There is a great passage in Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World where Humboldt, the 18th/19th century German naturalist, noticed the way the Mauritia palm tree interacted within its ecosystem of the Llanos in South America :

“Humboldt had seen the palms already in the rain forest but here in the Llanos they had a unique function…

The Mauritia fruits attracted birds, the leaves shielded the wind, and the soil that had blown in and accumulated behind the trunks retained more moisture than anywhere else in the Llanos, sheltering insects and worms…This one tree, he said, ‘spreads life around it in the desert’. Humboldt had discovered the idea of a keystone species, a species that is as essential for an ecosystem as a keystone is to an arch, almost 200 years before the concept was named. For Humboldt the Mauritia palm was the ‘tree of life’ – the perfect symbol of nature as a living organism”.

Keystone species like the Mauritia palm are categorized into subsets. Two subsets in particular are worthy of note.

One of which is the mutualists. These keystone species engage in exchanges that leave a positive impact not only for both parties but for the whole ecosystem.

Then there are the engineers. What engineers do is manipulate the environment in a way that effects the ecosystem for the better.

Are there such things as keystone species in music? Could we take out artist A or venue B and severely impact a music scene? Seems plausible enough. However, this paints a rather extreme light on a couple artists; as if they are holding the threads of music together.

So why bother?

The concept of keystone species can help us grasp the bigger idea of music being an ecosystem. How its components interrelate can be articulated through the actions of the mutualist and engineer subsets.

Keystone species, then, reflect how all nodes of a musical ecosystem, not just a select few, can nurture and contribute to it.


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