Thursday, September 29, 2016

Prisons and Music

    Prisoners in the US are uniting in opposition to overcrowding, brutality, and forced labor for starvation wages. Prisoners traditionally protest by defiance and disorder, riots included. Today they are organizing a national prison labor strike. This strike was the subject of an hour-long program, on On Point (WBUR-FM, National Public Radio), Sept. 28. Prisoners spoke from behind bars to air their grievances and describe their actions. Authors and analysts provided other views, while the call-in audience expressed theirs. The prisoners want an end to the overcrowding, brutality, and forced labor—which in their view amounted to a kind of slavery, the overcrowding in prisons likened to the overcrowding on slave ships. They didn’t deny that they should “do the time if they did the crime.” But they proposed reform: rehabilitation, job training, and a fair wage in exchange for the manufacturing and construction jobs they were forced to do.       
Huddie and Martha Promise Ledbetter, 1935
Aside from the issue of justice (social, racial, economic) that the program raised and to which I responded, I was reminded of the long historical association of music with prisons. Work songs and blues and ballads were collected from prisoners by folklorists such as John and Alan Lomax in the 1930s and 1940s, by University of Iowa professor Harry Oster in the 1950s, and by Harvard Junior Fellow Bruce Jackson in the 1960s, among others. The location wasn’t chosen because the guards could order the prisoners to make music; the reason to collect from prisoners was that they, particularly those who had been in prison for decades, were more likely to know the older folk music and perform it without having been influenced so much by contemporary popular music. In 1933 the Lomaxes discovered Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter), a singer and twelve-string guitar player with great musical skill and a broad folksong repertoire, in the Louisiana penitentiary. After his release in 1934, they took him on tours to perform for the music lovers who formed the beginnings of a folk music revival in the 1930s. Leadbelly had a powerful stage presence. When they took him to Harvard, where both John and Alan had studied, they made sure to seat the British ballad expert, George Lyman Kittredge, in the front row. Kittredge, or “Kitty” as he was called, had taught both Lomaxes, and had encouraged John to collect cowboy songs. Then an old man, retired, Kittredge found Leadbelly’s intensity too much to bear. “He is a demon, Lomax,” Kittredge was reported to have said, whereupon he left the concert. Demon or not, Leadbelly’s folksong legacy fills several boxes of records and tapes in the Library of Congress, and has been issued and re-issued on multi-volume LP and CD sets over the years.
Lazy Bill Lucas, 1969. Photo by J. T. Titon
    Not only did prisoners sing for collectors, but musicians sang for prisoners. Musicians performed for prisoners’ entertainment: Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” (1955) may be his best known song, and his album, “Live at Folsom Prison” (1968) remains popular. Accompanying blues singer and pianist Lazy Bill Lucas in 1970, I played guitar in Minnesota’s Sandstone Prison, entertaining the inmates. It was an interesting trip north from the Twin Cities. I’d forgotten that I had a bottleneck slide in my guitar case. In those days we made them by breaking off the necks of red bordeaux type wine bottles, then smoothing out the glass's jagged edges. I guess my edges weren’t smooth enough for the guards, who confiscated the bottleneck when they inspected us on entering. For a moment I wondered if they’d arrest me for trying to smuggle a weapon in. They didn’t.
   Another interesting part of that trip to Sandstone Prison was that the guitarist John Fahey went along, to be the opening act. I wondered how entertaining his guitar solos would be in prison. I never found out. John had flown in from California on a brief concert tour. But he'd been in a fight at his motel the night before, and was now in no condition to play music. How he got into that fight: he and his road manager didn’t know that the Minnesota state high school wrestling championships were being held at the University of Minnesota then, and that the wrestlers were staying at the same motel, the Gopher Campus Motor Lodge. The wrestlers partied all night and after John couldn’t stand the noise any more, he went into the hallway in his pajamas and told them to quiet down. Not a good idea. Even worse, he told them not to mess with him because he had a black belt in karate. Maybe he did, but he was no match for the group that pummeled him. So Bill and I and our drummer, John Schrag, did the concert by ourselves. It never occurred to me to try to collect any music from the inmates. They were appreciative, mostly of Bill, who rose to the occasion.
    Some eight years later, when I was a professor at Tufts University, I worked briefly with a teacher at Framingham Women’s Prison. Framingham is one of the western suburbs of Boston. We were teaching writing. It represented a cultural shift: instead of collecting music from a captive audience, we ethnomusicologists and folklorists began working to help rehabilitate and empower prisoners, often through music. That work has continued. A recent example was presented at the conference in Limerick, Ireland, on ethnomusicology and activism, a little more than a year ago. Andrew McGraw, an ethnomusicologist teaching at the University of Richmond, in Virginia, discussed how he worked with prisoners to establish a recording studio in the Richmond City Jail so they could explore sound and record their hip-hop tracks. So, when I heard that radio program yesterday, I thought of how folklorists and ethnomusicologists had been involved over the years with music and prisons. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that this involvement started well before the Lomaxes, possibly in Europe. Did it? And what might be the role of music in the national prison labor strike today?

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Sustainability, Sound, and the Study of Folklore

      Historically, folklore (as a field of study) held sound and sustainability in high esteem. Sound because of the emphasis on orality, or oral tradition (the sound of folklore as spoken or sung, for the folk were thought illiterate). Sustainability because folklorists thought folklore was always endangered, dying, or dead. In the late 1960s a revolution in folklore studies began to change much of that way of thinking, but for centuries people interested in folklore elevated sound and worried about sustainability.
    The earliest folklorists in Europe weren’t called folklorists. Aristocrats during the late medieval and Renaissance periods conceived an interest in ways of life that were being lost, or had been lost. They traveled searching out ruins, and collected objects from former times that they put in what were called cabinets of curiosity. (These were the forerunners of museums.) Later, they began to focus on peasant life and oral folklore; in the 1600s the poet Sir Philip Sidney mentioned the ballad "Chevy-Chase," and in 1711 Joseph Addison wrote in The Spectator about it:
Jos. Addison, courtesy Wikimedia Commons
“The old song of 'Chevy-Chase' is the favourite ballad of the common people of England, and Ben Jonson used to say he had rather have been the author of it than of all his works. Sir Philip Sidney in his discourse of Poetry, speaks of it in the following words: 'I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart more moved than with a trumpet; and yet it is sung by some blind crowder with no rougher voice than rude style, which being so evil apparelled in the dust and cobweb of that uncivil age, what would it work trimmed in the gorgeous eloquence of Pindar?' For my own part, I am so professed an admirer of this antiquated song, that I shall give my reader a critique upon it without any further apology for so doing…”
     Never mind that Addison’s critique focused on a different ballad of the same title; an interest in what were called “popular antiquities” had been established in the literate classes of Europe by 1700, while well before the US Civil War we have the Brothers Grimm with their collection of Märchen, or folktales, and the invention of the English word “folk-lore,” by William Thoms. To the antiquarians, one of the most interesting aspects of folk-lore was how it spread; and the antiquarians settled on the idea that an illiterate peasantry must have passed along the songs and stories and proverbs and riddles by word of mouth, or “oral transmission,” as it was called—by sounding it, in other words. Its sustainability was guaranteed by sound, but at the same time memory was not always accurate, and so the folk-lore gradually changed as it moved from one person to the next, one generation to the next, one place to the next. Invention, too, played its role in oral tradition. A literate culture, they thought, could not have folklore because its literature was written down; once that occurred, the text or the music could not vary. Oral tradition, therefore, was characteristic and important; but also impermanent, unlike writing. So sounding was both the means by which folklore was sustained, but also its Achilles heel.
     In the 1960s folklorists began to pay more attention to written-down folklore. The literate/illiterate dichotomy had grown impossible to sustain with regard to folklore, at least in the US, where (overlooking servants and sharecroppers in their histories) our historians tell us  we never had any peasants. US folklorists could (and did) argue that the working-classes had folklore, but many among them were literate. So it goes, and so it went; and the situation is even more complicated now, as it turns out that many of the old ballads like "Chevy Chase" originated in print and were passed along in print as well as orally, among the literate classes as well as (perhaps better than) the peasants, at least after the medieval period. Besides, at around the same time folklorists were devaluing orality, they were finding that being anthropologists of folklore, rather than collectors of it, had more appeal. Indeed, in the US beginning in the 1950s, at Indiana University and the University of Pennsylvania, folklore became a profession, professionalized; with professors of folklore holding PhDs in the subject, beginning to replace professors of English with PhDs in English and a research and teaching interest in folklore. Graduate students in folklore increasingly produced ethnographies of folk communities and one aspect of their folklife—material culture especially—while the older collections of ballads and folksongs, and folktales, often done by amateurs, did not seem as deep, as exciting, as important.
     Orality need not disappear in the wake of an ethnographic approach to folklore, though. An emphasis on folklife as it is lived has led me, over the years, to a phenomenological perspective: how orality is experienced as sounding. For although sound dissipates, it is experienced unlike other sources of sensation: sound waves vibrate our eardrums and set our bodies in motion; sound vibrates living beings into co-presence with other beings. In sound, we experience connection and co-presence. This connection need not be positive. Sound can unite and make us feel at one with each other and the world, but it can also divide or control, as when used for torture. Sound can make a being happy but it can also drive one mad. A sound ecology will take both possibilities into account, and recognize the debt it owes to folklore studies.

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Song of the Loon--Is It Sustainable?

Common Loon, courtesy Wikimedia Commons
For centuries, nature lovers have experienced the ecosublime in the laughing, raucous, slightly unnerving song of the Common Loon. Zoomusicologists--those who work from the premise that animals make sounds for aesthetic as well as purely functional or instrumental reasons--also hear in the loon song an intentional utterance outside the signal-response theories of animal communication scientists. But the loon, which is the national bird of Canada, and which has been heard for centuries on the lakes of the state of Maine--I have heard it here--is mostly absent in southern New England, due to changes in habitat brought about by modernization and development in the previous 150 years. Gone completely from Massachusetts by the turn of the 20th century, the loon has been making a small comeback there, with 45 breeding pairs--male and female--reported last year. Now comes the news that the Biodiversity Research Institute, in the city of Portland, Maine, will add ten breeding pairs to that population in Massachusetts, in hopes of accelerating the comeback.
     Restoration ecology, of which this is an instance, is one of the most common examples of a sustainability strategy. As cultural and musical sustainability strategies borrow liberally from ecological ones, it is easy to see how cultural policy targets particular genres for revival, just as restoration ecology targets particular species like loons. I have written elsewhere about the dangers from unintended negative consequences resulting from targeting particular species, comparing it to feeding the plant rather than improving the soil. For cultural and musical sustainability, feeding the cultural soil has proven out to be a better sustainability strategy over the decades, although in the short run--a year or five--feeding the musical genre can yield impressive (but unsustainable) growth.
     Restoring the Common Loon to Massachusetts--if the ten pairs are successful in increasing the population, more will follow--seems innocent enough. It isn't likely that an increase in loons there will upset the food chain, or that dire consequences will follow. But in the long run, as the Audubon Society tells us, climate change will force the loons northward to Canada, anyway. Even Maine will lose its loons. The state of Minnesota, in losing its loons to Canada, will also be losing its state bird. These losses will occur by the end of the current century. And so I do wonder what is the point of this restoration ecology, at least from the perspective of the loon. It is unsustainable. From a different perspective, of course, whatever entertainment the cry of the loon may provide for the human population of Massachusetts, may be counted as a positive, at least for a few decades until climate change makes the habitat no longer suitable there.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Natural Sounds in the National Parks

Scott McFarland demos recorder in the Park
    In an earlier blog entry I mentioned a collaboration with Scott McFarland, biologist at the Great Smoky National Park, who is in charge of their Natural Sounds project. Just yesterday, a long “cover story” by Erin Young was published in the Knoxville Mercury, featuring Scott’s work there. This summer, he has been setting out sound-monitoring digital recorders in several Park locations that will document the soundscapes continuously for thirty-day periods (after which time the batteries must be changed). The recordings will not only measure human-caused (anthropogenic) sounds, such as those made by vehicles, construction, airplane flyovers, and so on, but also those geophonic sounds made by wind and water, and the biophonic sounds made by animals. These recordings will be compared with some made 10 years ago in the same locations, to determine the changing sounds and measure the various noise levels, all with a view to minimizing noise pollution to enhance the visitor experience as well as the acoustic habitat for the plants and animals.
    I was on the phone with Scott a few days ago to obtain his permission for a different recording—the one made of our symposium on music, sound, and environment last April—to be placed in ETSU’s Sherrod Library, where it will be available for educational purposes and fair use. At that symposium, Scott and I, along with ecomusicologists Aaron Allen, Denise Von Glahn, Mark Pedelty, and Chad Hamill, spent an afternoon and evening in a public conversation which ranged widely over that theme. We were especially caught up with the alterations to the soundscape being caused by climate change, and other anthropomorphic changes to the sonic habitat. The symposium was well-attended—seats had to be added for an overflow crowd—with faculty and graduate students traveling from universities out of state, as well as in-state, to hear and then participate in the question-answer period at the end of each of the two sessions.
    This year marks the hundredth-year anniversary of the US National Parks. With the attendant publicity, it is good to have some of it directed to the National Park Service's (NPS) Natural Sounds conservation project. And it is good to have people like Scott McFarland working on it. He was most generous with his time, visiting ETSU twice—once for this symposium, and another time for a presentation in a seminar I was teaching on ethnomusicology and the soundscape ecology of Appalachia—and hosting me when I visited the Great Smoky National Park. On my visits I noticed a few signs on the highway that read “Quiet Walkway,” pointing to trails leading into the woods. I decided to try one and learn how quiet it was. About a mile in, I found a few small streams, the water coursing over the rocks, making the usual pleasant geophony, while mockingbirds sang occasionally. Yet I could still hear the vehicular traffic and construction noise, and I’m sure that the mockingbirds could hear it as well. I’ve mentioned in earlier blog entries the acoustic niche hypothesis, that animal species communicate in particular sound niches so as to minimize interference from other sounds. As they move to different habitats and experience different sounds—including anthropogenic ones—they must adjust their niches to the changes in the soundscape. Experiments with birds and their songs appear to confirm this hypothesis. Evidently they can learn to do this within a generation or two—it isn’t a matter of evolution by natural selection.
    Scott intends to head to coastal Maine with his fiancée in late September, and we hope to meet up near Acadia National Park, where he will spend some time. Perhaps a NPS Natural Sounds program could function there, as well. Acadia is well known for its partnerships with natural scientists who have been studying the changing animal and plant communities there; could sounds be next?

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sustainability and Just Price

    Although un-noticed by national and international news outlets, an event with global implications took place in the state of Maine a few days ago, when the state's Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Fryeburg Water Company’s right to sell some 600,000 gallons of water per day, pumped from the Fryeburg, Maine and vicinity aquifer, through Well Number 1, sourced (according to local knowledge) by the so-called Evergreen Spring. This enormous amount of water will be extracted daily, to wind up in bottles of the well-known Poland Spring water, owned by the Swiss corporation, Nestlé. The Fryeburg Water Co., incorporated in the 19th century as a private corporation, sells the water to Nestlé for the same rate that the citizens of Fryeburg and East Conway, New Hampshire, pay for the Fryeburg town tap water that flows through pipes under the streets and roads and into their faucets. Poland Spring bottled water costs the consumer approximately $50 per gallon. It costs Nestlé 1/4 cent per gallon. That is an enormous profit, and does an enormous injustice to the citizens of Fryeburg, not to mention the people all over North America who pay such an exorbitant price for Fryeburg’s tap water when sold in Poland Spring bottles. The story made me want to travel to Fryeburg to sample their tap water and see if I could tell the difference.
    I would not be writing about this unless I saw some relation between this ominous event and the theme of this blog, sustainability of music (and now also sound). Sustainability of a resource, such as music-making communities, or in this case the aquifer, is the issue. Town citizens brought suit against their town’s municipal water corporation because they feared that such a rate of water extraction was unsustainable. Also, of course, many people living in the town and its vicinity are not served by town water—the pipes don’t go that far—but instead draw water from wells on their property; surely, the water table would drop and many wells would go dry, requiring an investment in deeper and deeper wells, some of which might not yield sufficiently or at all. They were joined in their suit by environmental groups, notably Food and Water Watch. The town of Fryeburg, which operates the water company, hired engineers and assured the concerned citizens that not only could the aquifer handle the proposed extraction load, but that the income from the Nestlé company would keep the water rates low for those on town water for the foreseeable future. Besides, the Fryeburg Water Co. retained the right to reduce or suspend the water extraction for Poland Spring during the course of a water shortage or other emergency. How that shortage would be measured and what kind of emergency might occur were left open.
    How can this kind of chicanery occur when water is, or ought to be, a public resource? It bears on the sustainability of any resource, including the habitats necessary for individuals to thrive and communicate by means of sound—and in the case of humans, music. The oceans usually are thought to be commons, something that by its nature is incapable of being “captured” or owned. But inland water is a different story, and disputes over water rights are well known and ongoing. With a public resource, the question is who has the right to allocate and dispense it. Classic political theory suggests that in a democracy, the people would cede to the government the right to ownership and thus the obligation distribute it equitably. It would become res publicae, or “public things,” in the eyes of the law. However, in the United States, government did not intercede over utilities until early in the 20th century. Until then, they were operated by private companies, like the Fryeburg Water Co., for profit. Eventually citizens complained that they were paying these companies too much for essential resources like water, and by the time of World War I most of the utility companies either were owned and operated by municipalities or heavily regulated by them. But in 1978 Congress passed the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act, which effectively privatized the companies once more—although they remained subject to state regulation. The stated reason was that marketplace competition would keep rates down, and citizens could choose to purchase electricity or water from among competing companies. In practice, this has seldom worked to the consumer’s advantage, either because of a lack of competing companies in their area—particularly water companies—or because one major utility tends to drive out competition from smaller utility companies, and consumers wonder how reliable they will be in the long run. The town of Fryeburg itself purchased the Fryeburg Water Company in 2005. It has a quasi-independent board of trustees, as well as an operating staff to run the Company under the aegis of town government.
    In the case under discussion, concerned Fryeburg town citizens and state and national environmental groups protested the sale to Poland Spring of the water resource. They directed their protest to the state of Maine’s PUC, or Public Utilities Commission, which has regulatory authority here. At least one of the water company board members joined the protest. The members of the PUC are appointed by the governor, however, so their rulings are either politically conservative or progressive depending on the politics of the current governor. Maine Governor Paul LePage is a tea-party conservative, as is the PUC these days, so the odds of getting a ruling opposed to the Fryeburg Water Co. were slim. But, as is typical in government commissions, the appointees are people who have worked in the industry, often in the very same utility companies they are asked to regulate when they join the commission. Because of their ties to the industry they favor the companies over the public when making their regulatory decisions. In the Fryeburg case, two of the commissioners recused themselves because everyone felt they were too close to the utilities. And on the Supreme Court, three judges recused themselves because of conflict of interest. Yet all that meant was that Gov. LePage appointed others—in this case, retired judges—who had no ties to the utilities but who shared the governor’s conservative views. The predictable result went against the citizens and environmental groups, and in favor of the Fryeburg Water Co. and Nestlé.
    When power corrupts, the government does not work in the public interest. When a common public resource such as water, or habitat (and here I am including human habitats for music-making) is at stake, the results are unsustainable and disastrous. A final thought: the enormous difference between the cost of a bottle of Poland Spring water and the price Nestlé pays the Fryeburg Water Co. for it is leading me to the concept of “just price,” which is a curious feature of medieval European economic thought, as expressed by theologian Thomas Aquinas.
Thomas Aquinas, by Botticelli
“Just price,” or principles of fairness in economic transactions, is in turn is related to ecojustice and the “sound economy” leg of my current project on a sound ecology. One of the four public lectures I gave as Basler Chair at ETSU in Tennessee was titled “An Economy of Sound,” and in it I spoke about the economic exchanges that followed from sound connections, and the social implications of those exchanges. In thinking about justice and fairness in economic (and other) exchanges, I understand that a moral economy has bearing on my sound ecology project. After laboring through parts of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica in my required freshman year humanities course many years ago at Amherst College, I never expected I would willingly seek it out again.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Digital Access for Independent Scholars

Corresponding with contributors to the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, I was reminded that independent scholars--those currently unaffiliated with colleges and universities--do not have proper access to digital scholarship. Even an independent scholar who is a member of a professional organization such as the Society for Ethnomusicology is unable to access journal articles, e-books, and other materials that professors and students are able to read over the Internet through the electronic portals of their college and university libraries. Yet independent scholars deserve this same access. The situation needs to be addressed, by the academic libraries and the institutions they serve, and also by the professional organizations to which independent scholars belong.

Academic library resources far exceed those of almost all public libraries. Digital access through one's neighborhood public library is insufficient. Fifteen years ago, most academic libraries subscribed to academic journals in hard copy, and these along with the latest books could be found in the library stacks, accessible to independent scholars who showed their credentials as researchers. Today, the majority of new books and academic journals can no longer be found in hard copy there. Instead, they are made available through a portal on the academic library's website; but this portal is closed to all except those with college or university affiliation and identification. Independent scholars have no access to it.

This usually is not a problem for  professors in retirement. One of the perks of retirement is that library privileges are retained, even if office space and other types of support disappear. But students (graduate and undergraduate) typically do not retain library privileges at their alma maters. Most college and university graduates with bachelor's degrees seldom require more than what could be obtained through the neighborhood public library. But among those with advanced degrees, an increasing percentage are becoming independent of academic institutions while they continue to pursue scholarly research. They may be employed by museums, by non-profit organizations, by government, and elsewhere outside of academia, while they need access to a good academic digital library. It is not generally available to them.

When I've raised this issue, defending my independent scholar colleagues in applied ethnomusicology and public folklore, the academic libraries I've spoken with have resisted extending privileges to anyone no longer associated with the college or university. Graduate faculty, who might be expected to intercede here, have not stepped up. I have yet to hear a good reason why not. As far as I can tell, it would cost the institutions almost nothing to grant library privileges to their graduates with advanced degrees, many of whom have paid a good deal to attend while sacrificing some years of salary in so doing.

If academic institutions and their libraries will not change their policies, then the professional organizations independent scholars belong to ought to work on their behalf. Independent scholars probably comprise nearly half of the degreed members of many professional societies in the humanities and social sciences. These Societies have made token gestures insofar as they can afford to do so, arranging with some of the digital library repositories such as JSTOR to permit their members access to electronic issues of their organization's own journal, and sometimes other journals--for a small fee added to the membership cost. But this is far from sufficient. Most academic books published for the past few years, and those that will be published in the foreseeable future, will never wind up on the shelves of a library. Rather, they are available only through an academic library's digital portal. Organizations such as the Society for Ethnomusicology, and the American Folklore Society--I belong to both--have made these gestures to members, but they need to do more to change the culture of academic institutions and their libraries so they will change policy and grant digital access to independent scholars routinely.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Music, Sound, and the Environment: A Symposium

    Here's a heads-up to anyone who's within traveling distance of Johnson City, Tennessee. On Monday, April 4, East Tennessee State University will sponsor a symposium on music, sound, and environment, at the Reece Museum, 363 Stout Drive, on the ETSU campus. Besides myself, ecomusicologists Denise Von Glahn, Mark Pedelty, and Aaron Allen will take part--the same "gang of four" who were responsible for the "Music of Climate Change" events last April, at the University of Minnesota. In addition, I've invited Chad Hamill, an ethnomusicologist who is the head of the Applied Indigenous Studies Program at Northern Arizona University, and Scott McFarland, the biologist who is in charge of the Natural Sounds and Night Skies program at the Great Smoky National Park.
   My intention is to have a six-way conversation, not a series of presentations, on the place of music and sound in the current environmental crisis. The audience will also participate. At a minimum, of course, sound is essential in the environment because it enables communication among human and nonhuman animals (and plants as well, for that matter). Climate change, species migration and extinction, the human and nonhuman adaptations that will be required in the face of environmental change--all these have implications for sound communication, musical communities, aesthetics and sustainability of life on our planet.
   Among the topics we will discuss are the following: ecomusicology and the changing definitions and understandings of music with respect to sound and the environment; the post-humanist decentering of humans in the environment and the implications of the Anthropocene; ecofeminist, deep ecology, traditional ecological knowledge, land ethic perspectives and how these are related to music, sound and the environment. In addition, community, networks, and social structure among human and nonhuman beings; place, space, and gender; environmental philosophy; culture and sustainability; health, balance, and well-being; and sound communities and economies; the politics of noise; listening, hearing, and the body; acoustic ecology and public policy; and sustainable materials in the construction and circulation of musical instruments. This is only a partial list.
  The event is free and open to the public. It will take place between 3 and 5 pm, there will be a break for supper, and then it will conclude from 7-9 pm. Without presentations, and relying on conversation instead, both among the guests and also with the audience, we are taking something of a risk; but we hope that the resulting synergy will make for a more engaged and longer-lasting interchange of information and opinions, as well as action.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Essays on Thoreau's Sound Observations

H. D. Thoreau (1856)
    The last in my series of essays on Thoreau and sound, titled “Thoreau’s Ear,” has just been published. It may be downloaded as a pdf from the inaugural issue of Sound Studies, a UK-based journal edited by Michael Bull and Veit Erlmann. (The other essays in the series include “Why Thoreau?,” which was published in Current Directions in Ecomusicology (Routledge, 2015), edited by Aaron Allen and Kevin Dawe; and “Thoreau and the Music of the Natural World,” in Discourses in Music (2012), edited by Anthony Paul De Ritis.)
    Thoreau is all over this blog, especially in the past four years. Thinking with Thoreau has enabled me to expand my research from music and sustainability to the concept of a sound ecology. Although he wrote about sound in Walden, most famously when the train intruded on the pastoral of the Walden woods, screaming like a hawk over a farmer’s yard, most of his writing on sound may be found in the millions of words that he left in his journals, especially those from 1850 until his death. He considered himself the natural historian of the town of Concord and its surrounding area, and in his journals he meticulously recorded his observations of the natural world, not only what he saw but what he heard. In Walden, his carefully selected observations always lead to conclusions, some of which seem to claim more authority than is warranted, or to deliver a sermon when the reader does not want one. In his journals his voice is more open and tentative, as he reveals his “curious ear” and speculates on what might be the meanings of what he sees and hears. In his journals he has a conversation with himself; he doubts, he allows himself to reveal his ignorance in ways that he could not in his published writing. In his journals he advances tentative conclusions; he wonders; he changes his mind. Revealing the way his mind proceeded from observing natural facts (sounds included) to ideas about what they might signify, he offers in his journals an open-ended method of approaching sounds and thinking about their patterns and meanings.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Public Lectures and Collaborative Project on National Park Soundscapes

I’m spending some time at East Tennessee State University, in Johnson City, Tennessee, where among other things I’m looking forward to a collaboration with the biologist at the Great Smoky National Park, Scott McFarland, who’s in charge of their natural sounds and night skies project. Most every US National Park is participating in this project, with the twin goals of improving the visitor experience with soundscapes more in keeping with their expectations for a largely wilderness environment, and improving the sonic habitat for wildlife—after all, sound is a principal means of animal communication, and a sound commons is its ideal expression. Minimizing sound (and light) pollution is the aim, and part of the process involves monitoring (i.e., recording) the soundscape to obtain baseline readings over a period of time. Some of the students (and faculty) will be be part of this collaborative effort, and the students will learn about soundscapes in a hands-on way. They’ll also be taking soundwalks and doing projects involving personal and public soundscapes, perhaps in Johnson City, or possibly in favorite places away from there. Reports of these projects will be forthcoming.
    In addition, at ETSU I’ll be offering a series of four public lectures on what I’ve been calling a Sound Ecology. It will be an attempt to answer a question I first put in writing some 20 years ago, in an essay for the book Shadows in the Field, edited by Timothy Cooley and Gregory Barz, about doing fieldwork in ethnomusicology. There, I wrote about sound as a way of being in the world, a way that differed from our usual orientation toward the world as a text subject to interpretation. The question has developed into this: what sorts of communities, economies, and ecologies might result from taking sound experience, rather than the interpretation of texts or experimentation with objects, as the primary means toward understanding ourselves and our worlds? I am interested in proposing what I am calling (with apologies for the puns) sound communities, sound economies, and sound ecologies. I offered preliminary versions of my answers in keynote addresses at various conferences during 2015, but this will offer an opportunity to consider the subject in more detail.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Sustainability in the local context, and the misplaced critique of resilience

    Sustainability remains ubiquitous. Here on the down east Maine coast, no one speaks of musical or cultural sustainability, although to do so would have relevance, insofar as this area has conserved its culture better than most other parts of Maine. Work, education, even the look of the houses hasn’t changed much in the forty-five years I’ve been fortunate to live here, for at least part of every year. The people exhibit a cultural conservatism, a preference for the old ways.

Stonington Harbor, photo © by Jeff Todd Titon.

     If you’re speaking with folks who’ve moved here from away, sustainability means land put into conservation, through the various non-profit heritage trusts, either as “farmland forever,” or more commonly as a public space for light recreation, nature walks and the like, usually on coastal land abutting the ocean. But if you’re speaking with area natives, sustainability refers to the fishery, traditionally lobsters, clams, and cod, hake, pollock, scallops, and the like. The cod have almost disappeared, and shrimp stock is very low, to the point where government regulations severely limit the catch, making that part of the fishery an example of what happens when resources that had been abundant become unsustainable. Lobsters, on the other hand, have never been more plentiful; yet there is worry that even this fishery is unsustainable, particularly in the face of climate change which, warming the ocean water, will cause the lobsters to move to cooler, more northern waters, just as the birds are gradually moving their ranges north to Canada.
    Some conservationists have formed alliances with the island fishermen (and women), seeking common ground in sustainability. The regional news media includes a very interesting monthly, called Working Waterfront, featuring stories about the populated islands, fishing, crafts, yachting (a pastime that is very old in this area, which supplied the 19th century crews and boats for the successful US America’s Cup racers). Cultural conservation does interest these journalists, as they understand that it is not simply the fishery that is at stake but the sustainability of the culture that supports it, and that it supports. In that regard, the “field notes” editorial by the president of the Island Institute, Rob Snyder, publisher of Working Waterfront, caught my eye last month. “The world is watching our coast: Swedes say Maine lobster fishery among least resilient systems,” read his editorial headline. Snyder reported that Stockholm, Sweden, is home to the Resilence Center, which is taking a resilience approach to sustainability on our planet. He noted that Stockholm is in the center of fourteen islands, so they understand something of what it is to be island-centered, as we are on the Maine coast also. The Swedish Resilience Center, Snyder continues, defines resilience as “the capacity of a system, be it an individual, a forest, a city or an economy, to deal with change and continue to develop. It is about the capacity to use shocks and disturbances like . . . climate change to spur renewal and innovative thinking . . . [grounded in the] belief that humans and nature are strongly coupled to the point that they should be conceived of as one socio-ecological system.” This is the same understanding of resilience that I’ve been writing about recently, in The Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, and elsewhere; and of course, it is neither original with me nor with the Resilience Center. Resilience is a strategy for achieving sustainability.
    Interestingly, Snyder takes issue with the Resilience Institute’s proclamation that the Gulf of Maine’s lobster fishery is one of the least resilient systems in the world. Ironically, Snyder's resistance echoes the usual local reaction to criticism from away. Instead of admitting the obvious, that the lobster fishery is indeed precarious, Snyder opposes resilience theory, on the same grounds that I did a few years ago, even in this blog--namely, that “it takes a defensive posture to living. Resilience seems to assume that we must become resilient because we are always under threat.” But as I studied resilience theory, I realized that this common critique is based in misunderstanding. I changed my mind. Resilience isn’t the same thing as resistance. Resistance indeed does take a defensive posture, but resilience refers to something else: the capacity of a system to recover, to bounce back, from disturbance. Considering yourself, for the moment, as a system, you take defensive measures to resist a cold; but your resilience, on the other hand, will enable you to recover afterwards. Resilience theory doesn’t deal with resistance; rather, it identifies those things that make a system resilient after disturbance and attempts to maximize those so that a system maintains its integrity as it recovers.
    Snyder goes on with his critique of the Resilience Institute, writing that in response to dissatisfaction with resilience theory, “a movement is growing to think about reframing resilience through a language of thriving. The actions that need to be taken would be the same: embrace diversity, operate at multiple scales . . .” and so forth. But resilience doesn't need reframing, except for those who mistakenly identify it with resistance. Resilience is already about thriving. And in this instance, Snyder recognizes that what is under discussion is cultural sustainability; that is, it is the culture of fishing that must embrace diversity, and operate at multiple scales.
    The same can be said about farming and gardening. Maine’s farming has undergone a quiet renaissance in the past fifteen years, diversifying from mainly dairy farming—once the only profitable kind of farming in Maine, now a break-even proposition at best—and operating at different scales. The number of small farms has increased markedly, as more organic farms, local agriculture, CSAs, and cooperative grocers come to supply a public that wants locally grown organic food and is willing to pay a little extra for it, understanding that the real costs of agribusiness-produced food are not reflected in its low market price. Even in the less populated areas, like this one, locally-sourced farmers markets may be visited most days of the week, with some staying open through winter; and two grocery co-ops are located within easy driving distance. Meanwhile, many residents grow kitchen gardens that supply fresh food in summer, and some put food by in containers, root cellars, and the freezer. Frosts have been arriving later as a result of climate change, with fresh food in the garden now available late into the fall. This fall was unusually warm, on account of the El Niño effect on the East Coast. As of two weeks ago I still had brussels sprouts in the garden ready for harvest.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Labor Dispute at the AFS Conference 2015

    I’m just back from the annual conference of the American Folklore Society (AFS), that took place this year in Long Beach, California. Every year the Society books the conference in a mid-sized city with more or less affordable accommodations in a hotel with conference rooms or a nearby conference center large enough to hold nearly a thousand people. An unusual aspect of this year’s conference was that our hotel workers were involved in a labor dispute with management. As a result, some of our members stayed away from the hotel, and others from the conference altogether. I might have done so too, but last year I was elected a member of our Executive Board, and so in addition to my rank-and-file membership I am now responsible as a trustee of the Society as a whole.
    When our AFS Board met last spring, our Executive Director presented us with the news of the labor dispute and asked us to consider whether we wanted the Society to pull out of the conference. There was no strike because the dispute was not between a union and management; rather, the dispute was over the method by which workers would vote to decide whether to be represented by a union. Most, if not all of us, were sympathetic with labor in this dispute; however, we were told that if AFS withdrew from this hotel, our Society would face several problems. First, we would be unable to book another suitable hotel at this time within the Los Angeles area; second, breaking our legal contract with the hotel would cost the Society a penalty of $100,000, which would amount to more than the Society’s annual income from member dues and deal a significant blow to our sustainability. The Executive Director recommended that we continue with plans to hold the conference at that hotel, but try to intervene to help settle the dispute, and also hold activities in connection with the conference that might educate the participants, as well as our members, in labor history and expressive culture. This recommendation carried, with only one vote against. I decided that my responsibilities as a Board member to the Society in this case outweighed my qualms and joined in the affirmative vote.
    As I anticipated, the union and management ignored our efforts to mediate, while the union attempted to enlist support from our membership. Some events were held outside the hotel, and a delegation from our Society went to meet with the chief officer of the hotel to present their views on behalf of the workers. In gratitude, the union called off its daily, hour-long and quite vocal protests outside the hotel, which could have interfered with our conference presentations. Yet, predictably, no progress was made in the labor dispute.
    In a later post I will say some things about the conference itself. One of its themes was “ecologies,” and some of the presentations on that theme interested me. I presented on a panel concerned with “sensory ecologies” — the ecological systems involving expressive culture and the senses—and offered a much-abbreviated version of the keynote on a sound ecology that I presented at both the Canadian Society for Traditional Music last June, and the joint SEM-ICTM forum in Ireland last month.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Toward a Sound Ecology: Activism, Community Engagement, and Ethnomusicology

    Several months ago I was invited to Limerick, Ireland, to give a plenary address in a conference for ethnomusicologists, on activism and community engagement. Community-engaged activism is characteristic of applied ethnomusicology, of course, but some who are activists in our field don’t self-identify as applied ethnomusicologists. No matter; the conference organizers wished to cast a broader net, and they therefore brought together many people whose work was unknown to each other—not just ethnomusicologists, either, but also arts promoters who’d done much to program concerts featuring indigenous performing groups. The gathering took place two weeks ago and resulted from a historic alliance between the US-based Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM), and the Europe-based International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM). It was a great pleasure to meet and speak with some European colleagues whose work I’d read but whom I’d never seen before. Several old friends and colleagues were in attendance as well. While some ethnomusicologists are active members of both societies, SEM has been my only professional organization for ethnomusicology since I joined in back in 1971.
    I was impressed with many of the presentations. It so happened that Oxford University Press had a small book exhibit at the gathering where the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology was prominently featured. Although that book was published only two months earlier, it’s already had some impact. Many of the conference attendees had seen it; and parts of it, especially my introductory essay, were referenced in several presentations. A few of the conference highlights: Angela Impey from the University of London offered a description of her work with songs that “tell the truth” in war-torn South Sudan, where music makes meaning and expresses justice. Deborah Wong, a professor at the University of California, made an appeal for “witnessing” as activism, and related her work in Riverside, with the soundtracks of police violence against African Americans. José Jorge de Carvalho, from the University of Brasilia, described a program in which indigenous “masters” (bearers of traditional knowledge) are brought to teach in his university, on a level playing field with Western professors. Such a program, limited to the arts, does not threaten the established political order; but bring in masters to teach indigenous ideas about nature, for example, and give them authority equal to Western science, and you have the beginnings of a revolution. Denise Bolduc, a member of the First Nations (Canadian) Anishnabe group, spoke about her work in promoting concerts and other performances for a broad audience. One of the phrases that stuck with me from her presentation was “blood memory,” a kind of memory that is genetic rather than cultural, and which some indigenous people invoke to provide authority for a cultural process in which they feel they have re-created ideas and practices of previous generations that had been lost to cultural genocide or for other reasons. Andrew McGraw, from the University of Richmond, spoke about his work helping prison inmates make hip-hop tracks, describing the new Richmond (VA) city jail as a highly sophisticated surveillance state. Anthony Seeger spoke about lessons that could be learned from applied anthropology, and Rebecca Dirksen spoke of her efforts in applied ethnomusicology to make a documentary film involving music and waste in Haiti, where the streets of Port-au-Prince are piled high with trash. Mark DeWitt described (and played recordings of) songs made in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast, meant to raise environmental consciousness. He added that the songs, while powerful statements in themselves, seemed like everything else done in opposition to the oil drilling culture to have little effect on the oil industry itself, and wondered what he, as someone supported as a university professor by the economic establishment in the region, and as someone answerable to many different and sometimes conflicting constituencies, could or should do about it. Luke Lassiter, whose work in collaborative ethnography was well known to me, and whose book on it I taught in the fieldwork seminar at Brown, talked about new developments in this area, including increased reflexivity and a broadening of the concept of collaboration. Some of the presenters referred to my published work when making a similar or related point, and one critiqued my ideas about music’s economic and cultural value. We disagreed politely and explored those disagreements in a question-and-answer session after his presentation, all of which was helpful to me and, I hope, to him.
    The one who was critical objected to my point (made in this blog and elsewhere) that music should not be considered intellectual property or bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, I’m not the only one to feel this way, nor was I anywhere near the first to say so. But I’ve argued that music has personal and cultural values that ought not be confused with exchange value in the marketplace, yet value and values are brought into tension and compromised when music is bought and sold. My critic raised the common objection that musicians needed to make a living and ought to be paid for their music, artists for their art, and so forth. Oddly, most of the musicians he discussed were amateurs whose main income wasn’t from music; but still, there are those whose is, and why shouldn’t they have the right to be paid for it? In the economic systems prevailing in developed nation-states, of course this makes sense; musicians are laborers and should be paid for their work. But I envision a different economy, one in which making music is as natural as breathing or walking, and where it is not labor at all.
    The presentation closest in concept and spirit to my plenary talk was by someone who was entirely unfamiliar to me, Professor Chad Hamill, of Northern Arizona University. It came at 8:30 in the morning, and the conference room was only half full, which was a pity. Chad is of both Native American (Spokan Indian) and non-Native ancestry, and has his doctorate in ethnomusicology from the University of Colorado. His spoke about indigenous adaptation in the era of climate change, but began with a portrait of Spokan life in the natural world pre-European contact. Translated into my terminology it was a world of relational being, knowing, and doing, anchored in sound. Chad explained how in this Spokan world song bound humans to (and in) nature, linked to a sacred geography centered in the Spokane River. Today that river is polluted and dammed, and the salmon no longer run, all in the “photochemical haze” of the colonial legacy. Yet they are fighting all of this in the courts and gradually obtaining justice. He and I were able to speak about our common interests at times during the conference, and afterwards. I was reminded of the efforts of the Penobscots in Maine to restore the Penobscot River, efforts that are being rewarded as pollutants are outlawed, dams are being undone and the river is renewing itself. In that effort these Native Americans are joined by non-indigenous people who are conservation-minded, many of them sportsmen and women who would otherwise be on the right wing of the political spectrum.
    My plenary lecture came in the evening, after supper, and closed out the events that same day. It was fitting for Chad and me to bookend the day by speaking about nature, culture, and music within an environmental activist framework. I explained my current work in ecomusicology as it moves toward what I’ve been calling a sound ecology, or a new ecological rationality based in sound and presence, one that encompasses a sound community and displays a sound economy. These ideas have been gradually coming to me out of my concerns with music and sustainability, economy and ecology, nature’s economy, music, heritage and tradition, the sound commons, applied ethnomusicology, and so on as readers of this blog will understand. They had their first expression as music and sustainability in 2005 in my Nettl Lecture, at the University of Illinois, and then again at the SEM conference in 2006 in Honolulu, on a panel I organized on sustainable music—those papers were published in a 2009 issue of the world of music. Since then, they’ve been influenced profoundly by Thoreau’s writings, or at least by my interpretations of them, as they bear on ideas of presence, co-presence, and a critique of economic man, the business mentality that underlies the global corporate capitalism that turns music and art into intellectual property (and where traditional arts are given the value-added status of heritage) and fuel for the creative economy, cultural tourism, and so forth. I must emphasize that my critique is not directed at capitalism per se, as so many others’ is today (e.g., Thomas Piketty, Naomi Klein). Rather, it is directed at what underlies contemporary neoclassical economics and capitalism, namely “economic man,” the assumption that humans are capitalists and traders by nature.
    Gradually I am bringing my ideas of a sound ecology to publication; two essays on Thoreau will be published very soon, one in Current Directions in Ecomusicology and the other in the inaugural issue of Sound Studies. The keynote address that I gave at the CSTM conference last June should appear in an issue of Ethnologies within a year or so. I also have a publication that will appear on sound and climate change, more of a personal essay, in Antioch College’s environmental journal, Whole Terrain, later this year. All of this thought on music and sustainability inches toward a larger, comprehensive publication that will bring the ideas on sound, presence, co-presence, community, economy, and ecology together. 

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 this 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 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. 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.