Hearing the Ecotone
Perhaps you have heard of the biological concept of the “Ecotone,” which describes physical and social spaces that we are all living and evolving in. This beautiful word, with its musical connotations, was first used in 1859 to describe areas of ecological tension – the transitional area between two biological spaces. (It is derived from the Greek: eco, house/habitat + tonos, tension). Simply put, ecotones are crossover zones where biological systems meet and integrate, where species abundance and biodiversity thrive. Where the I and the You become Us. The study of Ecotones today is vital to understanding the precipitous and volatile changes happening on planet Earth. They literally evoke the pulse of life.
This notion of integrated, dynamic changing spaces in the natural world is something we can explore in social ecologies as well as cultural ones. My body of work as a conductor, curator, and composer has always been centered on finding and creating Ecotones in music. I’ve always believed it my artistic and human calling to enhance the diversity of our musical ecology, to find musical works that synergize different musical DNA, and to then create spaces where new works in this spirit can be manifested – on the stage and in the human imagination. My longstanding belief is that when shared with the listener, music becomes not just an artistic offering but a form of environmental consciousness. To me, music is an original element of the ecosystem: a living thing that, with our participation, is given breath.
Consider how our “Western” classical musical culture celebrates the well-traveled and well-worn zones of taxonomy and affinity by era, genre, and composer. This categorization applies not just to older music – much “new music” also comes from these predictable and familiar zones. But when the Ecotone perspective is invoked, synthesizing different musical spaces and energies, we get to witness music as a vibrant new life-form, one that evolves before our very eyes (and ears).
In biology, this Ecotone phenomenon is also called the “Edge Effect” – meaning, that space on the verge of, where transformations take place.
I’ve always preferred this notion of the Ecotone and the Edge Effect to the phrase “breaking boundaries,” a phrase, framework, and lifestyle that seems dated and dry, particularly when referring to new music. The concept of “boundaries” evokes scarcity and extraction; it suggests walls, borders, territories to be colonized, winners over everyone else. It connotes the idea of the “avant-garde” as a revolutionary, fighting force – this idea may have been the vanguard in the 1920’s, but one hundred years later, it can feel as antiquated as a dance party which breaks out into a minuet. And as so often happens within the Classical Industrial Complex, those who started out as revolutionary boundary-breakers devolve into the next generational round of colonizing settlers, holding their position and power until the next wave of successful “innovators” breaks through.
In today’s expansive reads of culture and society, some will associate this power struggle as a replica of Global North-Global South power dynamics, where mankind is indeed overwhelmingly represented by cis white men. This narrative enforces the tried, true, and tired mythologies of individual triumph and ascension inside exotic and remote territories (such as those of various artistic subcultures).
I find this framework retrograde and discouraging in its colonial and racialized superiority, but even beyond that, as one who sees the Ecotone as a universal concept for all living things, it is to me an example of blatant human centrism. “Life” is not just the human maelstrom; and if we were courageous enough to transform culture to the point of living in synergy with the planet and each other, we might approach Ecotonality in all its possibility.
But living in synergy doesn’t mean spending a weekend in the woods, and coming home to one’s computer to romanticize one’s love of and concern for “nature” – the ultimate “Other.” Self-expression on this topic is a human-centric conceit, and what I’m getting at here is an ethos of aligning creative energy with what the earth is telling us.
If we dared to emulate the Earth’s own patterns, models, and wisdom, we might come a few steps closer to transforming the ecology of our own human disciplines, and finding healthier, more equitable, more regenerative, and sustainable ways of interacting and working with each other. To me, this is the purpose and potential of music, if we do believe it is an original element of the ecosystem. We can create ecotones and cross-pollination across our habitats, rather than put up boundaries.
In a world that is plagued by such rapid deterioration in so many spheres, one might ask why would art and music even matter? From the point of view of Ecotone integration, we might begin to experience an environment (and perhaps other systems) that can self-tune, and re-tune as the Earth is insistently doing. Collectively created edge effect zones can allow us – as people and communities – to also self-tune and re-tune our human environments, our societies, our forms of leadership, our ways of governing, and more.
“Cultural ecotones are the pluralistic contexts out of which conflict and change emerge.”
– environmentalist Florence Krall
I am not naïve about the place of the arts, and I recognize that it would be tone-deaf to offer this guiding principle from the stance of a fashionable artist statement. I fully acknowledge the greater urgencies that confront our world, and I do not wish that my perspective, from the privileged space of an artist offering performative work on stage, should imply any elevated virtue or that music can save us. But I do believe that the perspective offered here can provide a lens from which we can imagine a more attuned, interconnected world, in which the work of artists and creatives can gain meaningful traction beyond the consumption of artistic experience.
Science and the Earth are great teachers. And if, as scientists have proven, everything in the biosphere is interconnected, human culture should strive to emulate these complex harmonies, and try to understand ourselves and each other across and through our intersections. Social justice, economic justice, migration, climate change and the environment – all of the human cacophony – these too follow a pattern of connected social ecology.
And in following these local and global currents, doesn’t activist action in one area complement that in another? If you agree, then you might concur that applying the Ecotone principle within our disciplines also means taking care to examine how this work is done, beginning with the diversity of the people we work and create with, and how we practice equity and opportunity, in asserting the balance of Nature.
It also means exploring the Ecotone of the places we take our work, and the collaborators and community we find and build, without exploitation of their resources and creative DNA. And it means exploring the sustainability of our Ecotones, the resources we use, and the economies of circulation we grow and disburse, while trying to do no harm upon others.
It cannot be overstated, that how we do our work matters as much as the product itself. The way we undertake our purpose in this life can be an ongoing process of transforming relationships and re-imagining our cultural firmament. We artists have an obligation to use our privilege of practice to model collaborative, sustainable, and generous ways of working. If we do this, our work in music is not an abstraction, or an exquisite dessert for the cognoscenti. If we adopt a synergistic stance where our habitat of activity is open to cross-pollinators, and use our subculture as a generative tool, we can be Ecotone creators, bestowing a yearned-for edge effect on wider cultural systems.
If you think such a stance requires more faith and idealism than you believe you possess, I can only say that this is the way I have tried to operate since the beginning of my practice as a musician and an artistic leader. I know it can work because I’ve lived it – my own vocational path in music has always sojourned outside the walls of mainstream practice, from bringing Johanna Beyer’s music back to life to having the glorious privilege of leading the premieres of operas which bear the spirit of cross-fertilization.
The Ecotone has been the force within my compositional pen since the beginning; for example, in the messages of my 1998 work "One Body", to the more recent "Open Share", where the “clouds” of human “weather” collide. Because of this ecotonal edge-living, my music defies easily definable stylistic markers – what Morton Feldman called “between categories.”
I love working in the Ecotone, between zones. This approach to my musical and personal life alike has influenced the kind of musicians I have chosen to work with as well as the people upon whom my work has had the greatest impact. My creative circle, from composers, interdisciplinary collaborators, and orchestral musicians who have joined me, have ease in stepping “outside their zone.”
I’m heartened that I don’t operate alone in this crossover zone, and that others who may not think of it the same way or name it the Ecotone, are nevertheless sharing this vision in exerting their energy. And I look forward to continuing to find, work with, and cultivate partners in doing the edge-effect work of building the Ecotone, both within and beyond our little musical and artistic microclimates. My zones, yours, ours, and theirs are all connected, and our best hope for the survival of this earth (as John Cage liked to remind us), is to “imitate nature in its manner of operation.”
– John Kennedy, 2023