Music professor awarded fellowship to study a musical connection to climate crisis

May 28, 2024
Photo of UNT professor Andrew Chung


Attending a music festival was a career-altering experience for Andrew Chung.

While researching contemporary music at the annual Darmstädter Ferienkurse festival near Frankfurt, Germany, in 2018, Chung sat in on a lecture that discussed, in part, connections between the political economy and inner workings of the colonial world with the current global climate crisis — and the role of music in it all.

“I had never heard any stories or conversations about that,” says Chung, an assistant professor of music theory in the University of North Texas College of Music, one of the nation’s largest and most respected comprehensive music schools. His scholarly work specializes in the history and theoretical analysis of European and American experimental and avant-garde music in the 20th and 21st centuries.

However, topics from that 2018 lecture continued to intrigue him during his early years teaching at UNT — so much so that in 2020, Chung began researching and writing his first book, Music’s Long Anthropocene: The Climate of Empire and the Sound of Ecological Disaster.

The book’s thesis revolves around the story of how the planet arrived at its current climatological condition.

“It’s a much longer story than the one we usually tell that goes back to the Industrial Revolution,” he explains. “It goes back to the colonial world and plantation slavery — these processes of dominating and extracting natural resources and changing the Earth so that it suits the economic ambitions of power. It’s a public good to share this longer story about the history of environmental change.”

Over the past three years, Chung has applied for multiple residential fellowships that would provide him the time and resources to complete the book. He was recently awarded a nine-month, $45,000 fellowship by the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts. The funds are derived from a grant to the AAS by the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities through its program of fellowships at centers for advanced studies.

Beginning in June, Chung will start researching at the AAS library, which he calls one of the most comprehensive facilities at which to study early American and colonial-Atlantic history.

There’s a tendency to romanticize music as being the purest expression of the inner heart and the spirit. But music really is affected by worldly goals and concerns and activities.
Andrew Chung

Conversations about environmentalism within the field of music and sound studies are generally not robust, Chung says. “There’s a lot of work that kind of contents itself on saying, ‘There’s this piece of music and it has a nature theme,’ and that’s the whole point of the scholarship. That’s a really unsatisfying way to do research because who would dispute that the natural world is there? Why do we have to prove that?”

With his research and book, he’s examining how some colonial processes were damaging to the environment. “That connection expands the scope and stakes of how we talk about the history of colonization and enslavement. I think it’s very tempting to see slavery or settler colonialism as just political or economic processes, and there are important reasons to define them that way. But there also were visions for shaping the Earth and deriving natural resources to profit from things like cash crops.”

Music can reveal additional details about the history within that story, Chung says.

“When we find this connection as a context circulating around a certain musical style — say, opera — the topic of connection between colonialism and climate gets disclosed to us differently than if we were just reading about it,” he says. “There’s a tendency to romanticize music as being the purest expression of the inner heart and the spirit. But music really is affected by worldly goals and concerns and activities.”

While at AAS, Chung plans to research works by 16th and 17th century Spanish and English writers about their travels to the Americas.

“I’m hoping to spend a lot of time with books that are hundreds of years old, looking through them for any mentions of music and examples of when colonial writers were studying societies in the Caribbean or in Mexico and Peru and mention something such as the climate being really hot or pleasant or harmonious — in other words, when music comes in as a sort of metaphorical category for them to describe the climate,” he says.