FES student jams his way through history of environmental music

Corbin Murdoch is not just studying, he’s performing, as a way to explore the roots of Western environmental and protest music. The Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES) undergraduate has spearheaded a series of workshops and informal jam sessions as part of his unique approach to completing his honours program.

Left: Corbin Murdoch

Working with Faculty of Environmental Studies Professor Peter Timmerman, Corbin developed an approach that includes formal academic work as well as performance and participation. Through workshops and jams, Timmerman and Corbin reveal how very old environmental themes evolved over time, emerged as protest music during the 1940s and 1960s, and influenced the direction of Western contemporary music. “I’ve always believed that there is more to music than just the music,” says Murdoch, whose self-directed study with Timmerman allows him to merge his interests in music, history and environmentalism.

“I am finding more and more students interested in soundscapes, acoustic environments, and environment and media more generally,” Timmerman says. “We are really at the beginning of how to think about environment and music in a place like York with such a strong practical and theoretical tradition of music — folk, classical and otherwise.”

Although environmental music has developed across a variety of cultures and at different historical moments, Murdoch and Timmerman decided to focus on traditions that have influenced Murdoch as a musician and environmental student. “I wanted to look at the history of environmental music, but the scope proved too large,” said Murdoch. “So we’ve narrowed it to English language music originating from the British Isles.”

Right: A jam session

The two intend to trace the evolution of the social protest song from its roots in Appalachian mining songs to folk songs by singers such as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. “We started with the Child Ballad tradition that dates as far back as the 14th and 15th centuries and looked at how it leapt across the Atlantic and over time became what we understand as folk music today,” said Murdoch. Among contemporary songwriters who express environmental activism are Pete Seeger, David Francey, Joni Mitchell and Fred Eaglesmith.

There have been three jams this fall and more are planned for the winter term exploring musical themes such as work, labour and industrialization and animal songs. The jams provide an opportunity for FES students and faculty to participate in an improvised musical performance while learning about ecological and social music. “The workshops are an opportunity to learn more about the songs and their historical roots,” says Murdoch. “But it’s more music than lecture.”

In addition to studying music, Murdoch leads a band called Corbin Murdoch and the Nautical Miles. Based in Vancouver, the band released its second album, Tell me again how this place got its name, in May. “The album is related to my interest in music history in that a lot of the songs are about landscapes, and how natural, personal and political histories all contribute to our understanding of a place.”

The singer-songwriter has found the Faculty of Environmental Studies refreshing. “I like the opportunity for self-directed study, which is rare at the undergraduate level. It was unexpected, but I’ve found a space in FES to focus on both music and the environment.”

This article was submitted to YFile by Arlene Williams, media & communications coordinator, Faculty of Environmental Studies, and MES student Diego Garcia.