For more than a decade, my favorite spot in Washington, D.C. has been the rooftop of the Metro station closest to my home. When I was a teenager, friends of mine and I would sit in its stairwell, taking turns reading poems by Rumi and Hafez, as the dusk showed us its deep colors. Some of the most transformative conversations I have had with other people, with myself, and with the world in general have taken place on that rooftop. Recently, I have begun to venture there alone. It is one of the few places in the city where I feel safe standing in silence, listening to the ins and outs of my own breath. Urban sounds are barely audible on the roof of the Metro. It is an excellent place to breathe, to sing, and to listen to the sounds of the sky.
Washington, D.C. is a curious place to begin an article on the art of listening. It is one of the busiest cities in the world, filled with distracted people who are generally unreceptive to the sounds of nature. It is a powerful political center, where decisions are made which affect countless people, for better or for worse. At present, it is undergoing a change in its political climate which does not bode well for the well-being of our planet. Amidst the stress of these changes, many of us (whether in D.C. or elsewhere), turn to music. Perhaps it is music—the music of nature in particular—that can help us understand the practice of sustainability, and the means through which we can all participate in the co-creation of a more sustainable world.
Culturally, we live in times that have made a fetish out of noise. Many of us are encouraged to be busy at all hours of the day, and distractions are now available to take us away from every moment of our lives. This lifestyle has a history in the Western world, dating at least to the Industrial Revolution (if not before), when noise-making machines were seen, quite literally, as the engine of progress. Prior to this, colonialism, which was premised on acquisition and on asserting superiority over cultures which possessed deeper levels of ecological knowledge, laid the foundation for a mentality that lives with us today. As a result of all this, the most powerful politics and media in our world tend to imply that connection to the environment is strange. It is a departure from the rhythm of everyday life, and signals a lack of connection to the pulse of the day.
This sense of disconnect manifests itself not only in the broad arcs of our everyday lives, but also in the way we engage with music. “Nature sounds” are often considered the domain of spas and yoga studios, and many people do not consider the sounds of rivers, breezes, and rainfall as “valid” forms of music. Certainly, no such music would ever garner the distinction of winning a Grammy or acquiring Top 40 status. The very idea seems ludicrous. And yet, might such disregard for ecological sounds shed light on the depth of our shared, contemporary ecological crisis?
If the most basic thing we do, listening, is hardly ever anchored in the environment, how can we possibly engage in an enduring conversation about environmental sustainability? Put differently: If our predominant culture of music listening does not engage with nature, then where is the anchor for a lifestyle of sustainability? What would a culture that affirms the validity, beauty, and lessons of listening to nature look like?
Singing is, for me, a powerful complement to the sort of criticism I just shared with you, and an important source of insight into the questions I’ve posed. The most profound lessons I have learned about music have come from singing a cappella in particular, accompanied by nothing more than my natural surroundings at the time: the twitter of birds in the early morning, the chirp of tree frogs at night, the rush of the waves at any time of day.
Not surprisingly, it is in these settings that I can hear myself most clearly. I can be present with the depths of my own being, find silence, cultivate patience, and listen to the way that mountains, meadows, or the ocean fill in the space between lines of music. And crucially, I restore my relationship with breath and become newly aware of the fact that without the prana (a word used in the Indian medicinal system Ayurveda, which means “life energy”) conferred by the air, I would not be able to live, let alone create music, at all.
Which brings me to another observation about our present moment: those of us within cultures of busy-ness do not have a chance to spend time—real time—with our own inner landscapes. Through social media, we can externalize anything we want (our desires, our moods, our choice of breakfast); but it is harder to spend time with our own spirits, discover our own peace, and learn how to live our lives anchored in our most sattvic selves (another Ayurvedic word, used to describe inner clarity). And in addition to supporting us in absolutely fundamental ways (as I will explore in later posts in this series), nature offers a beautiful companion to those inquiries. Though there are many musicologists who do not consider the sounds of nature to be a form of music, I would say that it is a profound inspiration for many of the musical cultures that have developed in our world.
Ecological sustainability is a conversation between our outer and inner lives. In other words, it relies upon policy change, to be sure, but it can also be supported by changes in our lifestyles, our sense of place in the world, and the cultures that emerge from these concerns. And one of the most profound cultural shifts that we require at this point in time is a movement away from busy-ness and towards simplicity. We must consider adopting lifestyles which are guided by the rhythms of nature, which asks us not to speed up, but rather to slow down and appreciate the musicality of the non-human world.
As readers of this publication know, music has always been one of humanity’s most important catalysts for change and equally, for preserving the status quo. We are what we listen to. We are how we listen. And by extension, we are how we speak. We are how we create. We are the music we choose to listen to, and we are the music we develop. Whether we are listeners, musicians, or both, our life choices are shaped by the way we engage with the inexhaustible variety of sounds that are available to us today.
Our environmental crisis invites a global social movement on a vaster scale than the movements of the 1960s, or the decolonizing movements that took place throughout the world in the 20th century. And to begin, we must listen to the sounds that bring us peace, the sounds that humble us to the limitations of our own music, the sounds that make people the world over smile softly, sigh with relief, and cry their confusion—by the shore of the sea, under a big sky, or beside a patch of grass.
The next post in this series will broadly explore the ways in which human musics in diverse regions of the world carry important ecological lessons, with direct cultural ramifications. But for now, I meditate upon the first and last music—the sounds of nature, which has inspired musical systems since the dawn of humanity. In these times, when not only global ecology but also global humanity is at stake. Surely there is no better soundtrack.
Priya Parrotta is a writer and singer committed to fostering empathy, curiosity, and responsibility across geopolitical divides in the interest of our shared, brilliant planet. She is the author of The Politics of Coexistence in the Atlantic World, which brings light to what is arguably the Caribbean’s greatest gift to the world: Centuries of experience in living together. Her current project is titled Music & the Earth.