Sunday, November 30, 2014

Ecomusicologies 2014 and the Sounds of Plants

     Scientists have known for many years that plants emit sounds, and also that they respond to sounds—for instance, they make noises when fluids move rapidly up and down their stems. Plants also move towards or away from sounds as they also do when stimulated by light. From time to time, claims have appeared that plants grow better when spoken to encouragingly. A 2009 report from The Daily Mail noted that a study by the Royal Horticultural Society concluded that “talking to your plants can really help them grow faster.” Charles Darwin’s great granddaughter, Sarah, who took part in this experiment, turned out to be the champion talker: reading from On the Origin of Species caused her plant to grow nearly two inches taller than the control. Elementary school science projects include experiments “to find out whether plants respond to human speech,” asking students to think about how plants communicate, what types of messages they send one another, and how vibrations affect plants.
    As an organic gardener, I knew that legume roots were colonized by nitrogen-fixing bacteria, but it didn’t occur to me to ask how the bacteria in the soil found the rootlets to grab on to. If I’d thought about it, probably I’d have said these were random encounters, or that perhaps the rootlets emitted some kind of chemical that was attractive to the bacteria. It would never have occurred to me to think that bacteria might have been responding to vibrations in the soil made by disturbances when the rootlets expanded and grew. But after listening to Monica Gagliano at the conference, and then reading many of her articles published in the scientific literature, I know that this is very much a possibility. Gagliano is an Italian scientist who worked in the laboratory of Stefano Mancuso, one of the most important contemporary researchers in the field of plant intelligence. Currently she's a postdoctoral research fellow at the Centre for Evolutionary Biology at the University of Western Australia.
    Gagliano claims that plants not only communicate with soil bacteria and other creatures, but that they communicate with each other, by means of vibrations which she is willing to call sound. “Vibrations are sound,” she replied when I asked her if she made any distinction between them. For a scientific realist sound is a feature of the external world and consists of waves inside a medium that are set in motion by vibrations. Plants, obviously, vibrate; their cells, for example, vibrate at the microscopic level continuously, just as human cells do. Perhaps the problem humans have in accepting plant communication via sound is that we commonly think of communication proceeding from vocal cords to ears, and of course plants have neither. But it doesn’t take long to realize that sound communication doesn’t need vocal cords—just think of musical instruments, or animals signaling by sounding parts of their bodies—and that sound vibrations can be felt in various parts of the body, not just the ears—think of the deep bass of an organ, for example. Assuming that communication is the transfer of information, then for it to take place there must be a transmitter, a receiver, and the information itself. On those grounds, plants qualify. Evolutionary biologists believe, further, that living creatures must have evolved through natural selection so that communication is a specific adaptation to their environment, not merely a by-product of some other activity.
    Gagliano reports that plants not only emit sounds but also detect them and modify their behavior accordingly. ”Preliminary investigations of both emission and detection of sound by plants indicate that plants have the ability to detect acoustic vibrations and exhibit frequency-selective sensitivity (i.e., plants respond to the same range of frequencies that they emit themselves) that, in turn, generates behavioral modifications. Hence, the relevant question is not about whether plants have evolved to detect and respond to sound waves or vibrations in their environment, but how and why they do it (italics in original).1/ These are all good questions, yet it seems to me that numerous additional experiments are needed before one can be reasonably certain that sound communication is normal among plants. Scientists may more confidently proceed to the “how” and “why” after more instances of the “what” are confirmed. Incidentally, I’m making the distinction here between sound communication between plants, versus that between plants and non-plants (e.g., bacteria, insects); I believe we have a good deal more evidence for the latter, and much less for the former.
    For readers who’d like an overview of plant communication within the larger field of plant intelligence, I recommend a New Yorker essay by Michael Pollan which appeared less than a year ago. (Thanks to Tyler Kinnear who called that essay to my attention.) Galgiano’s research is mentioned, but the essay focuses on the work of her mentor, Stefano Mancuso, and also gives a good deal of space to the skeptics who wonder whether it’s a stretch to call plants intelligent or communicative. Of course,  skeptics also cast doubt on animal intelligence and communication, claiming that the human varieties are different in kind as well as degree. Still, it seems to me that considering sound communication among animals, and even among plants, offers perspective on sound communication among humans, its evolution and functions, which must be helpful in considering sound, music, and sustainability over the long term for all living creatures.

1/ Monica Gagliano, "Green Symphonies: a call for studies of acoustic communication in plants." Behavioral Ecology doi:10.1093/beheco/ars206, 25 November 2012, pp. 789-796.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Ecomusicologies 2014 and Birdsong

     Ecomusicologies 2014 took place last month in Asheville, North Carolina, prolonging the pleasant autumn and combining it with an exchange of eclectic ideas related to sound (and music) and environmentalism. Among the most stimulating, for me, were presentations on birds altering their songs in response to changes in their environment, and on the sound vibrations plants make or respond to. I relate these to my interests in the ways living creatures communicate via sound, announcing their presence, experiencing co-presence with another creature, and then acting on the basis of that communication. As I wrote in the previous entry, the field of animal sound communication has become increasingly important to me, as I try to understand music, its evolution and meanings, within the broader context of sound communication among living beings.
    Birdsong has interested scientists as well as musicians and composers. Earlier in this blog I wrote about birdsong and two naturalists who had a keen ear for it: Henry David Thoreau and Donald Borror. Most scientists agree that birds sing (and call) to attract a mate, signal danger, indicate where they are, mark their territory and keep rivals out, or keep a flock together. They haven’t much considered whether birds sing for pleasure, but that opens up a large topic--do animals make sounds for fun as well as function--and is for a later blog post. Here I want to write about Kera Belcher and John Quinn’s report on their experiment to see whether Carolina Chickadees altered their songs in response to the sounds of predators. It’s not just the experimental result that interests me, but also what they’d learned from previous studies of birdsong in order to construct their hypothesis.
    Belcher, who presented the report, noted that experiments have confirmed that birds change their songs in response to noise interference. That is, they tend to shift frequency to avoid the interference. The Chickadee, they then told us, was among a special class of birds thought to be sentinels, whose danger calls warned other species as well as their own. You may have seen how, in wintertime, chickadees travel in flocks and appear at home feeders with other species such as goldfinch and nuthatch. They do that here in East Penobscot Bay, and they’re also joined by juncos—although the juncos feed on the ground nearby. For their experiment, Belcher and Quinn decided to introduce a predator species to see if it would trigger the alarm call and warn the other birds as well as their own species. Evidently it did, as the Chickadees always arrived first at the feeder after the predator was introduced, before the other species in the flock were seen at the feeder.
    In a charming revelation of experimental improvisation, Belcher noted that their simulated predator (a stuffed owl) didn’t stand up to the weather, so they decided that she herself ought to serve as the experimental predator. I can just imagine her swooping down toward the feeder, yelling and waving her arms, in the campus area reserved for the test. Clearly, this is a preliminary experiment; and it wasn't clear to me whether the bird was altering its call in response to noise interference, or simply sounding its normal alarm call in the presence of the predator; but it shows something of the kind of research that’s going on.    

Photo by Jeff Titon, 2004
Why Belcher and Quinn would present their research to a group of ecomusicologists is an interesting question. I’m sure they’ve already done so before ecological scientists; perhaps they wanted to find out how humanists would react? I suspect many in the audience had at times tried to sing with birds, imitating them or trying to communicate with them, just for fun or possibly more than that. It wouldn’t take much to convince me, for instance, that the Black-Capped Chickadees (photo, left) giving their “gargle” call (dee-dee-dee) when I’m outside near an empty feeder are scolding me to remind me to refill it. But it never occurred to me that the number of “dees” in their call was significant. Belcher and Quinn said contemporary research was revealing that it is.
     In the next entry I’ll write about the ecomusicologies 2014 conference presentation by the Italian scientist, well funded by the Australian government, who’s studying the sounds plants make. Not “how to talk to plants,” as one of the New Age books had it a few decades ago, but ways in which plants produce and respond to sound vibrations, perhaps to communicate with other living beings.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Team Fieldwork

I've neglected this blog while completing work on the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology and preparing and delivering a keynote address for the Ecomusicologies 2014 conference that took place in Asheville, North Carolina a few weeks ago. That was an extremely stimulating conference and I plan to say why in due course. Much of my reading lately has been in the area of sound communication among animals, following up on the ideas about sound signaling presence and co-presence. That field is dominated today by a cluster of assumptions coming from game theory, natural selection, and bio-economics. I will be posting some things about that in the near future.

Last week there was a lively discussion on the public folklore list concerning team fieldwork and the use of still photography. Betsy Peterson, head of the American Folklife Center (AFC) at the Library of Congress, asked for information on those topics from those folklorists who undertook fieldwork in the 1960s and 1970s. Shortly after the AFC was founded, in 1976, it sent teams of folklife specialists into particular geographical areas to survey the folklore in the region and, usually, turn the documentation into an exhibit which toured in that region and then was deposited in archives there or in the Library of Congress or both. Usually the teams were led by employees of the AFC, but they also utilized local-based folklorists who already knew something about the region's folklife. Although teams of two or three researchers were not new in folklore, these AFC teams were larger and in some ways resembled the teams of anthropologists and sociologists who assessed the social lives of people in a given geographical area. My response to Betsy was this:
    
     "Speaking from my North American perspective—I don’t know how this all went down in Europe or elsewhere back in the day, but when I studied folklore in the 1960s, what I encountered was “collecting” or survey work, rather than “fieldwork” in the longitudinal, Malinowskian ethnographic sense, or in the sense of some of the collaborative long-term team fieldwork projects that anthropologists were doing. Folklorists went into the field to survey and find and “collect” folklore, either individually or collectively (no pun intended). If memory serves, the language of the American Folklife Center’s early team projects was also expressed in terms of field surveys, which is what I understood them to have been. Documentation was part of the process of collecting. Earlier examples of collaboration in folklore field collecting include Milman Parry and Albert Lord in the late 1930s collecting epic songs together in Yugoslavia, and the collaborative field trips undertaken by Alan Lomax with Zora Neale Hurston and also with John Work, not to mention those that Alan went on with his father John. At some point in the 1960s/1970s the ethnographic turn in folklore seems to have replaced the idea of collecting (surveying). Now fieldwork was no longer regarded primarily as collecting folklore, but as doing ethnographies of expressive culture, in an anthropological sense, longer term and in one place. My work on the Powerhouse projects, Henry Glassie’s work in Ballymenone—there are several examples from the 1970s. My work on the Powerhouse project was collaborative, by the way. In anthropology, examples of larger teams doing anthropological fieldwork include the long-term projects undertaken by professors at Harvard and the U. of Chicago and their graduate students, after World War II. This isn’t to say there were no folklorists in the 1960s doing longitudinal work with individuals or in particular places, nor that they didn’t conceive of it as fieldwork; but it wasn’t the norm.
    When I studied ethnomusicology beginning in 1966 I encountered the term fieldwork, and I also encountered it the same year in an introductory anthropology course. Of course, the idea we were taught way back then was that a fieldworker was, ideally, a scientific observer, fly on the wall, investigative reporter, even when fieldwork was done by a group of fieldworkers; the notion that fieldwork involved collaboration among fieldworkers and “informants” (or what we’d call nowadays field partners, consultants, teachers, co-subjects, etc. as discussed recently on this listserv) was being advanced back then only by a few of the more radical action anthropologists.
     My own fieldwork in the 1960s I think of more as visiting than fieldwork, something I’ve actually written about here and there, the idea of visiting and friendship, collaborating with blues musicians, learning music from them, helping them in their careers by getting them gigs, recording contracts, etc. and mostly hanging out with them, not just learning about music but about a way of being in the world. There was a group of blues musicians in Minneapolis, Lazy Bill Lucas, JoJo Williams, Mojo Buford, Sonny Boy Rogers, kind of a floating group that congregated at Bill’s apartment on Lake Street, where we ate Bill’s fried chicken, drank Fox Deluxe beer, played music, and “shot the shit” (talked, as it was called back then) about life and love and music, made plans, and so forth. In the 1970s most of my fieldwork on the Powerhouse project was collaborative, with Ken George, who was a grad student in folklore at Chapel Hill at the time. (He’s since gone on to become a well-known anthropologist; taught at Harvard, Oregon, and Wisconsin, and is now teaching in Australia.) But even before then I wasn’t alone in that kind of fieldwork; when I taught at IU for a summer, Sandy Rikoon and I went together to a few Pentecostal and Baptist churches, where we documented the services, interviewed the evangelists, and so on. Sandy would remember that.
     Re visual documentation, again, this was something that was part of the ethnographer’s toolkit as I learned in studying ethnomusicology and anthropology back in the 1960s. I don’t recall it being a part of folklore studies, but certainly there were folklorists back then who were doing it intensively and well—Bruce Jackson and John Cohen spring immediately to mind. My own introduction to photography came from my father, who had me taking pictures and working in a darkroom as a young teenager; and after devouring _Let Us Now Praise Famous Men_ in high school, I decided I wanted to do what Agee and Evans did, which meant among other things making documentary photos. My dad had brought back a couple of 35mm cameras from World War II, a Leica and a Balda; he gave me the Balda to use. Interestingly, until he died I never saw the WWII photos he made in France as part of the American liberating army; he was one of those who never talked about the war, but he did save the photos and I have them now. In the 1960s I shot some 8mm movies of my blues musician friends and tried to synch them up with reel tape recordings I made at the same time, but I could never keep them in good synch and gave up. How I wish I’d had enough money or a grant to rent Super-8 synch sound equipment to do that back then. When I went with Bill and his friends to perform at the Ann Arbor Blues Festivals in 1969 and 1970, I made 5” reel tape recordings with a Sony TC-800B (called, at the time, the poor person’s Uher) portable recorder and shot still photos, this time using my dad’s Leica which by then he’d given to me. In the mid-1970s I got a $1500 grant from the NEA Folk Arts division (back then it had the words jazz and ethnic in its name also) for fieldwork with Rev. C. L. Franklin and with the grant money I promptly bought a videotape recorder, a combination of a reel video tape machine that could fit on a large backpack frame, along with an outboard video camera. It was called a video “portapak” and shot grainy black-and-white video on 1/2” reels, and I used it to make videos in the Powerhouse project as well as the Franklin project. I also took it along when Sandy Rikoon and I visited those churches in Indiana nearly 40 years ago."

     Last April I showed one of those old videos from 1977 at the conference celebrating Rev. C. L. Franklin's legacy, more than 35 years after I shot it, and nearly 30 years after Rev. Franklin's death. It turns out that the seven videos I shot of his preaching--all complete sermons, in 1977 and 1978--with that technically challenged portapak, are the only visual documentation made of his preaching; yet he was widely acknowledged as the finest African American preacher of his generation: as a preacher, of course. Martin Luther King, Jr. was his contemporary, and of course King's sermons were magnificent political orations. But Franklin was regarded as the finer preacher.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

So help me Kentucky: music, culture and poverty according to the New York Times

Illustration by Kelsey Dake. New York Times Magazine, 6/29/2014
Not long ago, an article appeared in the New York Times Magazine, on rural poverty in general, and eastern Kentucky in particular. Kelsey Dake's illustration of an imaginary license plate fronted the article. In it, the author, Annie Lowrey, reviewed  government efforts to help the poor people of this economically-distressed region, becoming even more distressed as ever fewer workers are needed in its coalmining-dependent economy. Coal itself is under pressure from environmentalists, government regulations, and from reduced demand for coal in the US. She concluded that given the history of failed efforts to aid the people through welfare, and to better the educational, health, and public works infrastructure of the region, efforts that span the period from Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s to Barack Obama’s 2014 declaration of the region as one of five “promise zones” targeted for federal aid, it would be best for the people to pack up and move where the jobs are—to the fracking economy in North Dakota, for instance, or to cities like New York that “punch their weight” economically.
    Predictably, scholars and activists in Appalachian Studies punched back, skewering Lowrie as another of those hit-and-run journalists, those instant experts from away who think they know how to solve Appalachia’s problems and don’t mind telling everyone how to do it. But instead of advocating for more economic aid, or libertarian incentives such as lower taxes, her solution was get out and find your fortune where the jobs are; go to the cities. Lying behind this solution lurks a hipster mentality: cities are happening places and maybe you can be lucky enough to relocate there.
    Laughable if it weren’t so pathetic, the Times’ reporter’s diagnosis and prescription fails to understand the real economic causes of the people’s difficulty: a collusion among business leaders, many of whom are absentee coal company owners, and corrupt politicians, to colonize the region and exploit its population along with its natural resources. Since the 1960s, Appalachian Studies economists have drawn the analogy to third-world countries, with king coal as the empire and Appalachia as the exploited colony. Having earlier this year published an essay on “Music and Poverty” with Appalachia as one focus, I too am counted among those who pointed out the history of economic exploitation and corruption as the major reason for poverty, in opposition to the libertarian diagnosis of a culture of dependence, or the liberal diagnosis of a lack of opportunity and infrastructure. In fact, I argued that my colleagues in folklore and ethnomusicology had overlooked the economics of poverty when considering cultural sustainability; and that prescriptions for cultural and musical sustainability that did not also take economics into account were doomed. Now I want to argue for the other half, the idea that prescriptions for economic sustainability are doomed without considering culture.
    Culture comes into play in the Times’ reporter’s essay in a potentially productive way only at the very end, and the reporter fails to recognize it for what it is. She quotes a regional official as telling her that her prescription—pull up stakes and leave Appalachia—is “a really hard pill to swallow. People are really connected to place here. For a lot of people, [pulling up stakes and moving out] is the last thing they’re doing. They’re holding off until they have no other choice.” The Times reporter fails to ask why they are so attached to place. Undoubtedly they’re more attached to their lives in their homeplace than she is to hers in New York. She is mobile; they should be too.
    The Times reporter is blind to the positives in Appalachian traditional life, the reasons why so many of them want to stay there. Why the blindness? The only good thing about Appalachia she will concede is that the countryside is pretty. Indeed. The article notes that a team of Times economics experts rated counties all over the US on the “quality and longevity of life” based on “six basic metrics.” Before continuing, suppose we do a little experiment. What would you say are among the six qualities you look for in the quality of your life, related to place? Clean air and water? Closeness to nature? People who are kind to one another, who take care of their elders and children rather than farming out care to so-called professionals? A place where you know your neighbors, and if you’re going to live next to them for a length of time, where you and they will give one another the benefit of the doubt and be slow to anger? A place where people aren’t fixated building McMansions or connoisseurship in fine wines, fine arts, fine living and boasting of it to others? Places that are real places instead of just addresses, rungs on a ladder to success?
    Of course, the Times experts didn’t consider any of those qualities. Instead, they considered educational attainment, household income, jobless rate, disability rate, life expectancy and obesity rate. Obesity rate! Imagine using that as a criterion in, say, a Pacific Island paradise. Educational attainment? Well, it raises a person’s income, but also their desire for more. And it raises the blood pressure. How can one measure what a person knows, who they are, by their terminal degrees? How many well-educated fools do we have running the show in DC? Come on. Household income? That family taking care of children or an elder is going to take an income hit. No question about it, but for some people it’s a quality of life tradeoff: lower income, better quality. Think about it. Disability rate? Couldn’t that be related to things like how dangerous your job is? Farming is the most dangerous. Coal mining isn’t exactly in the safety zone, either. I’ll bet McDonald’s employees get in plenty of accidents also, despite degrees in hamburgerology. What about sitting in front of a computer screen networking your way to entrepreneurial happiness? Pretty cushy if you can make it work, and even if you can't. Oh yes, your ankles swell and your eyes go bad, but it takes years before the effects are felt. Besides, just go to the gym to counteract the effects.
    The Times reporter points out that among the bottom ten counties in the US rated on those six metrics for quality of life and longevity are six from eastern Kentucky, including Magoffin County. Interesting. Magoffin County, like so many eastern Kentucky counties, is rich in tradition. The music of Old Regular Baptists in the region is the oldest English-language singing tradition in the US, a rich, powerful expression of faith that is among those cultural expressions that keeps the people there. Richness, not poverty: rich in cultural tradition, rich in hope. Eastern Kentucky is home to a rich literary tradition as well, and not just literature but also the language of everyday expression. Ever heard it? You have to stay there awhile before you will. Magoffin County produced one of the finest traditional fiddlers of the 20th century, John Salyer. He was a farmer. The town he lived in, Salyersville, was named after his grandfather. He played music for local dances and entertained at parties, face to face, where everyone from the community knew each other. And it was a community. His farm was reckoned the third best farm in the county. He refused an offer to make commercial recordings. The story goes that the record scout heard of his prowess, came to visit and sign him up, found him outside plowing his field, and offered him a contract right then and there. But Salyer saw right through it: the pay for the fiddler was miniscule compared to the company’s share. Same as the share for the coal miner compared to the coal executive. “Get up, Sal,” he said to his horse, “we can do better plowing.” And so he was content to make music so that people he knew could lift their feet on a Saturday night. Cultural richness is not measured by the six metrics the Times experts used. What do they know of the quality of life? Are they happy, or driven?
    The Kentucky license plate that illustrates the article (see above) shows a thoroughbred horse, a map of the state in outline, and the words “HELP ME” in bold letters. Characteristically, Appalachia is under erasure: it is nowhere to be seen in this symbolic license plate. Anyone who didn’t know eastern Kentucky as a poster child for poverty in America would think that “Help Me” was directed at the entire state, or maybe the Kentucky racing breeders represented by the horse. The Times article reminded me of something Elwood Cornett said when 25 years ago I asked him how he felt about people coming into eastern Kentucky and studying Old Regular Baptist people and their music. “We’re not anxious to be studied,” said the leader of the largest Association of Baptists in the area. People, he said, have “flown in and flown out, and taken a shallow look at us, and what they have written about us is just as shallow.” He could have been talking about the Times article. But, he added, when people visit who are respectful, and serious of purpose, “we don’t mind” being looked at. “We are just who we are,” and who we appear to be, he said. The Times reporter, like so many, didn’t stay long enough to take in anything other than what she expected to find. How unfortunate that she had such a platform as the Times, to perpetuate the Appalachian stereotypes, mis-diagnose, mis-prescribe, and then fly back back to New York, where she may already have moved on to the next rung of her career ladder. “Annie Lowrey was, until recently, an economics reporter for The Times,” the blurb accompanying the article informs us. She was 6 years old when Cornett told me about people who fly in and fly out. Born in 1984, she was educated at Harvard. Prior to being an economics reporter, she covered economic policy for the Times. Before that, she was the "Moneybox" columnist for Slate Magazine. What is her new job? I don't know, but I don't guess she's looking to move to eastern Kentucky: no moneybox for her there. Pity; she might learn something if she stayed there a while.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sustainability, the sound commons, and Garrett Hardin's tragedy

    I've written earlier about the soundscape as a commons, i.e. as a resource available to all creatures. Recall that according to the acoustic niche hypothesis, each animal species that communicates by sound does so within a niche in the soundscape, the result of evolutionary adaptation. The niche is marked by timbre, frequency, volume, repetition, time of day or night, etc. with the goal that individuals' signals be received by other species members unambiguously. Of course, they are also overheard by predators, to whom animals may give false signals. Obviously, this works best in a relatively stable ecosystem. Introduce disturbances, such as drastic changes in habitat, or frequent noise interference, and sound communication becomes difficult. Natural disturbances such as fire, human-made disturbances such as agricultural development in forested areas, or climate change, or noise pollution due to ocean vessels, wreak havoc with the soundscape and the acoustic niches available. Communication suffers and species health inevitably declines, due of course not only to the degradation in soundscape but to the ecosystem generally.
    For a century anthropological linguists have written about endangered languages, and comparative musicologists and ethnomuiscologists about endangered musics. As traditional cultures have become displaced or even in some cases gone extinct, or as they modernize and discard their older layers of music, various musical resources, such as instruments, genres, and the knowledge associated with them also have disappeared. This endangerment discourse moved from preservation to conservation to safeguarding to sustainability, gradually acknowledging the dynamism in living traditions. What's been missing is a framework for sustainability. I don't mean a particular type of sustainability, such as economic, environmental, musical, cultural, etc. What I'm getting at is a framework within which to view sustainability. It's not an adjective that modifies sustainability at issue here; it is the larger context within which sustainability rests. And that context, I believe, is commons, broadly understood as a resource commons where resources are not only material but also intellectual, ethical, and cultural, extending culture from humans to the higher vertebrates as well. Sustainability occurs, in other words, where the overriding principles are interconnectedness and mutuality, whether we are talking about an information commons, a fishery, a music culture, or chemical processes such as photosynthesis within an ecosystem. Commons defeats entropy.
    In thinking about commons once more, I returned to Garrett Hardin's seminal essay, "The Tragedy of the Commons" and discovered that I had not really remembered it carefully.[1] This influential essay, now 45 years old, is usually understood to argue against commons; but upon examination it turns out that is not what Hardin had in mind. His article opposed an unregulated commons, not commons per se. The unregulated commons is unsustainable; no "technical solution" (Hardin meant technology) can save it. But a managed commons is sustainable. What is his reasoning?
    In terms which were prescient, Hardin begins by stating that certain problems, such as continuous world population growth, do not admit of technological solutions. The planet's resources are finite, which means despite technological means of extracting more and more of them, population growth cannot in the long run be infinite. This contention prepares his discussion of commons, but readers usually ignore it (or forget it, as I did) and pass directly to his claim that individuals sharing a commons and always acting only in what they see as their personal best interest ultimately must exhaust its resources. And that is all most people take away from this influential essay. In the enormous literature produced in response to it, readers tend to forget that Hardin continues his commons argument in order to discredit the "invisible hand" doctrine of Adam Smith and other laissez-faire (today we would say neoliberal) capitalists. In other words, the tragedy of the commons gives the lie to Smith's claim that if everyone works in their personal best interest an invisible hand will see to it that the public will benefit as well. On the contrary, the public suffers; and ultimately the individuals who may profit at first also suffer as resources become exhausted even for them. For that reason, Hardin concludes, a regulated commons is best. 
    Hardin insisted that relying on individual restraint brought on by knowledge of the common good would not always suffice. His overriding concern was with population growth; wishing to limit this so as not to bring about a Malthusian conclusion, he acknowledged that individuals could scarcely be depended on to limit their number of offspring voluntarily. Regulation by law was the only answer. In China, of course, this is precisely what occurred; but in the West, it has been unthinkable to do anything but depend on individuals' sense of ethical responsibility. Take the discussion away from population growth, or "breeding" in Hardin's unfortunate phrase, and put it into carbon emissions and their effect on climate change, and we have the same argument that is being made today for carbon offsets, carbon taxes, and the like, to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide humans are putting into the atmosphere. We may also see the wisdom in Hardin's choice of the word "tragedy," even though we are loath to accept its implications. Hardin's essay, rightly read, helps us frame the sustainability discourse for music and culture as well as for population and energy.

[1] Garrett Hardin, "The Tragedy of the Commons." Science, New Series, Vol. 162, No. 3859 (Dec. 13, 1968), pp. 1243-1248.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Representing ethnographic ambiguity in fiction

Photo by Jeff Todd Titon, Maine, 2011.
    It’s become a commonplace to speak about the truth of fiction, which is to say that fiction does better in representing experience than verifiable fact. As a blogger wrote recently for the Paris Review, “The truth of fiction allows the reader not only to believe that the story has happened to the narrator, but to believe that it is happening to himself as well.” I was reminded of this when asked about why, in response to an invitation to write a piece on an assigned subject for a journal that publishes scholarly essays, I submitted a short work of fiction.
    The original invitation came to write an essay for a special issue of a journal devoted to scholarship on music and culture. The issue's theme was to be “Connecting with Communities.” My initial response was to say no. In my reply I mentioned five published essays and one keynote address, from 1985 until now, in which I’d pontificated on how and why we scholars should be connecting and collaborating with musical communities, not just studying them. “So,” I concluded, “I feel as if I've already had many opportunities to present on this subject, and that the world doesn't need to hear anything more from me on it, at least not in another essay. I thank you for thinking of me, and wish you well with the special issue.”
    The editor wasn’t done with me yet. “I wonder,” she kindly wrote back, “if you would consider another form of contribution to this special issue. . . Might there be some creative way you might be interested in sharing your ideas with us in relation to the context of the issue? Especially as we seek to integrate innovative ways of conducting research / creating and sharing knowledge.”
    "Creative way?" I’m not sure if she was aware that years ago I'd tried my hand at fiction before a scholarly audience and, given this leeway, might try again. At any rate, when I submitted a short story, she wrote to ask me to share my thoughts about why fiction? and to say that these thoughts could accompany the story.
    Again, my first reaction was to say no, that the story I submitted should stand or fall on its own. But when I’d presented a piece of fiction to a scholarly audience before, I realized that even if I didn’t want to offer an explanation, the audience deserved one. I hadn’t done it then, but decided to try to do it now. The editor interviewed me and we considered it within the context of multidisciplinarity or, with apologies to Wallace Stevens, the advantages of more than one way of looking at a blackbird.
    We’ve been living, for the past few decades, in a time when in certain circles it is difficult to maintain a stance of scholarly objectivity, a time when the world seems to have dissolved into competing narratives, ways of representing people and things, ways of making sense of experience, ways of telling a truth. We even hear this from media talking heads, usually in the pejorative sense, as “so-and-so’s narrative” of reality. In the US, the Republicans have their narratives, and the Democrats theirs; Fox News has its narrative, MSNBC a different one.
    The difference between these narratives and fiction is, of course, that fiction does not pretend to describe something real. It may be true, but it can't be real in the sense that it corresponds directly to something that happened in the factual world, even if it is derived from real events. Citizen Kane is a fiction based on truths in the life of William Randolph Hearst, but it is not real. You could not find a real Charles Foster Kane, living or dead, even though Hearst, upon release of the film, prohibited its mention in any of his newspapers. And needless to say, most fiction is more made-up than that.
    A scholarly essay persuades by being true to facts, ideas, and logic; but fiction seeks assent in the reader’s experience, real or imagined. It may persuade, but it does not seek to do so. It offers the reader (and the writer) a different advantage: an opportunity to imagine, feel and, perhaps, resolve some of the ambiguities inherent in experience.
    Or not resolve them. I think that fiction writing offers the scholar a chance to explore feelings and understandings, sometimes contradictory ones, and hold them in a state of suspension, a liminal state on both sides of a threshold. Let me offer an example from the first piece of fiction I read before a scholarly audience. It was in 1979, at the New England chapter meeting of the Society for Ethnomusicology. I derived this fiction from events and experiences at a large folk festival some years earlier. A blues singer, Big Joe Williams, refused to perform blues on the porch of a building constructed especially for this festival. The building looked like a country church and served mainly to present religious music. Of course, it wasn’t a church; but it looked like one, and religious music had been and would be presented there. For blues singers of Big Joe’s generation, it was a sacrilege to sing blues in church, so he refused.
    It happened that I was employed by this festival as a presenter, someone who interprets the performers for the audience, and also, at times, serves as a companion for them. I’d had some experience with blues musicians—had even performed for a couple of years in a blues band, and had written my PhD dissertation on blues—so I was assigned to hang out with and present Big Joe. But he wouldn’t be presented on that church stage. I explained the situation to a high official at the festival, suggesting that we simply move Big Joe to a different stage. But it turned out that logistics wouldn’t permit it, and I was instead directed to persuade him to perform. “It’s not a real church, after all,” I was told. “It’s only a building made to look like one. Just make sure he understands the difference.”
    Impossible. For Big Joe, it was a real church. Real enough, anyway: the performance of gospel music inside had consecrated it as such. I was stuck in the middle and could comprehend both viewpoints, even though I was sympathetic to Big Joe and upset with the festival official who should, I thought, have moved heaven and earth—and said so to Big Joe, who that night changed his mind and performed on that church porch the next day anyway. And now I’ve just explained the liminality of this experience, for Big Joe and for me as well. But 35 years ago I decided to represent it, indirectly, and for that scholarly audience, in a piece of fiction, a murder mystery narrated not by me or even a stand-in, but by a hard-boiled detective--so that the scholars might experience it vicariously themselves and, if I were successful, assent to that liminal position and connect it with their own liminal experiences.
    I’m not sure if the story that I submitted to this journal will be as effective. It’s much more a made-up product of my imagination than the story I wrote about the festival. It’s about a bird watcher—but then I don’t want to explain it or try to interpret it here, now. We’ll see if it can be contextualized in that special issue. As faithful readers of this blog will have guessed, it has to do with bird song, with presence, and with co-presence; and in more ways than one it’s about connecting with communities. I think I'll leave it there, for now.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Sustainability: Adaptive Management as Coaching

Photograph by Jeff Titon, Providence, RI, 2002.

    What prompts this entry is a sentence from an anonymous external evaluator of an as-yet unpublished article. Last fall I completed an essay for the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, on music and sustainability. After reviewing sustainability and its cousins—preservation, conservation, and safeguarding—from a historical perspective, I proposed that applied ethnomusicologists undertaking cultural interventions with the goal of sustainability employ strategies involving resilience and adaptive management. The external evaluator, whose response came to me from the press only a few days ago, liked the essay: “This thought-provoking piece does an excellent job of exploring the concepts of preservation, conservation, safeguarding, sustainability, and resilience, considering environmental literature, economics, folklore studies, and ethnomusicology (the latter both within and outside the United States). More broadly, it examines how the ‘ecological trope’ has influenced ethnomusicology, considering what is at stake in using such language, and arguing for ‘resilience’ as a concept that improves upon ‘sustainability’. At the opening of the chapter, I wondered whether the length of the essay and the breadth of its scope would pay off, and they do.”  Next the helpful sentence: “Do the apparently benevolent, enlightened, and consultative interventions of applied ethnomusicologists have commonalities with the forms of human management the Foucauldian tradition expresses concern about?” In other words, if I am going to advocate adaptive management for music cultures, I ought to assuage readers who would look askance at management as a powerful, controlling mechanism characteristic of modern nation-states. My initial thoughts follow.
    Foucault coined the term “biopower” to describe the way modern nation-states regulate their citizenry, particularly in reference to controls over excesses of the body (and body politic). Their disciplinary power is even more effective because the regulations become internalized as culture. Foucault is working in a tradition pioneered by Karl Marx, who wrote about the Protestant religion’s emphasis on bodily discipline (drunkenness, for example, as a sin) effectively providing efficient, submissive factory workers for the capitalists. George Orwell’s prophetic 1984 portrayed a such a society as a police state. These, of course, are forms of management; and the reviewer worries that readers may be concerned about its dangers when strategies of adaptive management are advocated for musical and cultural sustainability.
    A quick response to this apparent problem is to say that the kind of cultural management I’ve been advocating (and practicing) for nearly five decades is not and never has been top-down, but rather grows out of a partnership between the culture worker and the community leaders and tradition-bearers. In an ideal case, the culture worker learns the music culture’s sustainability goals and helps its people plan and then implement a sustainability strategy in which they self-manage, relying on the culture worker as a collaborator and consultant. True enough, but I believe deeper resistances to management need to be engaged, especially where people are involved. It is one thing for a conservation biologist to adopt a strategy of resilience and adaptive management for ecosystems; it is quite another to manage people who have intentions of their own.
    I’ve written earlier in this blog about some of my reservations about resilience and management. The popular idea of resilience, which I shared as recently as a year ago, is that it is a kind of hunkering down, a defensive strategy of resistance. The more that I learned about its implementation, whether in medicine, psychology, or conservation biology, the more I realized I’d been wrong. Resilience is better understood as an ability to bounce back. A resilient system, in other words, whether a human being, a culture, or an ecosystem, has the capacity to respond to a disturbance by bouncing back to a former state, at least far enough so that its integrity remains and its core functions continue. This is not the same thing as resisting disturbance. Think of a resilient system as bending but not breaking, then bouncing back. Think of a resistant one as not bending until the disturbance is too great, then breaking.
    Adaptive management is. moreover, a special kind of management: one that expects sometimes to fail but then also expects to learn from failure and do a better job in the future. In a sense, most management seeks to be adaptive; but the phrase emphasizes that failure is inevitable and leads, ideally, to more effective management. It emphasizes the pragmatic nature of management. For better and worse, it characterizes many contemporary practices, such as medicine.
    Still, many people don’t like to be managed. Earlier, I wrote about management and coaching: in baseball we have managers, but in football and basketball they’re called coaches. Of course, both manage the games employing short- and long-term strategies, and by putting the players in positions where they have the best chance to succeed. Both coach their players, teaching them better techniques. Interestingly, coaches appear in contemporary Euro-American cultures in “the game of life”: people hire coaches for public speaking, for dress and appearance, for health, for social relationships, for business negotiations, and so forth. We don’t seem to mind being coached. Some of us want it, thinking it will advantage us. Why, then, the resistance to being managed, if we’re willing to be coached?
    Marx, Orwell, and Foucault shared that resistance. It impinged on autonomy and freedom; it abrogated natural rights. Being managed meant being told what to do, what to say, even what to think, when one didn’t want to be told--and then being coerced to do it. The difference, with coaching, is the willing partnership: presumably we want to be coached, even if we don’t want to be managed, because we conceive of the goal as our own. Adaptive managing may be regarded as coaching, then, when applied ethnomusicologists partner for sustainability.
    It's a helpful stretch to try to “think” like an animal, or like an ecosystem, or even like a mountain. Poets and environmentalists understand this impulse and have written about it, though scientists are understandably wary of imputing motives to nature. Conservation biologists managing ecosystems would do well to attempt, imaginatively, to enter into their mode of being, which may be done without attributing intentionality to nature. “It’s not what they ‘want,’ it’s just how they ‘are.’” An adaptive manager, as a culture worker partnering with communities over the future of their music, would do well to examine his or her role. Music cultures are like ecosystems, yes; but it’s important to bear in mind that is is only a trope, an analogy. In modern, Euro-American societies they do better when coached. But the culture worker also requires coaching, from the community that carries the music culture. Otherwise there cannot be any hope of partnership.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why universities are unsustainable

      I’ve written about the unsustainability of the contemporary college and university system on this blog before. What prompts another entry is the publicity attending the recent announcement that a vice-chancellor of the University of Maine received a $40K pay increase last year while simultaneously prescribing a cut of $36 million for the University of Maine systems. Needless to say, those protesting the cuts (chiefly to academic programs and academic faculty) suddenly had a cause célebre. This revelation dramatically highlights the root problem, as I see it: American colleges and universities are academic institutions no longer. They've become corporations.
    The administrator's boss defended the pay raise. The chancellor--top banana of the university--explained that other state universities paid these people 1/3 again as much as her $205,000 salary. (Does any faculty member at UMaine earn that much? I doubt it. Even at my instiution, Brown University, where faculty salaries are higher, very few do--and if so, then for the same reason: they'd command higher salaries elsewhere.) The University of Maine was in danger of losing her to another institution, he said. She was doing a good job; better pay her what she’s worth—so runs the argument, if by good job we mean balancing the budget on the backs of academics because  university administrators had failed miserably to convince the state legislature to make up the difference. The chancellor's argument assumes a corporate model. In such a model, the administrators who run the corporation are the executives, the faculty are labor, and the students are both consumers and product. Is the corporate model the best way to conceive of education?
    Certainly it has some advantages. As a corporation, a university is likely to run more efficiently. The focus is on turning out a successful product. Proliferation of administrators on the financial end of things means that universities are now run as businesses, with the goal of increasing income: from investments, from consumers (student tuition), from donors (wealthy alumni), from government (agency grants for research; legislative funding), etc. (Never mind that UMaine's lobbyists and fundraisers weren't persuasive enough; they need hire better ones. Of course they'll have to pay them more; which means even less money for academics, unless these fundraisers can do what all their predecessors failed at.) No doubt university income has increased overall, yet somehow the cost of getting it, keeping it, spending it and growing it is outpacing the income itself. For in order to get more science grants, schools have to spend money on high profile scientists who require state-of-the-art laboratories—which are enormously expensive and getting more so exponentially, like the cost of high-tech medical care. In order to get more money from donors, the students mustn’t only be educated; they must be kept happy, which means expensive support services including counseling, pleasant accommodations, excellent food and plenty of food choices, high grades, and positioning for a successful career. Colleges and universities have become like Lake Wobegon in that regard, where grade inflation—now the majority of grades are A’s, in case you don’t know—means all students now are “above average.” In order to get more money from investments, universities compete to hire the best financial managers, those who might otherwise be running hedge-funds for the super-rich, and whose salaries make the $205,000 of this vice-chancellor look like spare change.
    The business model becomes self-perpetuating in the sense that other schools are now regarded chiefly as competitors and only secondarily as cooperating allies in a larger educational ecosystem. And the schools themselves are run on competitive models. Granted, students had always competed for better grades, and now that competition is less keen. This is because students are now regarded both as consumers and product. Don't upset them with bad grades, don't flunk them out unless they're beyond saving. The competition now takes place in the labor market—that is, among faculty. Whereas until about 1970 the supply of and demand for full-time, tenured faculty was about equal, after 1970 in an effort to save money--this was when they began to be run like corporations--universities began hiring cheap labor (adjunct, part-time professors) and paying them by the course, thereby increasing productivity. An adjunct professor typically receives no fringe benefits such as retirement savings, subsidized medical care, decent office space (or any at all), and earns about 1/3 of the amount per course taught on average compared with a tenured professor. No wonder the percentage of adjunct professors in higher education has increased to the point where they now comprise more than half of the total faculty. In 1970 adjuncts made up only one-quarter, and that included many who wanted to work part-time. At today’s salaries, an adjunct faculty member who moonlights by teaching part-time at more than one institution and winds up with a full load of courses (equivalent to what a full-time professor teaches) earns about the same amount as a person who repairs bicycles, about $23,000 annually. Tenured professors cost their institutions at least three times that, and typically their productivity is lower in the sense that they teach fewer students. Never mind research productivity, or teaching effectiveness; it's all about per-unit cost.
    I’ve experienced this transition myself, having entered college in 1961 and begun full-time university teaching in a tenure-track position in 1971. By then the academic job market was beginning to contract. When I was evaluated for tenure six years later, the profession had already contracted so much that only 10% of those at my university were then receiving tenure; the rest were fired and had to look for jobs elsewhere. I was one of the lucky 10%. Among my friends in my graduating class holding the doctorate, about half were able eventually to get tenure and maintain the kinds of teaching careers that were common through the 1960s; the others were not. Later classes fared more poorly. Certainly, ebbs and flows in the economy and trends within academia have occasionally advantaged certain disciplines—ethnomusicology is one—but in general opportunities for university faculty have gotten gradually worse since 1970 and the profession is still contracting.
    Some dreamers hold up the old model of a collegial university, run largely by faculty on temporary leave from their academic positions, to return to them after serving time in administration, as an ideal to strive for once again. In that model, students were educated, not trained. Learning meant preparing to take one's place as a critical thinker and active citizen. Of course, that also prepared one for a career, not a McJob. A return to this educational model isn't likely, except at small institutions with targeted special-interest populations, such as Sterling College, which I wrote about here earlier. There are a few others like it. Instead, productivity will accelerate until even administrators price themselves out of the game. Distance learning via Internet courses is more efficient and costs far, far less than maintaining college and university campuses.
    The structure of higher education will change to accommodate this shift as soon as the consumers (students) are proved to be just as successful, if not happy, in their careers as a result of these MOOCs (massive on-line open courses), except that they won’t be open any more. Students still will have to pay for them. But many fewer professors and administrators will be needed. The professorial industry—and it will become one—will function in a way similar to the textbook industry, with a few widely-used market leader courses earning money for their institutions and authors, and several competitors attempting to break into the market. Students will remain in their homes, or perhaps in special buildings set aside for the purpose in their home communities, where they will sit at computer workstations or their equivalent in the next generation of distance-learning technology, which will include access to all kinds of resources to supplement course work—digital libraries, or whatever the next technology brings about. Of course, maintaining the technological network where all this will take place is immensely expensive, but the cost will be borne—as it is now—by government, the military, corporations, and ordinary citizens. Imagine how much money is being spent even now just so that most everyone can connect to the Internet: trillions of dollars. (Look at your own bill for Internet service, smartphone, tablet, cable, dsl, and so forth, and multiply that by the millions of population using them throughout the world.)
    That will be the new shape of higher education worldwide, for the trajectory of the corporate model, once in control, moves inexorably to increase productivity and decrease per-unit cost, while real costs (such as climate change, growing income inequality, and so on) are meant to be hidden. And they stay in hiding until exposed by ecological economics. Ironically, when this tranformation in higher education occurs, vice-chancellors such as the one at the University of Maine whose salary was raised significantly while her actions resulted in fired faculty and eliminated degree programs (and a few riffed administrators, be it said), will find themselves looking for a job somewhere else. Some will survive, but most won't.
    The old collegial model of the university was a participatory community, not a top-down corporate hierarchy. Musical communities will continue to provide participatory models, and ultimately these are more sustainable. Again, and perhaps ironically, it is the Internet that is helping to level the playing field. More on that in a later post.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Many Ethnomusicologies

     In the previous blog entry I noted Anthony Seeger’s observation that ethnomusicologists who write histories of their discipline construct their own ancestors. Seeger’s point was that mainstream history leaves out certain “lost lineages,” in this case the lineage of applied ethnomusicology, those who were concerned with music and what we now call sustainability. In the graduate seminar in the history of ethnomusicological thought that I taught at Brown from 1987 until 2012, I asked students to think about other lost lineages, and whether they contained ancestors worth wanting. One of these included missionaries and travelers, notably the 16th-century Calvinist Jean de Léry, whose observations about Native American music in the Bay of Rio de Janeiro in 1557 had something in common with today’s experimental ethnographies: a first person narrative and, in addition to reporting on the music overheard, a description of its affect—on them, and on him as well. “I was captivated” by their music, de Léry admitted, even though he believed that these natives were savage heathens. Besides affect as experienced by the ethnographer—a postmodern, if not modern, concern—de Léry offered ethnographic information, and musical notation. His approach was racist, grounds for not wanting him as an ancestor; but in other aspects his approach is notable.[1] Now comes a British musicologist, Bennett Zon, who considers another lost lineage, three 19th-century British scholars he believes ought to be considered not merely ethnomusicological precursors or ancestors, as mainstream history has it, but true ethnomusicologists.
    Before getting to Zon, though, it’s worth asking what that mainstream history is, the one that neglects or misconstrues those lost lineages. Ethnomusicology per se didn’t appear until the word was coined (in 1950, by the Dutch scholar Jaap Kunst) and the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) was formed, in the US in 1955. Because it is still a relatively young discipline, only a few have considered its history. In its first few decades, many of its major US practitioners proposed definitions and methodologies. One among them—Bruno Nettl—wrote its history, and although several others have made useful observations about its history over the years, it is Nettl’s that has become mainstream, taught to ethnomusicologists in North American graduate schools (and elsewhere). His concern for history was manifest in his second book (Music in Primitive Culture, 1956), was enlarged in Theory and Method in Ethnomusicology (1964), elaborated in The Study of Ethnomusicology (1983, revised in 2005), and nuanced in a series of essays and memoirs since then. His history includes some early travel writers, encyclopedists such as Rousseau, and those 19th-century scholars Zon identifies; but they belong to a period prior to the formation, early in the 20th century, of the so-called Berlin School of comparative musicology, which Nettl has viewed as the direct ancestor of ethnomusicology. Nettl is widely read in this literature and takes great pains to be comprehensive in representing those scholars who researched and wrote about musics outside the Western classical tradition. On reading him, graduate students in my seminars sometimes expressed impatience with his efforts at inclusiveness and his generous treatment even of ideas that seemed far-fetched. Yet, his own preferences may be gleaned from the shape of his narrative, with its focus on the Berlin School. In addition, in emphasizing academic scholarship he has neglected applied ethnomusicology, though in a recent interview he acknowledged its appeal to the current generation of ethnomusicologists.[2] In his histories, his attitudes toward applied work—on those few occasions when he writes about it, usually in the context of attempts to help third-world, indigenous music cultures—are skeptical, perhaps because of the 20th-century legacy of social engineering in Europe that employed music and other arts for such ends as nationalism and ethnic cleansing.
    Following the previous historical sketches of Glen Haydon and Jaap Kunst, Nettl views the comparative musicological enterprise as a science that came together in the late 19th century with the invention of the phonograph and the possibility of more or less objective procedures in data-gathering, measuring musical intervals, transcribing them into Western staff-scale notation, structural descriptions and analyses of individual musical performances, descriptions and analyses of repertoires, and comparisons of those repertoires cross-culturally. The sciences of comparative linguistics and comparative anatomy had yielded impressive results and profound theories such as evolution; surely these should also be applied to music. By those standards, the early travelers like de Léry (as well as later ones), and thinkers like Rousseau who wrote about “foreign” musics, were unscientific, as were some of the prolific 19th-century collectors and writers such as Alice Cunningham Fletcher (who, unhappily, was persuaded that she heard hidden Western harmonies in Native American melodies. Yet in other ways, such as collaborative ethnography, she seems an ancestor contemporaries ought to consider seriously). In Nettl’s history (and mine also), the European experimental scientists of the late 19th century such as Helmholtz, Ellis, and Stumpf, are ancestors worth wanting. Theories of hearing, questions about whether Western ideas of harmonic consonance and dissonance were universal in the musical scales of all the world’s peoples (they were not), what Stumpf called tone-psychology (why, for example, do Western musicians hear consonant intervals comprised of two tones, such as a perfect fifth, as one blended tone?)—these were the kinds of issues science could deal with. Soon, with Adler’s idea of a musicology that included comparison—comparative musicology—at the turn of the century a comparative science of music was underway.
    Although this comparative science had its practitioners in Hungary (Bartok) and elsewhere in the UK and Europe at this time, Nettl locates the main life of ancestors worth wanting in the comparative musicology of the Berlin School, associated with Stumpf, his student and successor Hornbostel, and Hornbostel’s colleagues Sachs and Herzog. Herzog emigrated to the US in the 1920s, took his PhD with Franz Boas at Columbia, and brought the Berlin School and its comparative scientific procedures to the US, adding the gathering and interpretation of ethnographic data which he learned from his anthropological studies with Boas. From the early 1930s until the early 1950s Herzog wrote numerous monographs about music (chiefly Native American), taught at Yale, Columbia, and Indiana Universities, and was regarded as the leading expert on what at the time was called “primitive music.” Not coincidentally, Herzog was Nettl’s teacher (at Indiana); but he also taught McAllester and Rhodes at Columbia, and was a colleague of Merriam’s at Indiana. In 1955 McAllester, Rhodes, Merriam, and Charles Seeger founded the Society for Ethnomusicology.
    The founders of SEM thought, at that time, that they were on to something different from comparative musicology. Herzog, sadly, was showing signs of mental illness in that period and was not in a position to be of much help. What was different about ethnomusicology? In Kunst's version, not much besides the name. Kunst though the term he coined was better than comparative musicology because the latter somehow implied a comparison of musicologies, whereas its purpose was the comparison of the characteristic musical expressions of different peoples in the world. Secondly, Kunst argued that all sciences were comparative (e.g., comparative anatomy, comparative linguistics) and that insofar as these had dropped the "comparative" part of their names, it was not necessary for ethnomusicologists either.[3] Both of these arguments are weak. No one except perhaps Kunst thought that comparative musicology's purpose was to compare musicologies or music histories. Moreover, many of the sciences (e.g., physics) do not feature comparison. Examination of Kunst's book, Ethnomusicology, which went through three editions and was last published in 1969, reveals an old wine in a new bottle.
    On the other hand, the ethnomusicology that developed in North America with the founding of SEM was different, in two important ways. First, the subject was enlarged to include all musical expression rather than to focus on the older layers of traditional music that were thought to be more characteristic. Second, it brought ethnographic fieldwork on the longitudinal anthropological model to the forefront of the enterprise, with the result that writing ethnographies of musical expression among particular social groups, rather than transcription, analysis, and comparisons of musical structures among many groups, came to dominate the scholarship in the discipline. Regarding the first, it was important for these US scholars to distance themselves from any residual social Darwinism and cultural evolutionism, as well as nationalist folk heritage, that had characterized European comparative musicology and musical folklore. When the European-based International Folk Music Council wondered why the Americans felt they must form their own separate society, Merriam responded that the IFMC was not scientific enough: its project of salvage work, concentrating on endangered, older layers of music, neglected the whole of music, which included popular and acculturated music, that was the proper subject of a scientific ethnomusicology. Regarding the second, many North American scholars considered the “ethno” part an invitation to anthropological fieldwork, which ought to result in more accurate musical and cultural data. Although some comparative musicologists had done fieldwork, it had been of the visiting and collecting nature rather than the holistic ethnographic studies based on long-term residence that Malinowski pioneered at the turn of the 20th century, and that cultural anthropologists had come to favor. North American ethnomusicology since the 1960s has been characterized by this long-term fieldwork, usually resulting in monographs derived from dissertation research after residence in a musical community for at least a year.
    The SEM founders did not represent all of the scholars researching music outside the Western art music tradition, of course. Some, such as Kolinski, continued to work as comparative musicologists. Others, such as Nettl, tended to follow Herzog, adding anthropological methods (including more modern ones) to an orientation that remained grounded in comparative work. Some, such as Hood, broke new ground, emphasizing musicianship and fluency in “other” musics as a pathway to knowledge, proclaiming music's importance in fostering international cooperation and understanding, and simultaneously seeking objective precision in scientific devices that would transcribe music without introducing the possibility of human error. In 1985, reflecting a then-prevailing view, the musicologist Joseph Kerman characterized ethnomusicology as divided between anthropological ethnomusicologists who, following Merriam and McAllester, were interested primarily in music as culture; and the musicological anthropologists whose interests lay chiefly in musical structures and comparative work.[4]
    In the past decade Nettl (the only one of that generation still active) has written about the founding of SEM, saying that in retrospect ethnomusicology has had more continuities with comparative musicology than it has differences. In this belief, Nettl gently debunks what he terms the “origin myth” of SEM, which shows the founders to have been moving in a distinctly new direction. He asks how people at the time felt about a new organization (SEM), and offers his observation that most of those doing that work didn’t think it represented a new direction.[5] As such, his experiences are of great interest; but he is most likely speaking chiefly for those scholars like himself, such as Herzog and Kolinski, whose orientation at that time was toward comparative musicology rather than the anthropology of music. These scholars must have regarded SEM primarily as a means for communication among working scholars in the field, rather than as an opportunity for a new direction. Indeed, in a strict sense, Nettl is correct: the group formed initally as a correspondence society keeping track of member news and compiling bibliographies and curricular surveys in its SEM Newsletter during its first few years of existence. But then the Society's newsletter became a journal (Ethnomusicology), and there most of its major figures debated the definition and future of the discipline. Nettl may also be reflecting the long view which tends to recognize continuities and minimize differences that seemed to matter more long ago. Certainly they mattered greatly to Merriam and Hood; probably they mattered to McAllester, who was glad to become more of a modern anthropologist and less of a comparative musicologist. When asked who suggested an anthropological direction for his dissertation research, he credited a conversation with Margaret Mead, rather than any influence from Herzog (who, after all, had studied with Mead's teacher, Boas, but whose idea of anthropology had not modernized). And I would add that these differences mattered to the next generation of ethnomusicologists, myself among them, as we ourselves sought to move in new directions, which have seemed significantly different, to us, from early ethnomusicology, not to mention comparative musicology. Indeed, most of the students in my graduate seminar in the history of ethnomusicological thought, given the opportunity to write their history of the field, begin in 1950; comparative musicology appears remote from their concerns, although it is not so remote from my own.
     The possibility that multiple histories may be valid derives, of course, from the influx of post-structural relativism in the 1980s popularized by literary critic Stanley Fish and phiosopher Richard Rorty, their point being that validity in interpretation depends not upon correspondence to some fixed, essential truth but upon the agreement of a particular interpretative community that this history, or that scientific theory, or this meaning, is correct. Multiple perspectives resulted in varying truths, an unsettling proposition but one that was exciting for me and for other ethnomusicologists at that time. My definition of ethnomusicology as “the study of people making music,” which I introduced in 1988, and which has come into wide use in the period since, turned on the proposition that different peoples made and interpreted music (what it was, and what it meant) according to different cultural principles. Music was to be understood not as something given in this world, but as a cultural domain, made by humans, which must vary as cultures themselves do.[6] In 2010 Nettl himself admitted the possibility of multiple histories of ethnomusicology, citing Blum’s 1991 characterization of ethnomusicology in 19th-century Europe, a tradition which Zon’s work follows.[7]
    Zon’s book looks for British ancestors. Zon elevates the “lost lineage” of Ellis, Myers, and Fox-Strangways to take its place with Nettl’s “Berlin School” of comparative musicology, all as part of a more inclusive history of ethnomusicology. Zon argues that these early British scholars were “more than mere antecedents in a progression toward modern ethnomusicology.” He claims that many of the issues that concerned them “are, arguably, more or less the same as those of the 1950s and later.” These include the cultural study of music and the “heavily ‘problematizing’ discourse” that have characterized ethnomusicology ever since the founding of the Society for Ethnomusicology in 1955. The same might be said of the Berlin School, but Zon does not go there. He uses a recent essay of mine as a foil for his broad definition, quoting me in describing comparative ethnomusicology as “a forerunner of ethnomusicology . . . [and] the first academic discipline to undertake a systematic cultural study of music. The founders asked grand questions: How did music originate, and how did it spread among the world’s peoples? How could musical affinities among varied human groups reveal the paths of migrations and diffusions? What did the variety of musical instruments found throughout the world signify, and how could they be classified and compared?” Zon, however, is having none of this. After quoting me again, to the effect that modern ethnomusicology is different from comparative musicology because it “asks different questions, ones that bear on the relation of music to region, race, class, gender, politics, ethnicity, belief, identity, money, power, and the production of knowledge,” he maintains that I “may as well have been summarizing some of the principal concerns” of the 19th-century British scholars he discusses in his book.[8]
    If subject matter is the deciding factor in determining histories of ethnomusicology, then a broad definition such as Zon’s is indeed the most useful. Yet those members of Zon’s ethnomusicology lineage surely did not approach power and the cultural production of knowledge from the ideological standpoint of, say, contemporary critical theory, as many do today. If not only subject matter but also attitude, application and methodology is important, then I believe the differences among the scholars become critical in constructing ethnomusicological histories. Without intending to question Zon’s noble intentions, I did wonder how much difference it finally makes to him that by 21st-century standards his 19th-century scholars are colonialist, racist, and sexist—perhaps no more so than most other social scientists of that day and time; but nevertheless, are these representatives of the British empire the ancestors worth wanting? Maybe so; for if contemporary relativism can excuse de Léry’s racism while applauding his reflexivity, why not make allowances for these, as well as for the comparative musicologists who were to some extent captive of the cultural evolutionism of their day? Surely 100 years from now our ethnomusicological descendants will be judging us for assumptions we accept without reflection. Yet, the mere fact that they are concerned to some degree with a similar subject matter—namely, the cultural study of music—begs the question of how those concerns were made manifest in their time, and how ours are in ours. It is well worth holding on to that distinction. Reading Zon’s argument, I could not help caricaturing it, in my mind, and comparing it to a claim that biblical fundamentalists really are humanists because they are concerned with some of the same issues, such as morals and ethics and the nature and purpose of human life. Or, equally preposterous, that biblical fundamentalists really are scientists because they are concerned with the origins of the world, the workings of the nature, and the fate of the universe. Nor would biblical fundamentalists agree with those claims. To be sure, Zon also argues for similarities in methodology, but I remain unconvinced.
    A narrow definition, one which has seemed increasingly useful to me, reserves the term ethnomusicology for those whose work was impacted by the ideas embodied in that word since its coinage in 1950, and by the movement exemplified by the members of the Society for Ethnomusicology. What to call those earlier scholars concerned with the same subject is easily resolved by using the cover terms that most of them used, chiefly comparative musicology, musical folklore, and the like. This narrower definition conforms to Nettl’s earlier construction of the discipline, in which comparative musicology figures prominently; but the extent to which ethnomusicology represented (and represents) something significantly different from comparative musicology is, for Nettl, increasingly debatable. In his most recent work, Nettl at last puts the definition of ethnomusicology into a social constructivist context; but whereas relativism leads me to construct a narrow definition, it has led Nettl towards Zon's position, in which all of this work is ethnomusicology, so long as it meets the scholarly standards of its day. My preference for the narrower definition preserves the finer distinctions between ethnomusicology and its predecessors, while it also preserves the identities of the predecessors themselves.
    I would draw an analogy here with the term scientist, which achieved its modern meaning only in 1834 when the word was coined (by the Englishman William Whewell), eclipsing natural historian and natural philosopher (the two earlier terms). In the 20th century, most historians of science operated with a broad definition, extending science back as far as the 14th century, while considering natural history and natural philosophy as obsolete relics of the past. This made it possible to discuss the work of Gallileo, Copernicus, and Newton as a "scientific revolution." To do so, they had to ignore the facts that these men considered themselves to be natural philosophers, and that Darwin considered himself a natural historian. In the 21st century, historians of science are resurrecting the older terms so as to understand history as it was experienced by those who lived through it, while pointing out that the term science is but another socially constructed category for the study of nature, and not the inevitable replacement of earlier error with truth. In this analogy, ethnomusicology is to comparative musicology and musical folklore (the European tradition of the comparative study of folk music) as science is to natural philosophy and natural history--not a cover term, but a successor concept for something similar but different.
    What these histories of ethnomusicology suggest for music and sustainability is that it’s likely, as the next generation accords increasing importance to applied work, that more of the ancestors Anthony Seeger looked for will be found, and their work made part of a lineage no longer “lost.” Early travelers, 19th-century psychophysical musicologists and comparative musicologists, musical folklorists, and others interested in applied themes such as preservation, conservation, safeguarding, resilience, conflict resolution, music and justice (social, economic, and environmental), and participatory music communities will continue to become ancestors worth wanting, in part if not in whole, while the next generation inevitably rewrites the intellectual histories of the field.

[1]. Excerpts from de Léry's writings on music are reprinted in Frank Harrison, ed., Time, Place, and Music. Amsterdam: Fritz Knuf, 1973, pp. 6-24.

[2]. Bruno Nettl, “Fifty Years of Changes and Challenges in the Ethnomusicological Field.” Interviewed by Héctor Founce. El Oido Pensante, Vol. 2., No. 1 (2014), n.p.

[3]. Japp Kunst, Ethnomusicology: A study of its nature, its problems, methods and representative personalities to which is added a bibliography. Third edition. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1958.

[4]. Joseph Kerman, Contemplating Music. New York: Oxford, 1985.

[5]. Bruno Nettl, Nettl’s Elephant (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2010), pp. 160-162.

[6]. See, e.g., the Wikipedia entry for Ethnomusicology, where my definition is quoted. Having written in 1980 about life stories as fictions rather than histories (things made or constructed, rather than discovered), I first applied that insight to a definition of ethnomusicology as the study of people making music in a 1988 presentation before the Northeast Chapter of SEM.

[7]. Nettl's Elephant, pp. 22-32.

[8]  Bennett Zon, Representing Non-Western Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2007), pp. 291-301. His quotations from me are from my essay “Textual Analysis or Thick Description?,” in The Cultural Study of Music, ed. Martin Clayton et al. (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 171-180. I revised and expanded this essay (and the portion quoted) for the 2nd edition of this book, published in 2011 (same publisher), pp. 75-85, but I did not see Zon’s book until 2012. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Applied Ethnomusicology and the University: A Fraught Relation

    In the previous entry I said I’d return to the reasons why the false dichotomy between applied and academic ethnomusicology persists in the academic world itself. In the last paragraph there, I summarized four reasons, all of which I characterized as institutional. Not too long ago, Anthony Seeger wrote about “lost lineages” in ethnomusicology, pointing out that those academics who have constructed their histories of the discipline have neglected several people who might be considered applied ethnomusicologists.[1] These included Alan Lomax, and also Tony’s own grandfather, Charles Seeger, whose later theoretical contributions are part of those histories, but whose earlier work on behalf of music and social justice has been overlooked. Like me, Seeger thinks the reasons for this are primarily institutional and bound up with the professionalization of ethnomusicology as a discipline. He points out, also, that contemporary academics tend to pick and choose their own ancestors, with a view to finding a lineage that leads to their own way of thinking about their profession. He asks the question, Who is an ethnomusicologist? In what follows I would like to pick up some of the threads of his essay in order to account for the continuing confusions over applied ethnomusicology within the academy, noting again that those confusions are embedded in and result from ethnomusicology’s disciplinary culture and the academy’s orientation itself.
    Let me begin with Seeger’s question, Who is an ethnomusicologist? Ask most people outside the academy and they’d answer, A what? Some journalists do use the term popularly to refer to people who write about music, particularly world music. Academics get upset when media-types use the term so loosely. (See the update at the end of this entry.) Ask a professor of ethnomusicology at a college or university and the considered answer likely will be this: an ethnomusicologist is someone with graduate professional training in ethnomusicology; that is, someone who has absorbed its subject and methodologies; someone who understands its history, its scope, the questions that are properly asked of people making music, past and present; someone who knows the kinds of answers that are credible and those that are not; and someone who does scholarly research in ethnomusicology. The ethnomusicologist probably teaches at a college or university, or aspires to do so; and the career of an ethnomusicologist almost always includes publication as well as research. A US ethnomusicologist also belongs to the Society for Ethnomusicology, the discipline’s professional association. I myself qualify on the basis of all those criteria, but Alan Lomax, who practiced applied ethnomusicology, and who published scholarly research, did not. He never had graduate training in ethnomusicology and did not fully understand it as a professional discipline. His understanding remained original and idiosyncratic. In the 1940s, after he had been in charge of the Archive of American Folk Song at the Library of Congress for several years, with extensive experience in folk music collecting, in operating an archival repository, and in what we would now call public ethnomusicology, he did attempt to study with George Herzog, the leading ethnomusicologist in the US at that time.[2] Herzog, teaching then at Columbia University in New York, would not take him on as a student, though, and what Lomax learned of ethnomusicology he learned through acquaintance with the subject more or less on his own, as well as with some folklorists and ethnomusicologists who were willing at a later date to work with him as a colleague. (I was one of those.)[3]
    Lomax’s difficulties derived from an old division within fields like anthropology, folklore, and going back even further, natural history. Back in the day—way back in the day—people working in these fields were sorted out into traveling correspondents and those theorists whose work was more systematic and synthetic. Correspondents were collectors who sent specimens to the theorists who stayed put (for the most part) and worked on classification, speculating and building systems. Based on comparative analysis these theorists attempted to answer questions about origin, diffusion, development and the larger scheme of things. In the early days of comparative musicology (predecessor to ethnomusicology), when collecting, musical transcription, description and comparative analysis comprised the discipline, the distinction was made between what was called field work (the collecting work of traveling correspondents) and desk work or lab work (the analytical work of the theorists). This distinction was still current about 1950 when Curt Sachs described the field of comparative musicology thusly in his book, The Wellsprings of Music.[4] A few years later the Society for Ethnomusicology formed, adopting ethnomusicology as the new name for the discipline, reflecting a new American emphasis on the cultural study of music; but if you look in the Society’s early newsletters you’ll see “correspondence from the field” as well as analytical and interpretative essays. Of course, some of the notable theorists also did fieldwork; and based on anthropological models it wasn’t long before graduate training in ethnomusicology expanded in the US in earnest. Professional ethnomusicologists might rely on others' fieldwork but also spent much time doing their own. Travelers, correspondents, amateurs, and mere collectors were regarded now as unprofessional. Professional ethnomusicologists were those who had graduate training inside the academic world; the others were relegated to a second class status at best.
    Although this explains the academic vs. non-academic, professional vs. amateur divide, it doesn’t do justice to the reasons for it. In fact, amateur research and scholarship have long been valuable and valued, especially in fields such as ornithology and astronomy. But in the last century as anthropology, folklore, and ethnomusicology sought to establish and solidify their footing as relatively new disciplines within academic institutions where specialization, professionalism, and the appearance of scientific procedures lent prestige, it became important for them to distance themselves from the amateurs who operated on the outside. (This was, and remains, particularly difficult for folklorists, as the general public has its own idea of what folklore is and who folklorists are. Ethnomusicology had, at least, the advantage of unfamiliarity and more syllables.) Also, as Anthony Seeger pointed out in his “lost lineages” essay, academic institutions are engaged in, among other things, replicating themselves. Their “products” are not merely graduates, research and the dissemination of knowledge, but also professionally trained graduate students, who will in turn become professors and administrators inside the academy. And their professorial work is judged based on their teaching and the quality of their research, chiefly in print publication and by peer review. Applied projects accomplished by academics are much fewer in number, and difficult to endorse by the same scholarly criteria, especially when aimed at the general public.
    Although I knew this was so after fifteen years of teaching at Tufts, it was when I came to Brown to direct a PhD program in ethnomusicology that it became fully impressed on me. In one of my early meetings with the dean of Brown’s graduate school, I argued for the expansion of our ethnomusicology doctoral program, saying that our graduates would go on to careers not only in college teaching and research, but also as archivists and research scholars in museums and libraries, and as applied ethnomusicologists both inside and outside the university world. The dean countered by saying that the latter two goals were not unworthy, but that because Brown was a top-tier school she would offer graduate fellowships only to students who were likely to end up teaching at peer universities, for as I well knew, that was how we made our reputation for excellence, and not on the basis of how many librarians or community musical activists we turned out. That we did manage to “turn out” archivists and community activists and a fair number of applied ethnomusicologists (most of whom have remained in the academic world) in the 27 years that I led the program occurred despite the institutional pressures for self-replication, and because students were attracted to those ways of doing ethnomusicology after they arrived with their fellowships and decided that they wanted to do applied work, if not immediately, then eventually.
    A final reason for the persistence of the mistaken dichotomy of academic vs. applied ethnomusicology has to do with the isolation of universities from public life in the US. This separation has a history in the private institutions, particularly those in my section of the US (New England) with a reputation for elitism. Public institutions such as land-grant universities ought to have much more connection with the public sphere, but apparently they do not. Indeed, state legislatures have systematically cut their budgets, and relations between public universities and state governments are fraught, while federal funding of research also seems on a downward spiral. Universities' Internet front-pages are forever advertising the scientific research they have accomplished for the public good, but town-gown relations are perennially at a low ebb. If there were a strong cadre of public intellectuals in the US, or if academics took more of a role in public discourse, or if there were more intellectual public discourse—the level of discussion on the media talk shows discourages it, while the news media themselves do not permit it, instead offering up only one-way news stories and so-called expert opinion—perhaps things would be different. Although a few journals, such as the New York Review of Books, do carry on an intellectual public discourse at a high level, their audience is mostly confined to other academics. As a result that discourse, mainly critical, doesn’t influence public opinion.  The popular stereotype of the intellectual in the US is of an egghead unfit for anything but the classroom: “Those who can’t do, teach.” Academic institutions don’t as a rule supply our presidents or federal or state representatives, though international relations units within them do supply diplomats and occasional advisers. Our representatives move from government to the corporate/legal world and back far more than to and from academia. The usual preparation for government is law school and a legal or business career, not graduate school or university teaching. Such institutional academic isolation makes it all the more difficult for academics to conceive of applied work, and for non-academics even to imagine that professors might engage in it.
    Powerful currents within the academic establishment and outside of it are aligned to perpetuate the error of opposing applied to academic ethnomusicology. Yet there are some signs of change. SEM has various interest groups, or sections; the aforementioned Applied Ethnomusicology Section happens to have more members than any other, signaling the tremendous interest in this ethnomusicological subfield. Those within the Section who are employed in the university world are already doing, or will be doing, applied work; those who are graduate students would like to do it, but if they enter academia they may have to wait until tenure before they undertake it to any large extent. Working against that, the proportion of tenured and tenure-track positions at colleges and universities has been shrinking for at least a few decades, as academic institutions hire an increasing proportion of adjunct professors in lower-paying jobs with fewer benefits and without job security. Given the state of the academic job market at present, which tends to mirror the economy at large, some of those graduate students will choose, or be forced to choose, employment outside the academy, where they are more likely to begin by putting their ethnomusicological skills and knowledge to practical use. It’s clear to me that applied ethnomusicology is a growth field, but growth within the academy will depend on whether a sufficient number of professors turn to applied work, and whether they are willing to put applied ethnomusicology into the curriculum in a meaningful way.

     [1]. Anthony Seeger, "Lost Lineages and Neglected Peers: Ethnomusicologists Outside Academia." Ethnomusicology, Vol. 50, no. 2 (2006), pp. 214-235.
     [2]. Lomax's letters while he was employed at the Library of Congress say more about his encounter with Herzog. As I read them, Lomax didn't think he needed to take the course Herzog considered a prerequisite to the one Lomax did want to enroll in. Herzog wouldn't budge from the requirement, and Lomax came out of the meeting with the impression that Herzog was a "neurotic" little fellow. Indeed, Herzog had a reputation for being difficult. See Ronald Cohen, ed., Alan Lomax, Assistant-in-Charge: The Library of Congress Letters, 1935-1945 (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2010).
     [3] My acquaintance with Lomax began in the early 1970s when I wrote to him requesting copies of his then unpublished Cantometrics training tapes. In exchange for letting me hear them, he asked me to test their effectiveness with students in my ethnomusicology classes at Tufts, which I did over a period of a few years.
     [4]. Curt Sachs, The Wellsprings of Music (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1955).

Update, March 28, 2014: On this evening's NPR "The World" broadcast, PRI host Marco Werman introduced the show's daily world music track by saying he would play an "altiplano" selection and then apologized for "going all ethnomusicology on you." I couldn't have asked for a better illustration of the popular/academic divide.