Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Music in a Changing Climate

     I've been remiss in failing to post a description of the "music in a changing climate" event at the University of Minnesota last April. What I contributed on "The Sounds of Climate Change" is an ongoing project, and it will be good to get some of those ideas out here now, as this research blog is meant to do.
      Sixty years ago, in Northrup Auditorium, at the University of Minnesota, the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra regularly performed the standard concert repertoire under the baton of composer Antal Dorati. Last April, the audience there was treated to more contemporary sounds, including a composition by Daniel Crawford and recordings of the songs of hermit thrushes. “Music in a Changing Climate” was the name of the event, and it featured talks by three ecomusicologists, as well as Crawford himself performing “A Song of Our Warming Planet.” For his 2013 composition, Crawford worked with data from the Goddard Institute of Space Studies on warming global temperatures from 1880 to the present. It has been featured in Slate and the New York Times, and has even been tweeted by Al Gore.
      In the same year Crawford composed “A Song of Our Warming Planet,” I recorded the songs of hermit thrushes in the spruce forest outside my home on an island off the Maine coast. I began my talk for the Northrup audience on “The Sounds of Climate Change” with these recordings, later informing the audience that, on account of global warming, within a generation no one on that island would any longer hear those birdsongs in our forest.
      According to Aaron Allen, one of the founders of the movement, and one of the speakers at the event in Minnesota’s Northrup Auditorium last April, ecomusicology is the formal name for a new field that is attracting musicians, composers, scholars and scientists interested in music, sound, nature, culture, and the environment. His definition of ecomusicology in the new Grove Dictionary of American Music is the standard reference at present, while presses are competing to publish books on the subject. Current Directions in Ecomusicology, edited by Aaron Allen and Kevin Dawe, will be out from Routledge later this year, and the Oxford Handbook of Ecomusicology, edited by Sabine Feisst, is in preparation. Already the subject of three major conferences, ecomusicology includes a great many topics, music and climate change among them. Musicologists who are interested in doing ecomusicology research and write about composers and compositions that represent and involve the environment, and they pay attention to contemporary musicians and composers who raise consciousness about environmental degradation, global warming, and the like. At Northrup Auditorium, musicologist Denise von Glahn spoke about a composition that evoked the atmosphere of Mount Everest, composer Libby Larsen’s “Up Where the Air Gets Thin.” With climate change and the melting of the polar ice caps, the summit of Mount Everest is also experiencing great changes, and as a result the mini-industry of tourism surrounding the mountain today, along with its symbolism as a once-unconquerable force of nature, is also undergoing change. A performance of Larsen’s piece was also part of the “Music in a Changing Climate” program.
     Today, with an increasing number of ethnomusicologists, ecologists, and scholars in sound studies gathering under the banner of ecomusicology, the subject is broadening to include soundscape ecology, indigenous people’s ideas about music, sound and nature, and the sounds of the built environment. Included in the presentations at the most recent ecomusicology conference was a plant scientist’s presentation on her research about how plants use sound to communicate with insects and with other plants, and a documentary film on Greenpeace’s attempts to get guitar manufacturers to use more sustainable forest wood in the manufacture of their instruments. As many people know, Brazilian rosewood, used to make the sides and backs of the most expensive guitars, is now an endangered species, protected against export by the government of Brazil, while pernambuco, from which the best violin bows are constructed, is also an endangered wood. For that reason, and others, ecomusicologists are increasingly concerned about music and sustainability.
     After I began my talk on the sounds of climate change with the recordings of bird songs that will vanish from their accustomed places as a result of global warming, I told the audience how last year I heard the sound of climate change. An unusual early November storm was shaking the Maine coast: fast-falling, heavy wet snow with winds of 40 knots and the ground wet and loose from the October rains. I was out on my porch in the middle of the snowstorm, taking it all in. The big branches of the tall, slender spruce trees were waving back and forth in the gale, needles piling up with wet snow, looking like so many Shivas moving their arms about. Suddenly I heard a loud crack, and knew at once it was a spruce trunk snapping in two. I saw it go, a big one, at the edge of a field a hundred yards away, crashing down across the path into the woods. That day thousands of trees would break and topple in the storm, on the island where I live, and it would take five days before the power would be restored and five months before the damage was cleared out and cleaned up. In the presence of nature then I experienced a solemn beauty, awe and terror: the sound of climate change.
     
     Or at least I thought I’d experienced it. Was this really the sound of climate change, or instead a poetic indulgence in the pathetic fallacy, the idea that somehow the natural and human world express the same feelings, albeit in different ways? Scientists tell us that most animals communicate in sound with members of their own species. But behavioral ecologists also point out that one species gains knowledge from listening to sounds made by other species, sounds that may not be meant for the eavesdroppers—as they call them—at all, but which they nevertheless put to use. Alarm calls that warn of predators alert all species within hearing range are important examples. Perhaps, then, when I heard the horrific storm, and listened to the spruce trees cracking and toppling, I was eavesdropping on nature’s alarm call, portending climate change for any and all who heard it.
     The signs of climate change are all around us; the role of humankind in accelerating it is obvious to all but those who deny it on account of ignorance or a narrow and short-sighted self-interest. As the Paris climate change conference approaches at the end of November, we may hope that the delegates too are hearing nature’s alarm calls loud enough so that at last they will commit the inhabitants of the earth to doing something about it.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Update on Music, Torture, and the APA

     On August 7, the American Psychological Association's Council of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to prohibit its members from "participating in national security interrogations." Their vote would ban member psychologists from advising the Department of Defense on enhanced interrogation techniques (aka torture)--please see my previous blog entry for details of their involvement. Their press release gives the text of the resolution and also notes that it does not prevent APA members from advising on "domestic law enforcement interrogations or domestic detention settings where detainees are under the protection of the US Constitution."

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Music, Torture, and the APA


Torture Chamber, Belgium. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
           Is any music not worth sustaining? Except in jest, I’ve never encountered an argument in favor of a language or a music going extinct; but what about harmful musical practices? Music used for torture, for instance? It’s true: the US military has tortured prisoners by playing recorded music, continuously and at ear-splitting volume. In conversation with a US Air Force Academy graduate this morning, I learned that Academy cadets were tortured by, among other things, music, to toughen them up psychologically as well as physically.
            I raise the issue because of the release, a couple of weeks ago, of an independent investigative report commissioned by the American Psychological Association (APA), the largest professional association of psychologists in the United States. APA members are college and university professors, licensed psychologists in freelance practice, those working for various corporations and organizations (including the US military), and those engaged primarily in private, but funded, research. The APA officers commissioned the report to learn the extent, if any, of their organization’s complicity in Defense Department (DoD) activities during the war on terror under the Bush-Cheney Administration. As the report itself explains, “The specific question APA has asked us to consider and answer is whether APA officials colluded with DoD, CIA, or other government officials ‘to support torture.’ […] As a result of our investigation, we can report what happened and why. And as part of that description, we answer whether there was collusion between APA and government officials, and if so, what its purpose was.” This is an important story. First, of course, it shows that music is not always benign nor should it be sustained unquestioningly. Second, it reveals how a scholarly society and some of its members can become corrupted. For in an atmosphere of increasing professionalization, scholarly societies work to increase their power and influence, both in academia and in the public arena; and they work to advance the careers of their members. In this case, the APA advanced its profession’s importance by supporting US military torture, rewriting its own ethics rules to permit its members to advise the torturers, and in this way provided ethical cover for acts that are illegal as well as immoral when judged by international standards such as the Geneva Conventions. 
            Of course, it’s not news that psychologists advise military organizations on torture—how to do it, how to withstand it—and it shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows about the psychological operations of the Nazi and Soviet regimes. Less well known, perhaps, is the US and its Allies’ psyops activities in programming US rock music on radio stations during the recovery period after the Balkan wars 20 years ago. Torture surfaced again with Abu Garaib in 2004, though music didn’t appear part of it. But not long after, I learned from progressive media sources that continuous, loud music was a part of the torture arsenal used by the US military on detainees held in secret places outside the US. I thought that my professional organization, the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM), ought to take a stand against this. And so, as a member of the SEM Ethics Committee, in 2005 I proposed that we petition our SEM Executive Board to issue a position statement condemning the uses of music for torture and demanding that the US government stop doing it. The proposal was approved unanimously in the Ethics Committee and sent up to the Board for action. Meanwhile, other ethnomusicologists were at work on the topic. For example, in 2006 Susan Cusick published an important essay, "Music as Torture / Music as Weapon," which she described as an "attempt to understand the military and cultural logics on which the contemporary use of music as a weapon in torture and war is based."
In 2007 the Board approved our position statement and posted it on the SEM website, where it received attention from the media and from other scholarly societies.             
          The just-released investigative report on the APA confirms that the US military tortured detainees in the war on terror with music. New to me in the report was that the APA itself was implicated, as an organization. In other words, it wasn’t just that politically conservative psychologists advised the military on music and other kinds of torture, but that an academic society did so. The report concludes that officers of the American Psychological Association, and especially the head of their Ethics Committee (!), acting on its behalf and in its name, condoned torture and supported those psychologists who helped the US military engage in it. This may seem like a fine line to draw, between individuals and an organization, when torture is torture; but let’s recall that to this group, torture wasn’t torture. As someone who’s spent many decades as a card-carrying member of two other academic organizations, and now as an officer of one of them, I am troubled over how and why the officers of such an organization might have chosen to do what they did.
            I started talking to some non-academic friends who’d been following the story for several years. They hadn’t yet read the investigative report, but on the basis of previous revelations offered me some reasons why the APA might have done as it did. One said the psychologists were paid off, in grants and other favors; another, the former Air Force cadet, thought that they would have rationalized it on the grounds of “just war” doctrine. Certainly the Bush-Cheney Administration took pains to present US policy as a war (on terror) rather than as an initiative to prevent and contain terrorism. The investigative report confirms these explanations.  Besides, it adds what I also suspected: that the APA itself as an organization was implicated, and that they did it in order to enhance the power and importance of their profession. How could a scholarly society do something like that? And why? I was all the more disturbed because, as a scholar myself, I felt it as a blow to the high ideals of my chosen profession.
            Here, now, is the story of the APA and torture, according to the independent investigative report. In the years immediately following 911, the US Justice Department defined torture (for the CIA) in a much narrower way than it is usually understood, and in 2003, Defense Department lawyers concluded in a report that “a U.S. law barring torture by military personnel was inapplicable to interrogations of detainees, and that causing harm to an individual in U.S. custody abroad could be justified ‘in order to prevent further attacks’ on the United States by terrorists” (p. 3). They added, astonishingly, that the Geneva Conventions were not applicable either. By early 2005, most of the DoD report’s conclusions had been made public, along with stories in the media documenting instances of detainees having been tortured. There was pushback from the progressive media, along with charges that US psychologists were working for, and with, the military. Under the pressure of this ferment, the APA President created the so-called “PENS” task force (Presidential Task Force on Ethics and National Security), appointing a group of APA members, including the then APA Ethics Director, and charged it with formulating ethical guidelines for its members working with the Department of Defense (DoD). The task force published those guidelines in June of 2005. How were those guidelines determined? The independent investigation’s report found that “key APA officials, principally the APA Ethics Director, joined and supported at times by other APA officials, colluded with important DoD officials to have APA issue loose, high-level ethical guidelines that did not constrain DoD in any greater fashion than existing DoD interrogation guidelines. We concluded that APA’s principal motive in doing so was to align APA and curry favor with DoD. There were two other important motives: to create a good public-relations response, and to keep the growth of psychology unrestrained in this area” (p.9).
            That is a devastating conclusion: APA is guilty as charged. It confirms suspicions that it was done to protect and enhance the research opportunities of individual psychologists already working with the Defense Department. It points to the APA Ethics Director as the chief instigator, reporting that from 2005-2008, after manipulating the guidelines, he further “engaged in a pattern of secret collaboration with DoD officials” to defeat opposition within the APA, and that he also “formed an undisclosed joint venture with a small number of DoD officials to ensure that APA’s statements and actions fell squarely in line with DoD’s goals and preferences” (p. 9). That the Ethics Director—who of all people should have followed the Geneva Conventions—was the villain is worse than ironic.
            Insofar as blame can be laid on individuals working for personal gain, or on behalf of a misguided patriotism in which ends justify means, members of the APA (and those outside of it) can continue to oppose these practices directly. Procedures such as censure, new guidelines, and so forth can be formulated, debated and acted on; and they should. In fact, some already have. In the court of public opinion, the APA is shamed once again. More sinister, more diffuse, and well worth pondering is the report’s conclusion that the APA had two other motives: to align the psychology profession with forces of political and economic power, and to enhance its prestige. How could that happen, in an association of scholars, professors, and researchers whose chief motivation for their work is, presumably, the advancement of knowledge and the pursuit of objective truth independent of parochial considerations, subjective feelings, and political influence? We understand that doctors and health organizations engaged in eugenics research have perpetrated horrors on human beings, whether in Nazi Germany, or among African Americans in the US. But the APA, an association of scholars, researchers and practitioners whose stated “mission is to advance the creation, communication, and application of psychological knowledge,” would seem to have loftier goals. Indeed, the American Medical Association (AMA) and the American Psychiatric Association developed ethical guidelines that prevented their members from participating in US military torture. Why did the the psychologists do the opposite?
            Academic societies such as SEM were founded primarily to share research and understanding, and to add to the storehouse of knowledge about their subject. Certain other professional organizations, for at least as long as I can recall, developed an additional purpose: to help advance the careers of their members, and the reputation and stature of their profession in the public eye. The AMA is one. Fifty years ago, the AMA was a very vocal opponent of Medicare. They lost that battle, and Medicare became law. I don’t know the history of the APA, but one imagines they have a similar dual orientation. Career and reputation building has lately come, also, to scholarly organizations in the humanities, such as SEM. In the 1970s it was absent, but gradually it increased in the 1980s, until now the SEM Board believes that an important part of its mission is to promote ethnomusicology and to help its members in their careers. Graduate students are offered training, by SEM and at their graduate schools, in what is called professional development. Professional development now characterizes graduate training generally, no matter the field. And professional development is implicated among the causes of this corruption.
            I witnessed the change at my own university, beginning in the early 1990s. Until then, most professors advised graduate students individually, chiefly one-on-one in discussions that, until they were looking for jobs, were about their graduate school work and had little if anything to do with careers. I myself got no career advice and didn’t wish for it; I assumed that good work would be properly rewarded and any career would take care of itself. Naive, of course, but to me careers were things people had in the business world; teaching was a calling, not a career. Teaching assistants—those graduate students who worked with professors to help lead discussion, give an occasional lecture, and grade papers and exams under professorial supervision—were treated as interns in the best cases, and as merely paid labor in the worst. But in the last fifteen years of the past century, a change occurred. First, Brown developed a center for the advancement of college teaching, where graduate students and young professors could ask for advice on how to teach more effectively, and on how to think about a career in teaching. Next, the Graduate School began discussions with professors teaching in doctoral programs, suggesting that it would be wise to emphasize professional development along with the usual course work, qualifying exams, and dissertation research and writing. It was important for our graduates to compete well on the job market, for their own sakes and for the sake of the reputation of our program and the university. Our programs would be rewarded, in part, on how successful our graduates were in getting jobs at peer institutions—a high bar indeed. This was an early example of professional development to benefit programs, institutions, and professions as well as individuals. At the outset the impetus came from university administrators and also from young, newly-tenured professors who felt that career advice was important and who were eager to offer it to our students on a more formal basis. Soon the students themselves were asking for it, and expecting it, although some were critical of it. They wanted to know how to write grant proposals, but they did not want to engage in grantsmanship. If teaching was an art, teaching how to teach was difficult; there was no one way to do it, and while courses armed with procedures, explanations, and exercises in teaching techniques could be helpful, they might also reduce an art to a mere craft, like a model constructed from a standard blueprint.
            Besides noting the growing professionalization in graduate programs, I witnessed it in the scholarly associations I belong to. Until the late 1980s, these groups of humanists operated mostly as annual conferences and scholarly journals. They had had officers, collected dues, disbursed payments; the officers met once or twice a year to discuss the conference, the publications, and other business; but as entities they came together only at the annual conferences. The conferences and publications were for presenting research, and for sharing and debating ideas. They also were a convenient, if compromised, place to conduct job interviews—the meat market, as the larger societies called it. Toward the end of the 1980s, these groups began to establish themselves as more permanent, daily operating, non-profit organizations. They raised endowments to secure their futures. They established offices, and hired and paid executive directors to work in them. Boards composed of members now assumed responsibilities for good governance of the Societies, not just oversight of the conferences and publications. They initiated conference panels on professional development and careers, targeted at graduate students. They published, on their websites, statements meant to guide colleges and universities in understanding and rewarding the kinds of work their members did. They engaged in publicity and advertised themselves to the world on the Internet, while their sites became bulletin boards for their members. Finally, as non-profits they sought grants of their own, engaged in various projects, and attempted to raise the profile and prestige of their professions. These activities intensified in the first decades of the new century. As a current member of the AFS Executive Board, I witness this directly and am a part of it.
            Much can be said in favor of professional development. Of course it’s important for a professor to learn how to be a good teacher. Beginning professors, those who’ve just gotten their PhD degrees, often believe that their primary allegiance is to their profession, their discipline, their subject; devoted to that ideal, they present material with integrity in the classroom and are disappointed when students don’t share (or even understand) the same ideal and aren’t especially interested in the subject. Beginning professors don’t realize that they are the ones who must bridge the gulf between their subtle appreciation for their subject and the students’ puzzlement over it. Professors learn, sooner or later, that to teach is not merely to explain a subject, however well presented; to teach also means to learn to connect with the human beings who have agreed to study with their teacher. And, of course, a researcher must learn how to do research, how to write it up, how to bring it to the attention of others; how to apply for jobs, and what to expect in them; how to balance research with teaching and other activities, how to work with granting agencies in order to fund research; how to work with publishers; how to manage their careers and advance in them; how to obtain tenure if they are on a tenure track; and so on. Many promising careers have foundered, not because the research was insignificant or badly done, but because the researcher didn’t know how to treat it afterwards. It is easy to say to oneself that any research that has merit will automatically demonstrate that merit, as if it would emit such a bright light that everyone would recognize and reward it. But it seldom happens that way. Professional development, particularly in a highly competitive academic world, is helpful and today almost a necessity for a career that involves research, teaching, or a combination of the two.
            Yet professional development can sometimes devolve into careerism. In advancing their careers, professors might act selfishly, even ruthlessly. They may choose certain research topics not out of interest, nor the social benefit that might come out of it, nor as a place to make an original contribution to knowledge, but because grants to fund it are easier to get. And success in grants and funding gives an edge on the job market and career. Professors and researchers may seek out particular research topics, colleagues, and publication outlets because these are more prestigious. They may spend more time “networking” with colleagues in a position to do them favors, than with colleagues with whom they might share ideas. They might not share their ideas at all; they may be highly protective of field sites as well. They may try to make their teaching load easier (fewer students, fewer assignments, more repeat courses) in order to spend more time on research and publication, where most institutional rewards are. They may inflate student grades because they worry over negative student evaluations.
            Much can also be said in favor of professional development for scholarly societies. Putting them on a strong organizational footing benefits members as well as their disciplines. Raising their public profile helps bring their insights into the public sphere where they have something to contribute to the commonwealth of knowledge and practice. Better public relations; growth in numbers, prestige and power—whether these are worthy goals depends on the uses to which they are put. My point here about professional development is that in an atmosphere where scholarly societies are concerned about their sustainability, standing and influence, it becomes tempting to relax ethical standards while cooperating with the US military or other government or corporate entities, supposedly to advance the self-interest of the societies and some of their members. This is, to say the least, disquieting.
            For ethnomusicologists, much is at stake. While it might seem far-fetched for folklorists or ethnomusicologists to collaborate with the military on torture, recall that cultural anthropologists regularly consult on foreign policy, where their knowledge serves national goals, whether war, colonial rule, agricultural revolutions, modernization or foreign aid. Like the cultural anthropologists, folklorists and ethnomusicologists who are consulted may be held responsible for the bad as well as the good. In fact, this was the principal objection, among the founding generation of ethnomusicologists in the US (roughly from the 1950s through the 1970s) to applied ethnomusicology. In The Study of Ethnomusicology (1983), Bruno Nettl had little good to say about applied anthropologists, whose efforts were not always or even often appreciated by indigenous peoples; he classified applied ethnomusicologists in the same category. I raise these issues in the context of an ongoing (though today, not very public) critique of applied ethnomusicology; namely, that applied ethnomusicologists also “meddle” in political affairs (through music and cultural policy) where they have no business, because academics ought to be objective, neutral observers and interpreters. Of course, applied ethnomusicologists do meddle, and intervene, for what we hope will be social benefits; but then the academic psychologists who advised the US military in its war on terror also did so on the grounds of contributing to the social benefit of opposing terrorism, saving lives, and so on. It seems to me there are two ways of proceeding, and that we can learn from the example of the APA. One way is to withdraw completely from applied work; the other is to adhere to strict international standards of ethics and justice, and never assume that the end justifies the means. I will have more to say about this in future entries.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Applied Ethnomusicology Handbook published

    A few days ago Oxford University Press published the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, co-edited by Svanibor Pettan and myself. This book offers essays from nearly 25 different contributors, including those of the editors. Nearly 900 pages long, it contains articles from ethnomusicologists who work in North America, Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia. I contributed two essays: one is an article on sustainability, resilience, adaptive management, and applied ethnomusicology; the other is a historical and descriptive introduction to applied ethnomusicology. The latter was the basis for my Botkin Lecture at the Library of Congress, in January 2015. A video webcast of that lecture will be posted on the Library's website later this year.
   In the Handbook I define applied ethnomusicology as ethnomusicology put to practical use in a community for a social improvement, a cultural good, an economic advantage, a musical benefit, or a combination of these. Guided by ethical principles of social responsibility, human rights, and musical and cultural equity, applied work greatly appeals to contemporary ethnomusicologists.
   As this book was eight years in the making, it may be of interest to know how, and why, it took so long, and what the process was from start to finish. Why, one might wonder, would it take eight years to put an edited book together from start to finish? Anyone wishing to embark on or be part of a similar project might want to know. 
    The Oxford Handbook’s eight years comprised the time it took to determine the shape of the book, produce a proposal, obtain the contributions from the various authors (including the editors), and for the various parts of the book to go through multiple review processes. Once the book was in production—that is, in copyediting, and then putting it into page proofs and eventually books—it went quickly. The project got under way sometime in 2008 when Oxford editor Suzanne Ryan first approached Svanibor with an idea for such a Handbook, and he suggested me as co-editor. Svanibor, who is a professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Ljubljana, in Slovenia, would work to invite his colleagues, particularly from the International Council on Traditional Music (ICTM), an international organization with many active European members. I would invite my colleagues, particularly from the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM), also an international organization but with most of its members in North America. In the fall of 2008 I met with Suzanne at the annual SEM conference, and confirmed agreement to co-edit the volume with Svanibor. In 2009 we moved toward a preliminary proposal, with a list of potential contributors; we submitted this to Oxford, they approved, and they asked for a full proposal with a list of committed authors and article abstracts from all of them. In 2010 we began the process of inviting authors and learning whether they would contribute, and what; while we tried to shape the full proposal. We discussed the content of the proposal, the intended themes, audience, and which authors to invite. We asked a few potential authors and found many needed time to make up their minds and decide what they might write on; meanwhile, we tried to shape the volume thematically and work towards the full proposal.
    By early 2011 we had many of the authors’ verbal commitments, and we issued formal invitations. A few authors said they felt unable to commit the necessary time to the project, but most accepted, and we awaited the abstracts of their proposed articles. They arrived by the end of the year, whereupon we sent them with a second draft of the proposal to Oxford, whose editor made comments meant for the individual authors, in an attempt to improve their abstracts and eventual articles. Svanibor and I had responses of our own, of course, and we discussed it all with Oxford, eventually returning to the authors with some suggestions for them to revise their abstracts. This process played itself out by the end of 2011, when we sent off our full book proposal along with the revised abstracts.
    Oxford then sent the full proposal and revised abstracts off to external reviewers, for they needed outside referees to advise them on whether they thought it was a worthwhile project and that it should go forward. This review took some nine months, and by early fall of 2012 we had Oxford’s approval to go forward, as well as a contract for us and the contributors. We asked the authors to write their articles and let us have them by May of 2013, but no one submitted on time; we pushed the deadline back to the end of August of 2013, and a few months after that the last articles straggled in. Off they went to Oxford for a second external review—this time, a review of the articles, not the proposal and abstracts—and, predictably, this also took several months but, again, the reports came back in May of 2014 and were positive, albeit with many suggestions for the authors for revision. And so in May of 2014 the authors began revising once more. After all the essays were in, Svanibor and I planned to put the finishing touches on our Introduction and return the whole project to Oxford by August 15 so they could put the book into production. It took a little more time to get everyone’s essay and to put the whole volume together, but in early fall we were able to do that, Oxford put the book into copyediting, returned the essays for correction, put the copyedited essays into pages, which we proofread, and then after more corrections, turned them all into bound books, with the official publication date of June 29, 2015, eight years after we began.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Scott Walker's Assault on Sustainability

     In my last entry I suggested that anyone who wanted to become an ethnomusicologist should realize that the usual path to this profession, through graduate school and the Ph.D. degree leading to a career as a professor in a college or university, was harder now that it was a few decades ago. The doctoral programs are graduating more ethnomusicologists than there are professorships available for them. Some graduates seek careers elsewhere, in museums, arts organizations, as journalists, and so on, while others remain on board the academic vessel, in 2nd class cabins as adjunct (i.e., part-time) professors for low pay and few, if any, benefits such as subsidies toward health care, retirement, etc. I’ve written earlier about the trend among presidents and boards of trustees to run colleges and universities as corporate businesses, generating profits in certain areas such as fund-raising, so as to support other areas and compete for students, faculty, attractive facilities and, of course, administrators capable of generating income. The difficulties arising from running colleges as corporations stem ultimately from the divergence between business values and educational values. Whereas business values competition and efficiency, education values collaboration and the free play of ideas, which is inherently inefficient. Education is far more process-oriented, whereas business values emphasize results.
     If the current assault on the tenure system in higher education succeeds, then the prospect for aspiring college and university teachers takes a further turn for the worse, while US higher education's sustainability is further threatened. Now, security of the position and tenure’s guarantee that a professor’s teaching and research must be free from political interference is in jeopardy. Ten days ago, the news media carried stories on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s attempts to do away with tenure at the state colleges and universities. Walker proposes to eliminate tenure and also some faculty decision-making authority regarding curriculum, research, and staffing. The idea behind it, say Walker and his Republican supporters, is to enable university administrators to “be more like a business and nimble in how they govern,” according to the US News & World Report.
    This change would enable administrators to hire faculty to teach this year’s fashionable subjects, and fire those whose offerings were no longer popular, as if math and history and physics and literature and engineering and music were marketplace products subject to the law of supply and demand. Competition in the educational marketplace, as in the business world generally, must be a good thing, they reason, as the best products will out-compete the others. The Wisconsin Board of Regents, most appointed by Gov. Walker, just recently approved many of his proposals, despite overwhelming opposition from faculty and students at Wisconsin colleges and universities.
     And if this change occurs in one state, Wisconsin, pressure will mount for others to take similar action in order to compete. The end of the tenure system and faculty authority concerning curricula, research, and staffing means the end of academic freedom—the rights of free speech granted to faculty—that enabled the growth of knowledge and its expression at the university without threat of faculty being fired for exercising that right. Professors without tenure could under this new regime be fired, and students expelled, for expressing minority views on such topics as climate change, labor unions, foreign policy, racial profiling, or the roundness of the earth. Although the First Amendment guarantees the right of free speech, it doesn’t guarantee the right not to be fired from a job as a professor unless that right is accompanied by the academic freedom that has been guaranteed in the US by tenure for at least a century.
    These efforts can be viewed within the larger trend toward turning the colleges and universities from collegially organized and governed institutions, where tenured professors were responsible to their colleagues and to the profession, into corporations organized and governed hierarchically, where the privileges of freedom of inquiry no longer operate. Of course, it isn’t only professors who suffer under these conditions. Teaching, research, knowledge and its application suffers as well under a regime of fear, as does public discourse. Professors fled Nazi Germany and Soviet countries in the last century—if they could get away—on account of political interference; academic freedom guaranteed in the US was, for them especially, an expression of the principles of freedom on which the US was founded. It is vital that not only professors and students but also the public at large vigorously oppose Gov. Walker’s efforts to politicize higher education.


Saturday, May 16, 2015

Going to Graduate School in Ethnomusicology?

    Daniel Drezner, a Tufts professor of political science, has been writing opinion pieces in the Washington Post and elsewhere offering advice to students who seek college and university teaching careers. Professors traditionally have sustained higher education (and themselves) by reproducing their kind through professional training in graduate school, leading to the PhD degree. More broadly, music education (formal and informal) sustains music cultures from one generation to the next. Today, as I’ve remarked here before, higher education (and the professoriate), as it has existed in the US for more than a hundred years, is in jeopardy. What else should undergraduate students who’d like to become ethnomusicology professors know about the future of that profession and their chances of being a part of it? I’ll get to that in a moment, but first let’s see what Drezner has to say. Like ethnomusicology, political science (despite having the word science in its name) falls outside of the STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and math)  getting the most support in educational institutions these days. The non-STEM subjects aren’t as popular as they once were, not because students don't like them, but because the public believes they’re not cost-effective career preparation. In other words, students graduating with high loan debt (as so many do today) are thought best served by specializing in STEM subjects because they're more likely to get a well-paying job. It's easy to make fun of the non-STEM major who winds up repeating "Would you like that for here, or to go?"--but back in the day the argument ran that a liberal arts major was better prepared as a citizen and human being for leadership or for professional school afterward. Today that argument is no longer as effective as it once was, though it's no less true.
    In 2012 Drezner wrote a column advising would-be graduate students in political science how to tailor their preparation, applications, and behavior toward getting into the school of their choice. Evidently at that time, he must have thought a PhD was a wise choice. But his most recent columns suggest that no one should enter graduate school in political science unless (a) they’re accepted to the top graduate programs (he does not name them), because otherwise they’ll never get hired as a professor after they graduate; and (b) their primary motivation is to learn, and they won’t be too disappointed if they can never find a full-time job as a political science professor anyway. The job market for political science PhDs hasn’t suddenly soured in the last three years. It was just as sour three, ten, twenty years ago. But Drezner now seems to be discouraging those he once encouraged. At least he’s not giving them false hope. He should know: in 2006 he was fired after having been denied tenure at the University of Chicago. But he landed on his feet and accepted a tenured position at Tufts, where he is now a full professor in the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy as well as a non-resident fellow of the Brookings Institution and a contributing editor for the Washington Post.
    Thirty years earlier I was certain that I would be denied tenure. Although my PhD was in American studies and my specialization was in ethnomusicology, I had the MA in English and elected to join an English department. My first fulltime teaching job began in 1971 in a tenure-track position at Tufts, Drezner’s current university. I was teaching American literature and folklore and, after a couple of years, on released time from English I also was teaching an ethnomusicology course in the music department. Although my dissertation was published by a respectable university press, I thought my interests were peripheral to the mission of both departments. Then to my great good fortune I won a year's fellowship from the National Endowment for the Humanities for a second book project. This was a rare honor, and it came during the year of my tenure review. I realized that even if Tufts denied me, that honor would help me obtain a good academic position elsewhere. But in 1977 Tufts decided to award me tenure in a joint appointment as associate professor of English and associate professor of music. Now half my teaching load would be in each department, while I could pursue my research interests in both fields.
    The year after my NEH fellowship leave I returned to Tufts and was made Director of Graduate Studies in English. Up for debate soon afterwards, not at my initiative, was whether as a faculty we should continue our Ph.D. program in English literature. By 1979 the job market for English professors had gotten much worse in the previous decade (as had the chances for tenure, once hired). Our PhD graduates were not getting the multiple offers or good jobs they had been getting five years earlier; in fact, some were getting none at all, and the future looked grim. Colleges and universities, expanding in the 1960s and hiring more and more faculty, had reversed course. Was it ethically responsible for us to continue the degree? Some said no; but others argued it would be unethical to stop it because that would cheapen the degree for those who already held it. No one doubted that we had a good program; but it was not at the same level as Harvard’s and Yale’s—we didn’t have the resources, and Tufts didn’t have the reputation. We met several times to discuss the question and after a few months we voted. If I recall right, there was one more vote in favor of keeping the program than eliminating it. Predictably, those in favor took it as a vote to continue, while those opposed took it as a vote of no-confidence and argued that we should therefore drop the program. But majority ruled, the program continued, and over the years fewer and fewer graduates received academic jobs in English. At about that time, I started telling applicants not to apply unless they understood that their job prospects would be uncertain. It was a disclaimer similar to Drezner’s advice today. And now Drezner repeats it, from the same university platform, but the difference is that it’s 35 years later; and also, of course, that he’s directing it into the public sphere. And on this platform I do the same.
    I guess that the job market in political science in 1980 wasn't significantly better than in English. I suppose it’s the same today, if not worse. When I moved to Brown in 1986 to direct their Ph.D. program in ethnomusicology, though, my responsibilities were both greater and different. Now I was wholly in a music department. Like English and political science, music was experiencing contraction rather than growth in one college and university after another, but I was in a subfield (ethnomusicology) that was expanding, however gradually, in a zero-sum game. In short, the fortunes of certain subfields may improve, while others decline. In the 1980s and 1990s humanistic anthropology was in the ascendance, but today the pendulum is moving back toward scientific anthropology. Ethnomusicology has been able to profit from cultural trends that some other fields have not: pluralism and diversity, for one, and the rising popularity of world music for another. Today, with many years of hindsight, I understand that although there were better and worse periods for jobs in ethnomusicology during the past 40 years, overall the number of ethnomusicology professors greatly increased during that period, while other positions in music decreased. Last year saw more ethnomusicology job openings than usual; this year may be worse. Still, the supply today well exceeds the demand for college and university professors of ethnomusicology.
    How would I advise today’s student looking to obtain a doctoral degree in ethnomusicology? I still believe that anyone wishing to enter graduate school must consider the pleasures of mastering a body of knowledge, technique, and application, as an end in itself. How much of a reward would that mastery be, apart from a good academic job (or any academic job at all)? Tenure-track faculty positions open up each year even now, but I would guess there are five times as many qualified ethnomusicologists looking as there are positions for them. And many more apply who are not qualified. Outside of colleges and universities, positions for ethnomusicologists do exist: in museums, in other non-profit organizations, NGOs, arts councils, and the like; but most of these should require only the MA, not the PhD. It’s possible, also, to take that mastery and work in the music industry, or as an author and journalist. Graduate work in ethnomusicology may be combined with a degree in library science in order to prepare for a career as a music archivist. One may become an entrepreneur in the world music field, making films and producing recordings, though of course an ethnomusicology degree is not a prerequisite. I’m not aware of any MA programs in ethnomusicology tailored for these public and private sector jobs outside of academia, but I wouldn’t be surprised if in five or ten years a few enterprising universities established them.
    Drezner writes that to have any chance at an academic career in political science today, it’s necessary to go to a top-tier university for graduate work. About twenty US universities meet this criterion, he says. These would for the most part correspond to the top twenty in the US News and World Report's annual overall rankings of research universities. Brown is ranked 16th there; Tufts is 27th. But while most of those top twenty US universities have PhD programs in political science, only nine of them have a doctoral program with a specialization in ethnomusicology. Some excellent ethnomusicology PhD programs exist at lower-tier research universities: for example, at UCLA (ranked 23rd), Michigan (ranked 29th), NYU (ranked 32nd), Illinois (ranked 42nd), Florida and Washington (tied at 48th), Texas (ranked 53rd), Pittsburgh (ranked 62nd), Indiana (ranked 76th), and Florida State (ranked 95th). Instead of choosing a graduate program in ethnomusicology on the basis of the university’s reputation, then, it’s best for an applicant to seek out those professors whose published research they most admire, and then apply to the schools where those professors teach, planning to study with them. In my view, a PhD ethnomusicology from Florida State does not have a significant disadvantage on the academic job market compared with a student from, say, Columbia (one of the top-tier universities). Still, those I named plus those in the top 20 US universities overall make nearly 20 doctoral programs in ethnomusicology, and taken together they're graduating more PhDs each year than there are academic jobs, while the previous years' graduates who remain un- or under-employed also are still looking. It's harder for them to find a tenure-track academic job than to find a publisher for their dissertation. The reverse was true in the 20th century. One last bit of advice: sometimes, musicians having a hard time making ends meet think a graduate degree in ethnomusicology will provide a day job for their musical career. I believe they should think again, because graduate work is so time-consuming it doesn’t leave enough time to sustain a musical career, let alone to keep performance skills at a high enough level even to have one.
       

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Music Sustains People


     I’m writing from Minneapolis, where I traveled to take part in an event on music, sound, and climate change. A year and a half ago, Aaron Allen, Denise Von Glahn and I met to give a plenary “trialogue” on sound and sustainability at a conference in Nashville, and afterwards we were invited to do a reprise at the University of Minnesota. This is the event that came of it, in celebration of Earth Day, a week later than the actual day but nonetheless the time when it could be arranged for all. The event takes place later today, but I flew in from Maine two days ago, and had a chance to walk around the university yesterday.
Vincent Hall, Univ. of Minnesota, April, 2015
Much of its appearance has changed. The grand old buildings remain, including Northrup Auditorium, with its imposing Greek columns, and Vincent Hall, with its, where many of my classes were held. Much new modern architecture, quite out of keeping with the old, has been erected throughout the campus, forming blocks of high-rise steel and glass and concrete and granite, with massive faces and few windows, in some ways looking like vast parking garages, but reminding me most of the Soviet-era buildings I saw in Beijing five years ago. One of the professors planning the event, Mark Pedelty, confirmed that impression when we had supper in Dinkytown last night, calling it Stalinist. At that point I began to couple the architecture with the ubiquitous strategic planning that has been going on at colleges and universities over the past fifteen years or so, doubtless also reflecting their transformation from educational non-profit institutions run more or less at a loss, funded by philanthropists and state legislatures, into corporations run to break even, still dependent on donations but less and less so on government funding, while the expenses of maintaining them, pro-rated on a per-student basis, have increased enormously. I’ve blogged about this before; there’s no need to repeat it, except to say that even though I wasn’t surprised to see it at my graduate alma mater, my spirits did not rise as I’d hoped they would.
    In some ways it’s surprising that I’ve been back only once before, and that was around the early 1980s, when one of the professional societies I belong to met in a downtown Minneapolis hotel, and I managed to skip out for an afternoon visit. At that time the campus had not transformed so. Today, it seems much more a model of efficiency. Buses and light rail transport students who crowd the streets, making the sidewalks look like Manhattan during rush hour. The streets and roads of the campus itself are curved, well landscaped, and do not have the look of a city; yet on the outskirts the city is clearly there. Dinkytown has upgraded and yet it was still recognizable in shape. I could see the ghosts of old shops and restaurants like Valli Pizza, where our blues band performed weekends in the “Grotto Room” in the cellar. Of course, the Valli no longer was there.
But on Washington Ave. still stood Stub and Herbs [always missing the apostrophe], now a sports bar and tavern. Stub and Herbs, or Sturbs as we used to call it, was our favorite bar on the east bank of the river, and my old friend Cameron Nickels forever burned it into my memories by deciding he would have a fiddle recital there.
    Cameron, like me a graduate student in American studies but a year ahead of me, shared my love of music and rekindled my interest in old-time and bluegrass. He was a fine singer and guitarist, and joined me as an instructor in the Scholar Music Workshop (attached to the Scholar Coffeehouse), and later in the Mill City School of Folk Music. He decided, about 1968, that he was going to learn to play the fiddle. Aged 27 or so, starting from scratch on the violin is difficult even for an experienced musician with a good ear, which he was and he had. He set himself the goal of a public fiddle recital after six months, and he asked me and another friend, Charlie Angermeyer, to accompany him. We ran thru a set of old-time songs and tunes that Cameron had learned from old hillbilly 78s, some of them recycled by the New Lost City Ramblers. He felt that bluegrass fiddling was too difficult to learn in six months, but that old-time might be possible. It turned out to be possible, barely.
    Listening back to the recording he made of it, I realized that there’s a difference between what a musician hears while performing with others, and what the audience hears. I’m not talking about a need for monitor speakers so the band can hear itself coming through the PA system, if any, but rather a difference between listening while making music and listening back to it afterwards. Listening while making music, I was intent on playing what I had in mind to play, and constantly listening to what I was playing as feedback. Of course, I also heard what Cameron and Charlie were doing, and tried to keep time with them (and succeeded); but mostly I was listening to myself, partly because I had just learned the tunes and songs. If I had known them a long time, they’d have been second nature and I could have, and would have, listened more carefully to the others rather than mostly to myself blending with them.
    Listening back, of course, I heard myself as an accompanist, while the fiddle stood out—as it should have. Now I heard the marks of a beginning fiddler, the same kinds of issues that arose when a dozen years afterward I, too, started playing the fiddle. The fiddle’s timing wasn’t always where it should have been, sometimes a bit late and sometimes a bit early. Whereas in guitar and banjo repetitive motion can set up a regular pulse beat, on the fiddle the bowing motion usually doesn’t do so except for brief periods of shuffle rhythm lasting perhaps only a second or two. Besides rhythmic issues, playing in tune is another. Precise intonation is notoriously difficult on the violin or any of the stringed instruments that do not have frets; and when a musician used to playing a fretted instrument such as a guitar takes up an unfretted one, the results can be even more problematic because intonation has not been troublesome on the earlier instrument. Worse yet, a musician usually has a “head tune” in mind—that is, an ideal melody is heard silently in the brain while its approximation is executed on the instrument. A beginning fiddler tends to confuse the two, and hear the head tune as if it’s sounding aloud; or, the musician hears them both and they blend, the melody in the mind masking the problem of playing out of tune, so that it seems more in tune than it is. But listening back to a recording, a beginning fiddler is without that head tune in mind, and hears how far out of tune the playing was.
    Of course, I don’t mean to be critical of my friend here; my own struggles on the fiddle were just as difficult, if not more so. When I began fiddling, our cat would not stay in the same room. Soon he learned to leave as I started to open the violin case. I supposed that some high-frequency squeaks beyond my hearing range were painful for him. But after a couple of years of playing, the cat no longer left the room. I don’t think it was because he was becoming hard of hearing, but because I was no longer making painful sounds. I know that even after two years I was having trouble with accurate intonation, and that for anyone who starts late in life, it’s a continuing problem—one that diminishes but never leaves entirely. After warming up, intonation seems to get better—and no doubt it does, but I think that, also, the ear adjusts. Again, listening back to recordings—this time, my own—showed that to be true.
    All those memories came back with a rush as I recalled Cameron, Charlie, and me standing up in the front of a narrow, rectangular space, on a small stage, performing for family and friends at his fiddle recital about 45 years ago. I can visualize the others—Charlie with his uncombed, long hippie hair; Cameron’s neat as always, his body stretched to its full height as he tucked the fiddle under his chin and played short, sawing bow strokes and as we all sang, and played, not especially well, but competently enough for the occasion, considering. And it was a success in the sense that we got through it, and Cameron could say that he had his fiddle recital, and then—. Well, for whatever reasons, he continued to play the fiddle but only from time to time, never progressing far enough to his satisfaction, while his singing and guitar playing continued strong. After he moved to take up a teaching job at Madison College, later James Madison University, in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, he fell in with several music groups singing and playing old-time and bluegrass music over the years, spending many of them in bands with “Two-Gun” Terry (whose last name escapes me), a fine fiddler who was kind of a local legend. Possibly because his music was more involved with rehearsals and performances than jam sessions, Cameron didn’t play the fiddle as much—there were others who could do that better, and so he stayed with what he could do well. I am speculating some here, because I know he enjoyed a good jam session too; but perhaps he felt that even there, he didn’t want to play the fiddle very much, as it would impose some on the others.
    Cameron left the University of Minnesota and found a teaching job the year before I left to do the same. We’ve kept in touch over the years, seeing each other from time to time. He had a fine time as an English professor, somewhat of a curmudgeon in his community as I understand it, an early champion of women’s rights (unusual for a man at that time and place), and a specialist in the literature of humor. He wrote several essays for academic journals and published two books on the subject, one on New England humor and the other on Civil War humor. Now retired, he is still reading and writing—and enjoying music. I’ll tell him about this visit, and send him a picture of Stub and Herb’s. Music and sustainability isn’t only about how culture workers can partner with people in musical communities to achieve goals of sustaining the integrity of music cultures in the face of inevitable change. It is not only about how people may sustain music, but also about how music may sustain people.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Old Regular Baptist Field Recordings Chosen for National Recording Registry

    Two days ago, the Library of Congress announced its list of 25 recordings named this year as "American Treasures" to the National Recording Registry, recognized for their “cultural, historical, and/or aesthetic merit” in contributing to American society and its aural history. The announcement was broadcast by the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio as well as other national networks such as CBS. I was surprised but gratified to see that among those selected they chose a CD made from my field recordings of Old Regular Baptist singing. This is a major honor for the Old Regular Baptists, and it will help them in their efforts to maintain their musical tradition, which dates back to the 16th-century English parish church. Their lined-out hymnody represents the oldest living English-language oral tradition of religious music in the United States.  
     These sound recordings are part of a larger collection of my field recordings documenting Old Regular Baptist traditions: singing, praying, and preaching, along with interviews conducted with elders in the church. They span a period of from 1979 until now. I couldn’t have made them without the help of Berea College and three of its faculty members: Loyal Jones, John Wallhausser, and Bill Tallmadge. Other individuals and institutions that helped along the way were my employer, Brown University; Daniel Sheehy and Anthony Seeger of Smithsonian Folkways Records, which in 1997 released the CD that was selected for the Registry; and the National Endowment for the Arts, Folk and Traditional Arts Division, which supported the portion of this ongoing project that led to these recordings in 1992 and 1993. The recordings were the culmination of a self-documentation project grant from the NEA that I got for the Old Regular Baptists. It enabled them to record endangered songs from their elders, some too ill to attend church any more. I taught them how to use the recording equipment purchased on the grant, and accompanied them on their first recording trips to elders’ homes. Later, I returned to make the high quality sound recordings that would become that CD. Folkways released a second CD in 2003 from recordings I made in 2002. Elwood and Kathy Cornett, Jim and Dosh Fields, Don and Shirley Pratt, Ivan Amburgey, Mackenzie Ison, Ruth Frazier, Bob Banks, and Squire and Claudette Watts are among the Old Regular Baptists I must thank for their participation, along with many others too numerous to mention but whose names are on the albums as song leaders and speakers who related what the sound of the singing means to them.
    I looked at the list of recordings selected for the National Registry since these honors began in 2002. Only about a half dozen folklorists and ethnomusicologists’ field recordings have been chosen in the dozen years of the program’s existence. I was surprised at how few there are. My recordings now join those of Frances Densmore, Franz Boas and George Herzog, David McAllester, and Alan Lomax. Boas, the most important American anthropologist of his day, began ethnographic documentation of music in the 1880s, accompanied by the polymath Carl Stumpf, who was instrumental in establishing comparative musicology in Germany.      
Frances Densmore, 1916
Frances Densmore’s recordings were made early in the 20th century for the Bureau of American Ethnology. I remember seeing volume after BAE volume of her transcriptions in the University of Minnesota library, when I was a graduate student in Alan Kagan’s ethnomusicology seminars. Alan gave us an assignment to transcribe in musical notation one of Densmore’s field recordings of Native American music. He did not identify it by name until after we completed our transcriptions. I can still remember the title that Densmore wrote down for it: “Song to a Little Yellow Wasp.” I may even have my transcription in a file cabinet somewhere. Herzog, of course, was recognized as the leading US comparative musicologist from about 1930 until the early 1950s; he had assisted von Hornbostel at the Berlin Phonogramm-Archiv and after emigrating he received his doctorate from Boas in 1928. Dave McAllester was one of the four founders of the Society for Ethnomusicology. He taught at Wesleyan University, collaborated with me on a book, and became a friend. After he retired, we kept in touch and I visited him in his new house in the Berkshires, where he had also built a wigwam and meditated inside it at times. I thought he would live forever, but he died in 2006.
David P. McAllester, 1963
Alan Lomax is, of course, well known as both a folklorist and ethnomusicologist. I got acquainted with him in the mid-1970s when, as a young assistant professor, I asked if I could hear his Cantometrics training tapes. He invited me to New York and after I spent some time with him, I brought back on the train to Boston a carton of a dozen reel-to-reel tapes. Not only did I listen to them, but so did my students; and that began a collegial relationship that lasted until he died in 2002.
    It feels good to have my field recordings join theirs, but I know that there are many deserving documentary collections besides these, made by thousands of folklorists and anthropologists and ethnomusicologists ever since J. Walter Fewkes recorded Passamaquoddy singing in Maine 130 years ago. Fewkes' earliest ethnographic sound recordings also are honored on the National Recording Registry, and copies are still being circulated among Passamaquoddy today. But even more important, they are still being sung.       

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

After Santa Fe

James W. Day, © Univ. Press of Kentucky
Courtesy Jean Thomas Collection, U. of Louisville
    I'm slowly catching up on various fall events where music and sustainability was thematic--this time, the annual conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM), which took place in Pittsburgh last November, in the week following the AFS conference. I stayed in Santa Fe a few extra days, and caught up with an old friend, Steve Green, who lives there and works as an archivist for the Western Folklife Center. We had three long breakfasts filled with talk that went through to lunch every day, there was so much to talk about. He's been researching and writing a major book about the events surrounding the promotion of folklore in the early part of the 20th century, focusing specifically on the folkloric entrepreneur Jean Thomas and the fiddler she promoted, James W. Day, whom she cast as the character "Jilson Setters." In the 1920s she toured Day to standing room theater crowds in New York and London, as he represented something about an older, and surer, America than the culture appeared to many at the time. Steve is an indefatigable researcher who understands how to ferret out archival evidence like no one else I know, and over the years he has accumulated a treasure trove of information on these people and this cultural moment.
    I was sorry to leave Santa Fe, a city impressive for its scale and its food, not to mention the collision of cultures there. I'd toyed with the idea of not attending the ethnomusicology conference this year, because I'd already planned so much traveling; but I received two invitations to do things there and decided I ought to go. The President of SEM had asked me if I was planning to come, because the Society wanted to give me an award; and I'd also been asked by the Graduate Student Section to be the discussant for a forum on applied ethnomusicology, which they wanted to explore both as a field in itself and also as an area for possible employment after obtaining their degrees. I assented, but with the caveat to the students that I felt anyone who wanted to "do" applied ethnomusicology would be better served if their motivation was a sense of social responsibility rather than concerns about employment. Music sustainability as cultural policy is one aspect of applied ethnomusicology.
    Many applied ethnomusicologists do think the field offers, or should offer, employment opportunities outside of the academic world. This is correct, although more academics practice applied ethnomusicology than those holding non-academic jobs. Yet, the defining characteristic of applied ethnomusicology isn't the place of employment, but the nature of the work: putting ethnomusicology to practical use in helping to enhance the quality of people's lives. Today, as it has developed in various parts of the world, applied ethnomusicology usually involves some kind of activism and advocacy, an intervention into a community, almost always in partnership with people in those communities, for the common good. Over the years I've formulated this in various ways; my latest one is for the Introduction to the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, which is due to be published later this year. At the SEM conference, I spoke about these things, and was pleased that the forum speakers addressed those issues and for the most part didn't do what many had done in the past, namely, speak autobiographically about their own career path in applied ethnomusicology outside the academy as an alternative kind of employment.  As I said at the forum, for most people "academic" is the alternative path. Many people in my generation (and later generations) entered the academic world as an alternative to employment in the business world, and the phrase "ivory tower" suggests that the general public views academia as alternative to the mainstream. Applied ethnomusicology puts it back into the mainstream in service to cultural equity and social justice.
    One other thing happened at this conference that I must not forget to remark on, and that is that I was able to acknowledge publicly my debt to Alan Kagan, who taught ethnomusicology to me when I enrolled in his graduate seminars at the University of Minnesota nearly fifty years ago. Long retired but still active, Alan embodied dedication, both to his field of ethnomusicology and to his students. His office was always filled with students; and if one wanted to see him to talk about one's research, or perhaps about something that was going on in seminar, one had to wait with other students outside for a long time, because Alan always saw each student one at a time and gave them more than their due. At the conference last fall, SEM gave me an award recognizing lifetime achievement in research and teaching. I'm grateful to the Society for that. The award carries with it a free, lifetime membership in SEM. After receiving this award, presented to me by two professors whose doctoral dissertations I'd supervised a couple of decades ago, I said I hoped to keep that membership a long time; and then I acknowledged Alan Kagan as my own teacher. He was there in the audience--this was at the end of the conference when everyone was gathered in a hotel ballroom--and he stood up to a long round of well-deserved applause.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Sound research over the years

    In early November, right after a horrific snowstorm that knocked out the electricity for five days, and snapped off or toppled over many white spruce trees in the nearby forest, I flew from Maine to Santa Fe for the annual conference of the American Folklore Society. I hadn't planned to give a paper this year, but I was asked to be on a panel called "Leaders in the Field," where a number of us older hands would be interviewed for posterity. The session was going to be videotaped and go into the Society’s archives. The irony struck that, having spent so much of my professional life documenting others, now I was to be a subject. Well, fair’s fair. Besides, professors are willing to talk about and share their research. To think and talk about its trajectory over the past forty years was an invitation I couldn't pass up, and didn't. So when it was my turn I told some stories about my interests in music and sound over the years and where that’s led. Here are a few of them.
    I was asked how I first got interested in music, and replied with a story my mother told me. She said that my first words were sung, not spoken. Evidently my family were avid radio listeners, and what caught my ear came out in song (phonetically) as “Pepi coda hitta pot.” The melody, not the mispronounced words, made it clear to my mother that what I was singing was a Pepsi jingle (“Pepsi-Cola hits the spot”). I sang before I spoke.
    I’ve told the story many times about the conversation my American studies program adviser had with me after I told her that I was going to write my dissertation on blues. “Has any scholar written on ‘that music’ before?,” she asked. “Not to my knowledge,” I replied. I didn’t know of any doctoral dissertations on blues, or any that analyzed the music. Books on blues were mainly artist biographies, written by fans, although some  researchers like Paul Oliver had written well about themes in the lyrics and other subjects. (I was unaware at that time that Bill Ferris was then writing a dissertation on blues at Penn; I got to know him later when he taught at Yale.) I thought my program adviser was asking whether I’d be making an original contribution to knowledge by writing on this subject. “Have you thought seriously about the consequences of your decision?” Consequences? I thought that the consequences of making an original contribution, if it were any good, would be satisfaction for the author and the reward of the doctoral degree. “Yes, sure,” I said, somewhat mystified by this question. And that was the end of the discussion.
    A few years later, when people began to ask me what I was doing teaching in an English department with a degree in American studies and a dissertation on blues, I would reply that in addition to writing about the music I was making a case for blues as African American cultural expression that resulted in worthy literature in and of itself. One didn’t have to go to the writings of Langston Hughes or Sterling Brown to find good blues poems; they were right there in the blues songs themselves, recorded from the 1920s onward.
    But gradually it dawned on me that the reason they were asking, and the reason why my program adviser had questioned me about my choice of dissertation topic, was that my path already was quite unusual. My adviser was worried for the future of my academic career and was asking if I’d realized that the likely consequence of choosing to write about ‘that music’ was academic suicide—i.e., whoever was going to hire this misfit? Luckily, I was too naive to think that research wouldn’t be rewarded on merit rather than choice of subject and, luckily, I was hired in a tenure-track job at a good university when such jobs were a lot more plentiful than they are today. As a graduate student I didn't think very much about careers; I just assumed it would take care of itself if I did well enough as a teacher and scholar.
    Fifteen years later, merit didn’t triumph over subject choice. Three of us were trying to raise money to make the Powerhouse for God documentary film about a powerful preacher-singer and his family in Appalachia’s northern Blue Ridge. Although we were successful with the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities turned us down three times. After our third grant proposal was unsuccessful, we found ourselves in DC—we’d started shooting the film, and we needed to get some equipment repaired—and while cooling our heels we got an appointment to meet with the NEH program officer. She told us she was very sorry we’d been denied funding so often, because it was obvious that we were fine film makers and that the scholarship behind the film was thorough. The problem, she said, was our subject. Appalachia was too obscure, and religious subjects could be controversial. “Couldn’t you make a film about the life of Lincoln? I’m sure you could get funding for that,” she wound up. We walked out without saying another word.
    One more story. I’ve often been asked how I got interested in doing research on the musical sermons of Rev. C. L. Franklin. Most people think I came to it through listening to his daughter Aretha, and learning about her background. Franklin was the most highly regarded black Baptist preacher of his generation; as the head of the National Baptist Association observed, he had a “whoop that comes along once in a hundred years.” (Whooping is what black preachers—and others—call the traditional musical delivery, where the preacher comes to a climax, improvising the words and singing them to a melody that carries them.)  But that wasn’t how I learned about Rev. Franklin.
    Instead, it happened when I was a graduate student, and when in addition to my studies and teaching duties I was playing guitar in Lazy Bill Lucas’s blues band. One Saturday night we got back early in the morning around 2 a.m. from a gig and I crashed on Bill’s couch. The next day he shook me awake at 7 a.m. and said, “Come on, boy. we’re going to church!” I hadn’t known Bill played piano at a nearby church—St. Mark's Baptist Church—but he was there most Sunday mornings accompanying the gospel songs, and he thought it’d do me some good to hear another kind of music. I stumbled off the couch and we got to the church, and I did enjoy the songs. Of course, I’d heard black gospel music for years, but what I hadn’t heard was whooped preaching. Rev. George Trawick was the preacher, and I was transfixed by this sound that was new to me. Later, I asked Bill about it, and he said I ought to listen to Rev. Franklin’s sermons. He just happened to have some albums that were recorded in New Bethel, in Detroit, Rev. Franklin’s church. They were very popular, he said. Indeed, Rev. Franklin was a rock star among African Americans of his generation, though completely unknown outside of the black communities. As soon as I heard Bill's records of Rev. Franklin's sermons, I knew I had heard a rare and gifted orator and poet-preacher with a remarkable musical delivery in his sermons that were improvised at the moment of performance, without a printed manuscript.
    And that was the start of my research on Rev. Franklin and the sound of the whoop. It was around 1969 that I heard Rev. Trawick. I already was working on my dissertation on blues, and I realized that I should complete that project before going on in earnest with this new one. So I did, and then in 1976 I met Rev. Franklin for the first time. I phoned him up, told him I wanted to visit, and asked him to suggest a weekend. He hemmed and hawed—I thought it was because this was an unusual request (coming from a professor of literature, at that)—and finally he offered a date, saying that on that weekend his daughter Aretha would be there. I said that would be fine, “but it’s you I want to see.” “Oh well then,” he told me, “come anytime!” I wonder what my American studies program adviser would have said about that research topic.
    Researching blues turned out not to be the lonely pursuit my adviser thought it would be. In addition to Bill Ferris at Penn, David Evans was researching blues at UCLA, and later several other scholars took up the subject, notably Houston Baker and Henry Louis (“Skip”) Gates, Jr. Angela Davis, known to me as a radical feminist and advocate of black power in the 1960s, later wrote a superb book about the vaudeville blues singers of the 1920s, Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith and others. But black preaching remained an obscure research area—and to some extent it still is, although that may be changing. In the 1970s I did visit with Rev. Franklin, and over the course of several months interviewed him more than a dozen times about his life and preaching, and videotaped seven of his sermons. In the 1980s I wrote an essay on him in a book published by the Library of Congress, and wrote a book about his life and sermons that was published by the University of Illinois Press. The book did not interest my fellow folklorists and ethnomusicologists very much, nor were my colleagues in American studies much more than curious. It did sell, slowly but steadily, to scholars in African American religious studies.
    I’ve mentioned Rev. Franklin in this blog a few times before. For years I’ve been wanting to figure out a good way to publish the videotapes that I recorded of his preaching, so that they would reach what I came to realize was their target audience: the scholars of black preaching, the African American theologians, and the preachers themselves who wanted to see as well as hear this man whose whoop came along once in a hundred years. It wasn’t until the summer before last that, after I'd been looking for the target audience for many years, the target audience found me instead, and asked me to give a keynote at the first conference to celebrate the legacy of Rev. Franklin. Held in Detroit last April, “The Voice of a Prophet” (2014) attracted about 500 scholars and preachers and theologians and lay people. I showed the last two-thirds of one of my videos shot of Rev. Franklin in Detroit in the 1970s, and soon half the room was standing, cell phones in hand, copying the grainy, black-and-white video that was projected on the screen. (Some of that is on YouTube now.) There’s to be another conference this coming April, and I will show another video. I’m sure it won’t be too long before arrangements are made to publish these videotapes in a form that will enable them to take their place in this community after all these years of sequestration, or curation, or whatever one calls it.
    And so those are just some of the stories I told at the folklore conference. Elders are expected to have them, and I do. But I wouldn’t want them to upstage the research itself on blues or the sound of black preaching. When asked what theme I thought had unified my research over the years, I didn’t hesitate: it was sound, I said, whether the timbre of blues, or the elaborate songs of Old Regular Baptists, or the whoop of the black preacher, or its white preaching sound counterpart (that can be heard in John Sherfey’s chanted sermons, from my Powerhouse for God project, or the even more musical chant of Old Regular Baptist preachers). I concluded by saying that my appeal for a sound commons for all creatures, and current studies of animal sound communication, are a continuation of this lifelong pursuit of sound. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

Blues as a Sustainable Music

    Writers have lamented the impending death of blues for nearly 100 years, yet as Mark Twain supposedly quipped when told that his obituary had been published, the death rumors appear to have been exaggerated. Endangerment and unsustainability are built into the idea of blues and many other musics, yet somehow they’ve managed to persist in one form or another. Is there a lesson of resilience here?
    Writing about blues in the 1920s, the folksong collector Dorothy Scarborough predicted that blues would be gone when the current generation of singers passed away. Like most of this writing about endangerment, hers distinguished between an authentic blues and a transformed, popularized version: the folk blues versus the kind of blues being sung from the vaudeville stage for cheap entertainment. Today, of course, we think of this vaudeville blues as equally authentic, and we honor the contributions and innovations of such vaudeville blues singers as Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey along with their downhome blues cousins like Charley Patton and Son House who were making commercial 78 recordings right along with the vaudeville singers, but whose songs met Scarborough’s criteria as folk songs.
    I write about it from personal experience as a blues musician, experience that goes back to the blues revival of the 1960s. The occasion now is a project for a vinyl record scheduled to be released this year or next, containing some recordings that I made at the 1969 Ann Arbor, Michigan Blues Festival. This, coupled with a revised chapter on blues for the 6th edition of Worlds of Music, the introductory textbook in ethnomusicology that I’ve co-authored with several other ethnomusicologists and which has been in print since 1984, has turned my thoughts back to a music that has been with me all my life; for I must have first heard it from my father, who played blues as an amateur jazz guitarist.
    The generation that performed at that 1969 festival has, mostly, disappeared; and the same can be said about the 1970 festival, except for a few (myself included) who were quite young then. And yet the blues is still around, as a niche music like so many other niche genres (classical, jazz, and so forth) that once had greater claim on the popular imagination, not to mention the pocketbook. Recordings keep blues alive, of course, but so do concerts and festivals, while young musicians are still learning to play it; and if fewer now make a living from it, or listen to it, nevertheless blues persists, and recognizably so, in a variety of older and newer incarnations. It seems to be an example of a sustainable musical genre.
    Both older and newer incarnations were apparent in the 1960s when I was a part of the blues music culture. Most of my participation took place in Minneapolis, where I was a graduate student, and where, in addition to my academic studies, I played blues guitar, eventually joining Lazy Bill Lucas’s blues band. Bill represented the older incarnation within the blues revival; born around the time of the first World War to a family of African American sharecroppers in Arkansas, he migrated with them gradually north, looking for better living conditions, eventually landing in Chicago during its blues heyday, and performing with some of the better known musicians of that era, such as Big Bill Broonzy, Willie Mabon, Big Joe Williams, and Snooky Pryor. With his blues partners Mojo Buford and Jo Jo Williams, he moved to Minneapolis in the early 1960s, where they thought there would be less competition among musicians for jobs. And there was; but the audience was smaller as well. Nevertheless, they stayed; and as the Sixties wore on, and the audience for blues began to shift demographically to include a much larger percentage of white people, Bill’s popularity grew along with the blues revival. The newer incarnations were apparent in some of the younger blues musicians, whether forming their own bands or, like me, joining with some older groups. I was well aware, then, of death knells for blues that had already been sounded for more than forty years; but like most of my contemporaries, I thought even then that the rumors of impending death were exaggerated.
    Our band was invited to play at the second (1970) Ann Arbor Blues Festival; we went and as band leader Bill earned more money from that appearance than from any other, before or since. At the first festival, in 1969, I was only a spectator. I went with some other musicians and we sat in the audience, some sleeping in a car and some in a tent during the morning hours, and eating sandwiches and drinking beer from coolers. The festival lasted three days and nights, and featured most of the prominent blues singers and blues bands of the day, including Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, T-Bone Walker, B. B. King, Big Mama Thornton, Fred McDowell, Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Son House, Luther Allison, Jimmy Dawkins, Freddy King, Albert King, Magic Sam, Lightnin' Hopkins, Bobby Bland, John Lee Hooker, and the list went on and on.
    In those days I had made what was then a large purchase from my meager funds as a graduate teaching assistant, to buy a portable, reel to reel tape recorder, a Sony that used 5” reels which could record up to 25 minutes per side, and which ate up D-size batteries at an alarming rate. It was not a very high fidelity recorder like the Uhers and Nagras that were available to professionals for astronomical prices, but it was what would today be called prosumer gear, for the advanced amateur, with a mic of comparable quality. I had been making field recordings of music as a graduate student, and so bringing it along to record these festivals was an exciting but normal thing for me to do. I did it, recording as much of the festivals as I could afford, for tape (and batteries) were expensive. I wish, now, that I’d had the sense to try to beg or borrow some synchronized sound film equipment, but that seemed out of reach in so many ways that I didn’t give it any thought at the time.
    By the time the 1970 festival was over, I’d recorded about 18 hours of highlights from those festivals. Over the years I’ve listened back to them and wished I could have made recordings directly from the mixing board, but instead these were made from the audience and dependent on the sounds that were amplified by the mics, the PA system and the musicians’ own instrument amplifiers. Compared with the sound of studio-made recordings, their technical quality is fair at best; but they are reasonably faithful reproductions of the sound that the festival audience heard. I took one of those recordings, a song by Magic Sam, and put it in Worlds of Music, but other than that none of the recordings ever was published and few of them circulated. At the time, I was under the impression that both festivals were being recorded by professional sound technicians, targeted for issue on LP recordings soon afterwards. A sound truck from Atlantic Records was prominent at the 1970 festival, and I worried that our band’s performance might not have been up to their standard. I need not have worried, because no recordings ever were released; and years later, I was told that those professional recordings had somehow disappeared. I knew that at least one other person, John Fishel, had made recordings from the audience, as I had done, because some of his were issued by Delmark Records several years later; but until a couple of years ago when his brother and his son were in touch with me about my recordings, I hadn’t realized that ours were the only ones to survive, more than forty years later.
    Jim Fishel was in touch with me asking whether I still had those recordings and if so, what were they, and would it be possible to use one or two for a reissue project that he and his son Parker were proposing through a retro Nashville outfit, Third Man Records. They were planning to release a vinyl LP set commemorating the 1969 festival in recordings, for the niche audience for blues was also inclined toward the older formats, such as vinyl, rather than CD. In fact, back in the 1960s when LPs were current, many blues aficionados preferred the sound from the original shellac 78 rpm records. Jim and Parker were especially interested in my recordings of Son House; later, it turned out he wanted to hear what I had recorded of Freddy King. I retrieved these and digitized them, edited them, and sent them along. Parker was very pleased with the results, and it now looks as if some or all of them will make it onto the reissue. The Fishels are doing this in the right way, licensing the recordings and paying the musicians or their heirs. The music from both festivals was magnificent; and although these recordings don’t have the sound quality of those made with professional equipment, their sound quality has something in its favor that high fidelity recordings from that era do not. That is, in keeping with the retro aesthetic, they have the quality of being well worn, or broken in, with the aura of good and proper use about them. There is something in the hipster aesthetic that prefers the older analog sound (tube equipment, etc.) to the pristine sterility of digital sound. Like a black and white still photograph, these recordings evoke the historical past, which of course they now represent.
Son House. Photo ©1970 by Jeff Todd Titon.
     Recordings like this are, I suppose, one way of sustaining music, a means that I am willing to be part of. But it falls far short of the lived experience of those festivals and the sounds that I remember and which, for me, are evoked by those recordings. I do wonder at their transformation into exotic and distanced objects for a new generation of listeners, but then I remind myself that when in the 1960s I listened to recordings by Mississippi delta blues singer Charley Patton, made in the 1920s, they were similarly exotic and distanced for me. Yet for Jo Jo Williams, the bass player in Lazy Bill Lucas’s blues band, they evoked lived experience. Jo Jo had lived in the delta and as a teenager slipped out of his family’s shack to go hear Charlie Patton and Son House at the all night dance parties they played for, way out in the country on Dockery’s Plantation. When I spoke with Jo Jo about Charley Patton, he recalled those experiences for me, as I myself was able to recall the Ann Arbor blues festivals when Parker decided he wanted to interview me about them, and about the blues revival of the 1960s. Blues has shown remarkable resilience, yet its sustainability lives in the cycles of experience and memory, from one generation to the next, while the role of recordings is evocative but secondary. That, for me, is a more satisfying way of thinking about sustainability in music cultures.