Aaron S. Allen presents on “Musical Trees,” April 27

Aaron S. Allen

Aaron S. Allen is director of the Environmental and Sustainability Studies Program and Associate Professor of Music at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he also served as the institution’s first Academic Sustainability Coordinator. A fellow of the American Academy in Rome, he earned his Ph.D. from Harvard in 2006 with a dissertation on the nineteenth-century Italian reception of Beethoven. His B.A. in music and B.S. in environmental studies are from Tulane University. Aaron has published on campus sustainability, Beethoven reception, and ecomusicology. He is co-editor with Kevin Dawe of the collection Current Directions in Ecomusicology (Routledge 2016).

“Musical Trees”

Fundamental to the sound of Western art music, the violin family forms the backbone of most ensembles from chamber to stage. Professional violins depend on at least two endemic natural resources: Italian spruce for the soundboards, and Brazilian pernambuco for the bows. The highest quality bows are made of only wild-grown pernambuco (pau brasil) from Brazil’s Atlantic Coastal Forest. Pau brasil was so important that European colonial powers warred over it with each other and with indigenous peoples; eventually, the country Brazil was named after the wood. Today, the tree is nearly extinct: 8% of the original forest is extant, and only 5% of pernambuco habitat remains. But Italian red spruce has fared better in the unusual Alpine microclimate of the Val di Fiemme’s Paneveggio Forest. The species is widely distributed, but Paneveggian spruce makes excellent resonance wood for soundboards, which has contributed to the renown of this “forest of violins.” Despite various threats during the past millennium, Fiemmesi traditions have preserved the forest; today, more trees grow than loggers harvest, and musicians regularly make pilgrimages to their sacred groves in the Paneveggio. The values accorded to musical traditions and the instruments necessary for them can reverberate through individual tree species to particular forests. Western art music, an endangered (if elite) tradition that might need preservation, contributes both to threatening and to protecting the unique resources on which it depends. In other words, our aesthetic choices have ethical ramifications that impact the world in negative and positive ways.

 

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