The Book of Music and Nature:
an Anthology of Sounds, Words, Thoughts

David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus, editors
A Terra Nova book, 2001,
Wesleyan University Press: Middletown Conn.

Review by Barbara Speed

As a professional musician and ambitious gardener, I was doubly pleased to be asked to review "The Book of Music and Nature", edited by David Rothenberg and Marta Ulvaeus, as I might never have allowed myself the luxury of reading it just for pleasure. The book deals with many issues that are difficult to put into words, and there are a few chapters in this book which are hard going. But for the most part, this is a fascinating compendium of points of view on this huge subject.
David Rothenberg’s introduction is articulate and inspiring. He tells us that music ties "humanity to the rhythms of the world". "Once trained to listen, you will let the sounds and their significance find you, not just hear what you are listening for; "If we treat each sound we hear as part of a potentially meaningful sonic world, then the environment might have a place for us humans after all."
The book is divided into 4 sections. The first section, the roots of listening, begins with Hazrta Inayat Khan’s "The Music of the Spheres", where he tells us that "music is not only life’s greatest object, but music is life itself…the origin of the whole creation is sound." An interview with Peter Schaeffer discusses the fascinating subject ‘musique concrete’, music made of raw sounds, and includes the question of when sound becomes music.
The second section, Wild Echoes, includes fiction by Rafi Zabor, a prose poem by soprano sax player Steve Lacey, an excerpt from Russell Sherman’s "Piano Pieces" (‘To know the piano is to know the universe’), Jaron Lanier’s "Music, Nature, and Computers; a showdown", and a wonderfully vivid description of an outdoor concert given by Oregon.
The titles in the third section, "The Landscape of Sound", are particularly intriguing, especially "The Sharawadji Effect", "The Poetics of Environmental Sound", "Speaking from Inside the Soundscape", "Blind Listening", "Toothwalkers", and "Brother of Sleep".
Section four, "Many Natures, Many Cultures", includes perhaps my favorite article in the whole book, "Nature and Music", by well known composer Toru Takemitsu. There are 8 parts to this section, all fascinating.
The first includes these thoughts: "A lifestyle out of balance with nature is frightening. As long as we live, we aspire to harmonize with nature. It is this harmony in which the arts originate and to which they will eventually return… I wish to free sounds from the trite rules of music, rules that are in turn stifled by formulas and calculations. I want to give sounds the freedom to breathe. Rather than on the ideology of self-expression, music should be based on a profound relationship to nature – sometimes gentle, sometimes harsh." In other sections he describes gagku (Japanese court music): "… in this stream of sounds that is gagku, a richness of sound undivided by rigid classifications can be recognized", and contrasts Japanese and Western senses of self and self expression.
I would say that for anyone who loves sound in all its forms, this book will be a pleasure. And for anyone unfamiliar with the concept of the soundscape as being just as vital to the health and beauty of the world as the landscape, this book will be an important ‘ear-opener’.

The Book of Music and Nature is a Terra Nova Book, which is a series that aims to "show how environmental issues are relevant not only in scientific and political spheres, but also on a cultural and artistic level. The books combine essays, reportage, fiction, art, and poetry to reveal the complex and paradoxical ways the natural world and the human are continually redefining the other".

Other books available include 'The New Earth Reader', 'The World and the Wild', and 'Writing on Water'. You can contact them through, or visit their website on