W. Mellers: Singing in the Wilderness


















Wilfrid Mellers: Singing in the Wilderness: Music and Ecology in the Twentieth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001. [ix, 211 p. ISBN 0-252-02529-6. $29.95.]

Reviewed by Nico Schüler

During the last decade, musicologists found growing interest in ecology as it applied to music. Hereby, "musical ecology" refers to nature in different ways: (a) as cultural or sociological studies on music and musical life (e.g., Thomas Cushman, Notes from Underground [Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995]); (b) as anthropological studies on musical aesthetics (e.g., Wolfgang Kluxen: Natur und Musik: Eine anthropologische Marginalie zur ästhetischen Ökologie [Bonn: Bouvier, 1998]); (c) as acoustical ecology (e.g., Klaus Leidecker: "Akustische Ökologie als musikpädagogisches Konzept," Festschrift Christoph-Hellmut Mahling zum 65. Geburtstag, ed. by Axel Beer et. al. [Tutzing: Schneider, 1997], 749-753); (d) as ethnomusicological studies (e.g., Thomas James Solomon, Mountains of Song: Musical Construction of Ecology, Place, and Identity in the Bolivian Andes [Ph.D. diss., Austin: University of Texas, 1997); and (e) as studies on music cognition (e.g., Mauri Kaipainen: Dynamics of Musical Knowledge Ecology: Knowing-What and Knowing-How in the World of Sounds [Helsinki: Suomen Musiikkitieteellinen Seura, 1994]). Wilfrid Mellers' most recent book claims to fit several of those categories in that the book "concentrates on the theme of wilderness not only in sociological and psychological terms but also in an ecological, and even geographical, sense" (p. vii). The book cover even promises that "Mellers offers a set of diverse reflections on how Western art music illuminates the shifting relationship between humankind and the natural world." I will come back later to the point of how Mellers' book illuminates this shifting and how it relates to established directions in research on musical ecology.

Initially being based on several revised chapters of Mellers' 1967 book Caliban Reborn: Renewal in Twentieth Century Music (New York: Harper & Row, 1967; London: V. Gollancz, 1969; reprint New York: Da Capo Press, 1979), Singing in the Wilderness is organized in five parts: Part One discusses examples of late-Romantic and early 20th century music and how they relate to nature. Compositions discussed in this part are, among others, Richard Wagner's "Tristan," Arnold Schoenberg's "Pierrot Lunaire," Frederick Delius' "A Village Romeo and Juliet," Claude Debussy's "Pelléas et Mélisande," and Leos Janacek's "The Cunning Little Vixen." Part Two focuses on compositions by Charles Koechlin that were based on Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Book. It also focuses on compositions by Darious Milhaud, who was influenced by the culture and nature in Brazil. Part Three of the book is on the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos and of Carlos Chávez. This combination does indeed "explicitly reveals the connection between the jungle within the mind and the asphalt jungle" (p. viii) of big cities. The confrontation of nature with human-made products continues in Part Four, which concentrates on Carl Ruggles, Edgar Varèse, Harry Partch, Steve Reich, and Peter Sculthorpe, and how their lives and compositions reflect the increasingly ecological focus of artistic expressions. Part Five "concerns the sundering of the barriers between civilization and wilderness" (p. viii) by Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, "who fused the ongoing process of folk musics both agrarian and urban with conventions derived from European-style art music and from technologies promoted by industrialism" (p. ix). Finally, the book closes with an epilogue on the African composer and pianist Abdullah Ibrahim.

I found the topic of Mellers' book very interesting, since I am always looking for intra- and interdisciplinary approaches to music (research). However, I believe Mellers' approach is problematic in two ways: First, Mellers' use of analytical observations to support his thesis is questionable, and second, his selection of composers and compositions seems arbitrary and is not imbedded in a consistent methodological justification.

To the first problem: Musical structures of compositions discussed in the book--e.g., a certain melodic organization or even specific intervals--are interpreted in ways in which they support psychological stages or moods; such interpretations are usually not justified. For instance, while discussing Frederick Delius' "A Village Romeo and Juliet," Mellers stated: "The strifeful key of C minor takes over, and the orchestra quivers in augmented fifths that sound like lacrimae rerum" (p. 17). Here, analytical observations are clearly combined with subjective interpretations (a "strifeful key" or even the expression "sound like") that cannot necessarily be justified, or should, at least, not be used to draw general conclusions. Very often, analytical observations seem to be included just for the sake of analysis, without stating the method and the goal of the analysis: "The scherzo [of Sibelius' Fourth Symphony] reverses this process, beginning with a deceptively simple theme on oboe, in traditionally pastoral F major transmuted into the Lydian mode, so that its fourth is again tritonal. Incrementally, pastoral quietude is shattered by eruptive tritones. Tonality is also threatened; the whimper of a bit of the melody at the end, in a remote key, is yanked back to the tonic only by a barely audible dominant-tonic cadence on timpani" (p. 38). Often, Mellers does not bring such detailed analysis in connection with the very broad topic of the book.

Even more problematic is the selection of composers and compositions: the selection seems arbitrary and not imbedded in a consistent methodological justification. In addition, the methodology of interpreting the various musical works is everything else than based on the same premises. For instance, while Wagner's operas are strongly related to the composer's personal life (e.g., Wagner's relationship to Mathilde Wesendonck), the interpretation of Delius' opera is not. But not only is the methodology of approaching the musical works inconsistent and not explained, even the choice of the inclusion of those compositions is not rationalized.

To my initial question on how Mellers' book illuminates the shifting relationship between humankind and the natural world and how it relates to established directions in research on musical ecology: Although Mellers' discussions include several approaches to musical ecology (cultural, psychological, ethnomusicological), the illumination of such shifting would require a broader selection of composers and compositions and a selection that is methodologically justifiable and statistically representative. But besides these methodological problems, the book is certainly insightful and valuable in its discussions of the various compositions.

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This review was originally published as: Nico Schüler: "Singing in the Wilderness: Music and Ecology in the Twentieth Century, by Wilfrid Mellers," Notes 58/4 (June 2002): 856-858.