Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Devon J. Borowski reviews Creatures of the Air

J. Q. Davies. Creatures of the Air: Music, Atlantic Spirits, Breath, 1817–1913. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2023.

Review by Devon J. Borowski

25 January 2024

Early in J. Q. Davies’s new monograph we encounter a question that has long stalked musicological critique in one form or another: “Isn’t music good?” (p. 10) Davies’s response animates Creatures of the Air, which works across several disciplines to narrate nineteenth-century entanglements of performance, biopolitics, and atmosphere. After all, anxiety over music as a morally corrosive force stretches back to the founding myths of Western civilization, from Plato’s wariness of effeminizing modes in the Republic to St. Augustine’s concerns in his Confessions about the derangement of his soul. It was only at the end of the eighteenth century that a notion of music qua music emerged as an invisible and intangible force standing apart from the dinginess of everyday life and above the vicissitudes of world history. While today's critically inclined scholar isn’t assigning malevolent intent to music per se, their position still challenges the essentially Romantic belief in music’s unworldliness. Hence the bewilderment of Davies’s imagined interlocuter at how something so edifying, so enlivening, could be complicit in centuries-long regimes of colonial and industrial violence. More precisely, “isn’t music [a universal] good?”

Through a series of discrete stories, Creatures of the Air plots the development of an ideological climate under which music (of a certain kind, at least) couldn’t be imagined as anything else. But Davies’s larger contribution is tracing that Romantic musical aesthetic to contemporaneous anthropogenic transformations in which the interests of capital and empire reimagined the air itself into an extractable resource for controlling life across the planet. The upshot is the nineteenth century’s investment in music as free of all airborne contaminants—biological, moral, racial—and cleared of any social, political-economic, or global-colonial implications. It’s important to note that the music in question comes from the composerly tradition of the Euro-American bourgeoisie (that is, classical or art music). Thus, chapter 3 recounts the promotion of choral singing, specifically in the premiere of Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah (1846), among Birmingham’s labor force to combat the effects of polluted air. By contrast, legal strategies for dealing with perceived atmospheric crises around Brazil’s resource-rich Amazonia—the subject of chapter 4—targeted local, syncretic musical traditions, racialized as Black, for suppression.

Creatures of the Air is also a history of things heard, touched, breathed, and felt. Piercing the nineteenth century’s vacuum-packed conception of music, Davies spins each self-contained chapter out of a network of sounding objects, from climate-controlled performance halls and bell jars to possessive spirits and wax cylinders. Linking them all is the airy realm of music, a field of (disavowed) materiality that is alternatively haunting and life-giving. Case in point, chapter 1 takes place on the shores of the Gabon Estuary, just north of the equator, where colonial anxieties over the malarial (that is, “bad air”) climate are experienced as fear of racialized contagion (p. 33). There, English explorer Sarah Bowditch crafted her ethnographic account of an African singer’s virtuosic performance on the ngombi harp. Drawing on contemporary geo-humoral theories of race, Davies points to the musician’s albinism (to Bowditch, an uncanny whiteness) as the essential factor enabling the Englishwoman to hear the song as an outpouring of musical genius (à la Handelian oratorio) in spite of his supposedly primitive trappings and sickly environment.

The final chapter returns to Gabon a century later, picking up with Albert Schweitzer's search for civilizational life support through an ironclad piano in the jungle. Aside from humanitarian work, Schweitzer’s great passion was salvaging neglected organs around Europe from disrepair. It’s hardly surprising, then, to hear him fretting over what he saw as the “suicide” of European civilization, a problem he hoped to solve by harnessing the essential life force of the equatorial climate (p. 179). Here, the strains of Johann Sebastian Bach emanating from Schweitzer’s specialty piano—designed to withstand the humidity during his extended medical mission—act as a kind of test case for the European spirit writ large, an experimental treatment for mass loss of (white) vitality. It is an unfortunately timely tale as right-wing harbingers of civilizational suicide in Europe fearmonger over declining birth rates, immigration, and trans visibility, all the while upholding masterworks of certain Central European composers as the sacred heritage of the West. If Schweitzer was considered “the greatest man in the world” by Life in 1947, hopefully we are today better equipped to recognize the patterns of racial paternalism and ethno-cultural revanchism in both his humanitarian and musical praxes.[1]

Circumnavigating the North Atlantic basin, Creatures of the Air maintains a global perspective across six hyperlocal stories set between Africa, Europe, and the Americas, always sensitive to historical contingencies and material realities. Though while the metanarrative hems toward what Davies terms an “‘equatorialism,’” what exactly it would mean to “confound hemispheres” remains fuzzy (p. 3). For example, chapters 2 and 5 explore attempts to tame breath and reconfigure the role of individual organs and bodies in the production of vocal sound under the July Monarchy in Paris and Gilded Age New York, respectively. While the stakes within each episode are compelling, they lack the same climatological urgency as those set in the colonial peripheries. This comes through also in Davies’s clear-eyed use of white in the first chapter to describe the European colonial presence in equatorial Africa (“white sciences of nature,” “white civilization,” “white spirits of free trade,” and others) (pp. 28, 32, 35). Sustaining some version of that rhetorical thread through the northerly chapters may have helped highlight the relationship between modern/colonial investments in whiteness, environmental purity, and the innocence of music. If these themes are sometimes elusive, Davies nevertheless makes a persuasive case for their consequential roles in planetary transformation in this creative account of musical aesthetics and atmospheric discovery.


[1] See “The Greatest Man in the World: That is What Some People Call Albert Schweitzer, Jungle Philosopher,” Life, 6 Oct. 1947, pp. 95–98.