The Pastoral after Environmentalism: Nature and Culture in Stephen Albert's Symphony: RiverRun

By Watkins, Holly | Current Musicology, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

The Pastoral after Environmentalism: Nature and Culture in Stephen Albert's Symphony: RiverRun


Watkins, Holly, Current Musicology


The year 1972 was a landmark in the history of the environmental movement: the Environmental Protection Agency, founded two years earlier by Richard Nixon, banned the toxic pesticide DDT and authored the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, later amended to the Clean Water Act of 1977. While criticism of DDT was nothing new--Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring, a detailed expose of the chemical, was published a full decade earlier (Carson 1962)--the EPA's ban heightened Americans' awareness of environmental issues and lent momentum to the interrogation of cherished post-war ideals, especially those of technological and economic progress. In the arts, a suspicion of progress narratives, which had been gathering steam in the 1960s, fueled the search for alternatives to modernism and its principles of artistic autonomy, abstraction, and the evolution of technique. Besides such well-known contenders for the countercultural throne as minimalism, the vibrant musical landscape of the early 1970s included edgy political works like Frederic Rzewski's Coming Together and Attica (both 1972) and pieces alluding to ecological matters, such as Alan Hovhaness's And God Created Great Whales (1970) and George Crumb's Vox Balaenae (1971). (1) I begin with a reference to 1972 because that year witnessed one of the more spectacular disavowals of serialism, considered by its practitioners to be the most progressive compositional approach. George Rochberg, a former serialist, broke with the modernist demand for advancement by mimicking the styles of Beethoven and Mahler in his Third String Quartet. (2) At first glance, Rochberg's momentary resurrection of the expressive language of romanticism seems to have little to do with the nascent musical environmentalism of Crumb and Hovhaness, let alone the ban on DDT. Yet the postmodern philosophy of history that Rochberg promulgated--a philosophy which discards the notion of linear evolution in favor of an alleged timelessness of musical styles--was a vital factor in the emergence of a genre of music that I will call the neo-romantic pastoral. (3) Combining the romantic and environmentalist impulses of the early 1970s, neo-romantic pastorals, penned by such composers as Stephen Albert, Libby Larsen, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, unabashedly adopt (and adapt) the conventional pastoral topoi of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Since many of those topoi are coincident with basic features of tonal music, neo-romantic pastorals typically exhibit some form of neo-tonality. (4)

Just as the revival of tonality has inspired controversy among composers and music critics committed to modernist ideals, the reemergence of a relatively traditional form of the pastoral raises questions about the significance of this genre in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Viewed in tandem with official and grass-roots efforts to stem the tide of environmental damage, the pastoral's traditional themes of innocence and retreat into nature might appear merely quaint, or even dangerously out of touch with a world in need of concrete solutions to problems of global proportions. Nevertheless, the branch of literary criticism known as ecocriticism has been at pains to show that the literary pastoral, particularly when it foregrounds the provisional status of the retreat to nature, constitutes an indispensable artistic forum for reflection on how human existence is (or has been, or might be) conceived in relation to the natural world, an issue whose discussion is vital to any environmentalist project. (5) Might the neo-romantic pastoral be capable of playing a similar role? This paper contends that Stephen Albert's Symphony: RiverRun (1984) highlights the complex interplay between nature and culture whenever the former is taken as an object of artistic representation. I argue that the particular ways in which Albert harnesses both pastoral devices and the stylistic and generic limitations of the symphony constitute an acknowledgment that the appearance of nature in a musical work is fully the effect of discursive means, of techniques of signification which are culturally determined rather than directly evocative of nature. …

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