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Creatures of the Air

Music, Atlantic Spirits, Breath, 1817–1913

An account of nineteenth-century music in Atlantic worlds told through the history of the art’s elemental medium, the air.

Often experienced as universal and incorporeal, music seems an innocent art form. The air, the very medium by which music constitutes itself, shares with music a claim to invisibility. In Creatures of the Air, J. Q. Davies interrogates these claims, tracing the history of music’s elemental media system in nineteenth-century Atlantic worlds. He posits that air is a poetic domain, and music is an art of that domain.

From West Central African ngombi harps to the European J. S. Bach revival, music expressed elemental truths in the nineteenth century. Creatures of the Air tells these truths through stories about suffocation and breathing, architecture and environmental design, climate strife, and racial turmoil. Contributing to elemental media studies, the energy humanities, and colonial histories, Davies shows how music, no longer just an innocent luxury, is implicated in the struggle for control over air as a precious natural resource. What emerges is a complex political ecology of the global nineteenth century and beyond.

288 pages | 44 halftones | 6 x 9

New Material Histories of Music

Music: General Music


“Erudite and virtuosic, this beautifully written book changes our understanding of the European nineteenth century in significant ways by exploring how cultural reveries about atmosphere, breath, and air were allied to musical aesthetics, performance, and sound making. Davies’s work addresses environments and their impact on humans, the global transmission of cultural artifacts, and colonialism’s legacy. What emerges is no less than a seismic shift in our understanding of Western art music.”

Carolyn Abbate, Harvard University

“With Creatures of the Air, Davies offers a sweeping, multicontinent analysis of air as a matrix for nineteenth-century European colonial genealogies of music, which he argues were fundamentally biopolitical and entangled with racial capitalism. ‘Music’—in contrast with earlier European paradigms like aria—emerges in Davies’s account as an artful sounding abstracted from its potentially dangerous source elements and environments. This extractivist impulse, he shows, required intensive management of sound production and built sound environs from Gabon to New York, Amazonia, and industrial Britain. Elegantly written and replete with fascinating case studies, Creatures of the Air makes a major contribution to ecomusicology, nineteenth-century cultural history, and European music studies, and it will undoubtedly be read and assigned for years to come.”

Olivia Bloechl, University of Pittsburgh

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Chapter 1 White “Genius”: Ngango, Gabon Estuary, 1817
Chapter 2 A Falcon under Glass: Paris, France, 1838
Chapter 3 Moral Atmospherics in Elijah: Black Country, Britain, 1846–1860
Chapter 4 Black Musics Control: Santa Maria de Belém do Grão-Pará, Brazil, 1871
Chapter 5 A Spectral Image of Breath: New York, United States, 1901
Chapter 6 Albert Schweitzer’s Equatorial Piano: Lambaréné, Gabon, 1913

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