Music and the Environment
In April 2009, the Alberta government launched a re-branding campaign designed to attract new inhabitants and remind current citizens of why the province was a desirable location. This campaign was marked by scandal when it was discovered that the photo used in most advertisements, showing two children running freely along one of the province’s not-so-ubiquitous “shorelines”, was a stock photo of the beach near Sir Lancelot’s castle in Northumberland, England.
In denying any wrongdoing, those behind the campaign suggested that “this slide represents Albertans’ concern for the future of the world”, and that “there’s no attempt to make people think that this is Alberta…there’s no attempt to mislead. That picture just fit the mood and tone of what we were trying to do.” Instead, the picture “was specifically chosen because of its foreign location to represent Albertans’ interest in global issues.”
But the campaign did not end there. An accompanying promotional video, found on the Alberta Brand website, featured paradoxical assumptions about Albertan identity, all clearly tied to the landscape. Opening with the postulation that before Alberta was “Alberta” (that is, before white European immigration) it was an unmarked space begging for human activity, the video continues to employ persuasive phrasing and imagery throughout. Using pictures of happy groups or relaxing individuals in solitude against the backdrop of mountains, the ad suggests Alberta is a place for those with “courage and determination” to achieve success. Similar words that function to portray Alberta’s values appear throughout, such as “aspirational, dynamic, strong, genuine”; progress is represented by “We don’t just dream. We do”; and the root of “strength” is found in “tradition”.
Yesterday, I drove my car back to the rental place in Calgary and noticed the sharp clarity of the land in front of me: rolling green hills that gradually morphed into snow-capped Rockies; a blue sky dotted with white clouds above. My dad picked me up at the rental place. On the way home, he said, “Nice day. All the colours are so pretty, aren’t they?” While sitting at a stop light, he told me that he stared ahead, taken with the picture in front of him, thinking, ‘this looks like the colours on a Windows computer screen!” so much so that the light turned green and he didn’t notice and held up a line of 20 cars.
The landscape is considered to be central to Albertan identity – those who live within the province’s borders feel deeply attached to the land; those from outside Alberta comment frequently on its emotional and physical impact. We are all influenced by our surroundings though, whether natural or built.
Earlier this year, when I was going through a fairly dark period, I rode the streetcar down Spadina in Toronto to my job. The car would emerge from the tunnels of the subway station and reveal what the day was going to be like; more often than not it was cloudy and snowing, a perfect match for my mood. At night, I’d catch the streetcar back and watch as the busy streets lit up with neon signs and flashing lights, a kind of unfolding spectacle still encased in the gloomy darkness of winter that made me feel like a kid watching a movie and wanting to move to the big city. In those times, I listened to music that was big and bombastic, heavily orchestrated, that took me out of the dreariness of my days and matched (or alleviated) what I was seeing outside. Somehow I knew what to put on; the soundtrack always complemented my surroundings.
The classes I teach are mostly history, history, history, but I do get to interrupt them with a course on music and the city. One of my main research specialties is music and geography, so it’s the course I most like to do. The thing is, we all notice our environment visually; it’s easy to remember the colour and shape of landmarks, where stores are in relation to each other, the feel for how far we drive before we turn left to go home, or the colour of the sky. We next notice it tactilely; the feel of sand under our feet, or the direction the wind is blowing. But how many of us notice the sound of our landscape? What does the wind sound like? What was the music drifting out of the store? How do the rhythms of passing cars direct our movements?
A fairly obvious starting point is to think about what music is associated with a place. Like this? (Stick with it. A good lesson.)
How about this?
Less obvious? What comes to mind?
Something like the Blues Festival in Chicago is an overt attempt at drawing in tourists, as its programming doesn’t always reflect the blues Chicago was known for in the 1940s and 50s. A less noticeable tourist draw might be the lone accordion player on a quiet Paris street, but he also might be one of the few things that you remember when you think about your trip to France. Why is the sound of Clarksdale so different from that of Memphis? How come nobody knows about the rockin’ R&B scene of 1960s Nashville?
In more intimate settings, music still structures our environments. This might be where we notice it the most. What if you live at home with your parents? Do you blast Taylor Swift from your crappy computer speakers? Put on a good pair of Sennheisers and spin your dad’s old Led Zep albums? What do you listen to in the car, on the subway, while walking? And how does this change the way you feel, or see the world, or experience your day? My uncle (the famous Uncle Ted) was at the house the other day, and he pulled up a track to let us hear his phone’s sound quality. “You guys know this,” he said. “What is it?” (my dad and I were all, uhhh…). Took a while for it to kick in.
Ted lamented the fact that everyone is now plugged in to their own music, keeping us from experiencing what other people are listening to. I don’t think he was asking for the days of lugging a ghetto blaster around on your shoulders, but maybe the occasional blip of someone else’s soundtrack might open us up as we increasingly turn inward.
Now that it’s summer, my soundtrack has changed. As soon as the sun comes out and the air is crisp and it temporarily feels like Alberta here in Toronto, I switch to lighter music, with sparser arrangements, thinner textures. Windy music, if you will. Naturally, I put in my earphones and drown out the sound of the wind. Hm.