” Indigenous musicians and communities versus “writing about,” an approach Robinson refers to as apposite methodology.

The Introduction familiarizes us with the concept of critical listening positionality, defined as a way of listening in which we are better attuned to how the “filters of race, class, gender and ability” (11) frame how we listen to musical encounter. Chapter One then delves into the metaphor of the “tin ear” to explain the incommensurability between many Indigenous and settler ways of listening, where settler Canadian legal systems often fail to understand Indigenous song as having not only an aesthetic function, but also functioning as primary historical documentation, ongoing claims to Indigenous land, and as an active expression of Indigenous nationhood. The Event Score following this chapter, “Event Score for Guest Listening 1,” is a phenomenological reflection on built environment and its intersections with sovereignty in settler colonial spaces; referencing the limestone walls of the city of Kingston, Ontario, and the extraction of Indigenous resources used to build that city, Robinson writes: “I am trying to hear their structure burn down while dwelling and shelter remain” (76). The next chapter, “Writing about Musical Intersubjectivity,” introduces alternate modes of writing about and collaborating with Indigenous songs and musicians. Of particular interest is Robinson’s call to integrate performative writing and research-creation practices more forcefully into academic writing and collaborative artistic practice. “There is no reason why music scholars should not work collaboratively with scenographers, installation artists, architects, with collaborators from other disciplines in the humanities and sciences, and with Indigenous and other racialized communities to think about spatializing and materializing our questions about, and readings of, music as part of the musical event itself” (101).

Chapter Three provides a helpful taxonomy of four categories of “inclusionary” and Indigenous + art music, turning to a focus on musical “extractivism.” Here, the author charges settler composers in particular to rethink the broader cultural implications of artistic decisions they make in the name of artistic freedom and creativity. Robinson asks: “To what degree should composers prioritize an engagement with or be held responsible for the politics of their works’ aesthetics, including the structures of musical inclusion and cultural encounter their works enact” (133)? In Chapter Four, “Ethnographic Redress and Compositional Responsibility,” Robinson focuses on the relationship between ethnography and Indigenous song collection, foregrounding the tension between songs viewed as objects to be preserved and collected as cultural patrimony of all Canadians, versus songs as living entities that perform powerful social work through their sounding, whether in an archive or in a live performance. As Robinson reminds us, songs can bring about great healing, or great damage, depending on how they are used. Songs do powerful work, and carry great weight, in the world. Recognizing the implications of that weight is part of the “calling in” that Robinson calls for in the book.

Hungry Listening intersects most centrally with Sound Studies, Cultural Studies, Critical Indigenous Studies and Ethnomusicology. The book’s audience is primarily scholarly, and the book is appropriate to assign to advanced undergraduate and graduate students. As such, it could be used for courses in Native American and Critical Indigenous Studies, American Studies, Ethnomusicology, Performance Studies, Cultural Studies, Musicology, Anthropology and Museum Studies. As a singer-songwriter and ethnographer, I especially appreciated Robinson’s integration of academic analysis with other forms of more performative storytelling throughout the book. I will be teaching the book in my upper level undergraduate course, “Anthropology of Music and Sound” at the University of New Mexico, and am eager to hear students’ responses and the discussions that follow. This is dense and difficult reading. But the payoff is tremendous in the book’s ability to guide readers through new ways of critical listening and, ultimately, to new ways of consuming and creating music with a greater appreciation for the ethics of sound and the incommensurability of cultural difference.

Kristina Jacobsen
University of New Mexico
Email: kmj23@unm.edu