The new historical paradigm ushered in by the Anthropocene offers a timely and urgent opportunity to rethink the relationship of humans and nature. Bruno Latour's take on the Gaia hypothesis, which rejects the traditional subject/object divide, shows how the human can be inscribed into the work of music theory. This turn toward Latour's Actor-Network Theory, which erases the categorical difference between human and nonhuman agents, now dressed up in cosmic garb under the banner of the Gaia hypothesis, appears to be distant from traditional music-theoretical concerns, but the connection is in fact less far-fetched than it seems. J. G. Kastner's music theory, taking its cue from the sound of the Aeolian harp, serves as a test case here: the Aeolian harp, played by wind directly, had long served as a Romantic image of the superhuman forces of nature, but Kastner argues that the Aeolian network only becomes complete in human ears. By unraveling the various instances and agencies of Kastner's theory, this article charts a novel approach to music and sound that sidesteps the conceptual problems in which the nineteenth-century mainstream habitually gets entangled. Kastner's work is based on a fundamental crisis in the conception of sound, after the invention of the mechanical siren (1819) tore down any certainties about the categorical distinction between noise and musical sound. Seeking to rebuild the understanding of sound from the ground up, Kastner leaves no stone unturned, from the obsolete Pythagorean tradition of musica mundana to travelers’ reports about curious sonic environmental phenomena from distant parts of the world. Where the old mechanistic paradigm was built on a “physical music” (and a static “sound of nature” based on the harmonic series), Kastner proposes a new “chemical music” that is based on the dynamic, ever-changing sonority of the Aeolian harp. This chemical music does not (yet) exist, but Kastner gives us some clues about its features, especially in his transcription/simulation of the sound of the Aeolian harp scored for double symphony orchestra. Kastner's “chemical music” finally closes the music-theoretical network that he builds around his new conception of the supernatural sound of the Aeolian harp and its human and nonhuman agents.
Music Theory's Other Nature: Reflections on Gaia, Humans, and Music in the Anthropocene
Alexander Rehding is Fanny Peabody Professor of Music at Harvard University. His publications include Alien Listening (2021) and The Oxford Handbook of Timbre (2021). He is currently working on a book tentatively titled A Playlist for the Anthropocene.
Alexander Rehding; Music Theory's Other Nature: Reflections on Gaia, Humans, and Music in the Anthropocene. 19th-Century Music 1 July 2021; 45 (1): 7–22. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2021.45.1.7
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