In his 1853 autobiographical narrative, Twelve Years a Slave, violinist Solomon Northup recounts his own experience of being abducted and sold into slavery for twelve years. Born as a free Black man with significant musical experience prior to enslavement, Northup offers considerable detail about his sonic (and musical) experiences, frequently situating them in a broader environmental context of slave plantations, land- and riverscapes of the American South, and their remediations in print/musical notation. In asserting a salient connection between environment, race, and sound, Northup's memoir points to possible limitations in conceptualizations of the environment that have predominated in recent ecomusicology but have tended to efface the issues of race. I sketch here a prehistory of ecomusicology that grapples directly with the sonic legacies of transatlantic slavery, underscoring how landscape might be understood not as a space of solitude or contemplation, but rather of economic exploitation and violence. Like other areas in musicology, ecomusicology has been hindered by its reliance on a “white racial frame” that tends to presume certain kinds of subjectivity and possible relationships with the environment. When considered from this perspective, Northup's account offers an important, if harrowing, reminder of the complex entanglements of environment, race, sound, economy, and violence.
Research Article| July 01 2021
Toward a Black Ecomusicology, 1853? Listening to Enslavement with Solomon Northup
Peter McMurray is lecturer in ethnomusicology at the University of Cambridge. His research focuses on intersections of sound, culture, and power. He is currently completing a book/media project on sound and Islam among migrant communities in contemporary Berlin as well as an edited volume with Priyasha Mukhopadhyay on sound and empire in the long nineteenth century.
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19th-Century Music (2021) 45 (1): 79–90.
Peter Mcmurray; Toward a Black Ecomusicology, 1853? Listening to Enslavement with Solomon Northup. 19th-Century Music 1 July 2021; 45 (1): 79–90. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2021.45.1.79
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