Saturday, November 26, 2016

Ethnomusicology in the Public Interest -- 25 Years Later

    Every year at the conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) I find myself following the presentations in my areas of current interest, as well as attending, when I can, presentations of students and former students. Now, of course, they all are former students. SEM is a time to reconnect with many of them, and with colleagues; and it's a time to learn what people in the fields I’m most interested in are thinking.
    Applied ethnomusicology is one of those fields. It was well represented in the pre-conference, themed in public sector ethnomusicology. The public sector refers to those government agencies funded entirely or almost entirely by taxpayer money. NGOs, private corporations, and academic institutions operate outside the public sector even though they may enjoy some government (i.e., taxpayer) funding. Applied ethnomusicologists are employed in all of those places—public sector, NGO, private corporations, and inside the academic world. But as an oversupply of ethnomusicology PhDs, coupled with shrinkage in the percentage of tenured and tenure-able academic positions, makes it harder to find academic jobs, the Society is concerned to find employment for its graduates outside the academy, and the public sector is one option. 
    As SEM met in Washington, DC this year, the American Folklife Center, a department of the Library of Congress, a public sector agency, hosted the pre-conference. The main theme was careers for ethnomusicologists in the public sector, although there was some spillover into the NGO and private sector areas.
    I’d been invited to speak for ten minutes to the group about a landmark publication in the applied ethnomusicology, the first (and only) issue of the SEM Journal, Ethnomusicology, devoted to ethnomusicology in the public interest. Published in 1992, it came about primarily as a result of my efforts, and marked the first official recognition within the Society of the legitimacy of extra-academic ethnomusicology. I said something about how the issue did come to be, and then reviewed what had happened in the 25 years since then. I reproduce my presentation in its entirety here.


“Ethnomusicology in the Public Interest – 25 Years Later”
Jeff Todd Titon, Nov. 9, 2016, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Washington, DC
SEM Pre-Conference on Soundings: Public Sector Ethnomusicology in the 21st Century
     I thank Nancy Groce and Judith Gray for inviting me to speak to you. I want to make three points. One, the special issue of the Society for Ethnomusicology’s journal, Ethnomusicology, on music and the public interest, published in 1992, was the culmination of decades of work in public folklore and ethnomusicology. Point two, in the period since 1992 public ethnomusicology has grown, institutionally, in practice, and by generating theory. Third, ethnomusicologists would be wise to respond to this growing body of theory and practice by integrating applied and public ethnomusicology more fully into graduate education.
   To my first point, then. When in 1988 I was program chair for the 1989 SEM conference, I invited panelists for a plenary on ethnomusicology and the public interest. The public interest is defined as the welfare or well-being of the general public. When a year later then-SEM President Mark Slobin invited me to become editor of the SEM Journal, one reason I accepted was so that I could try to publish that plenary as a special journal issue.
   This special issue featured articles by Dan Sheehy, Bess Hawes, Martha Davis, and Tony Seeger. As journal editor, I wrote an introductory essay entitled “Music, the Public Interest, and the Practice of Ethnomusicology.” In it I wrote that “Public sector, applied, active, and practice ethnomusicology are the names that the authors in this issue give to what ethnomusicologists do in the public interest. What they have in common is work whose immediate end is not research and the flow of knowledge inside intellectual communities but, rather, practical action in the world outside of archives and universities.  This work involves and empowers music-makers and music-cultures in collaborative projects that present, represent, and affect the cultural flow of music throughout the world. Ethnomusicologists aren’t the only ones who work in the field of music and the public interest. . . . But ethnomusicologists have a particular stake here.” Today I would describe our stake as twofold: one, to maintain our profession’s ethics of social responsibility in public ethnomusicology; and two, to advance the cause of what Alan Lomax called cultural equity.
    The decades of work the issue stood on go back to Herbert Halpert, Charles Seeger, Alan Lomax, and other pioneers in multicultural democracy. Those pioneers’ like-minded descendants, among them Ralph Rinzler, Bess Lomax Hawes, Archie Green, Tom Vennum, Tony Seeger, and Alan Jabbour, in the 1970s and 1980s consolidated a public sector infrastructure for conserving the traditional arts, in the folklife division of the Smithsonian Institution, the Folk arts Division of the NEA, also here at the AFC, and in dozens of state-funded positions, all outside the academic world. A small number of ethnomusicologists with careers inside the academic world worked with that outside infrastructure; our numbers included Charlotte Heth, Dan Sheehy, Robert Garfias, Jackie Dje Dje, Lorraine Sakata, and myself among others. I started my engagement in public ethnomusicology working at the 1976 Smithsonian Folklife Festival, having been invited to do so by Bess Hawes, then the festival director. I served under Bess and Dan Sheehy as a member of the NEA Folk Arts Panel in 1981, 1982, 1983, 1989, 1992, and 2014, and did numerous site visits for them over the years. Encouraged by Bess, and with the help of Jane Beck, in 1983 I convinced the Massachusetts Council on the Arts to hire a state folklorist. The first one they hired was an ethnomusicologist, Roberta Singer. This is the same position Maggie Holtzberg holds at the Massachusetts Cultural Council now, and where Cliff Murphy, who’s presenting here today, was an intern before he came to Brown to get his doctorate in ethnomusicology. What goes around, comes around: Cliff now holds the position as NEA Folk Arts director that Bess held.
    My second point is that since 1992, our professional ethnomusicology societies, SEM and ICTM and others, have recognized that working for the public interest is an important part of who we are and what we do. In 1997 Doris Dyen and Martha Davis organized an SEM Committee on Applied Ethnomusicology, settling on a single name: applied ethnomusicology. In 2002 the Committee became a SEM Section, and today that Section is our third largest, with 300 members. Nearly one in three SEM members identify today as applied ethnomusicologists. In its first decade, our group made a space within SEM for ethnomusicologists whose work was primarily outside of the academic world. We sponsored panels almost every year in which ethnomusicologists employed in the public sector—that is, in government organizations supported by taxpayer money—and also those employed outside the public sector, in NGOs, and in the private sector, spoke about their careers. In the past ten years, now that more and more academics are doing applied ethnomusicology, the Section has become a home for everyone who is engaged in ethnomusicology in the public interest, no matter if they are employed inside or outside of the academy, because it is the nature and impact of the work that matters, not the place of employment. Applied ethnomusicology is a noble calling in and of itself. In 2007 the ICTM established a study group on applied ethnomusicology; its founding leader, Svanibor Pettan, is here today. In the new millennium, a steady stream of articles as well as two books emerged to theorize our subject. In the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, published last year, edited by Svanibor and myself, an international group of applied ethnomusicologists, some working in the public sector, some in NGOs, some in the private sector, and some within the academic world, contributed essays. In September 2015, in Ireland, a joint SEM-ICTM sponsored forum on community-engaged, activist ethnomusicology took place on the initiative of the presidents of both organizations, with dozens of presentations over a three-day period. Svanibor and I were among those who gave keynote addresses, and Oxford will publish a book from the conference.
    The increase in practice, publications, and the institutional growth of ethnomusicology in the public interest within and outside of our professional societies brings me to my third point, which is that education for applied ethnomusicology has not kept pace. We do not yet have MA programs in public ethnomusicology, nor do we have applied ethnomusicology tracks within MA and PhD programs. Education in it remains mostly informal. Some professors are sympathetic, practice it and encourage it in their students. Other professors have little interest. Doctoral programs within top-tier universities are under pressure to turn out PhDs who will go on to teaching and research careers at peer institutions. That is how top universities are evaluated and it is on that basis that our graduate programs are funded. I am very proud of our Brown PhDs who have gone on to do public ethnomusicology—three of them are presenting here, by the way: Bradley Hanson, Maureen Loughran, and Cliff Murphy; and there are more—but it would take a different kind of university than Brown or its peers to establish an actual graduate degree in applied or public ethnomusicology. MA programs emphasizing public folklore already do exist, at Western Kentucky University, Indiana University, and Goucher College. Several MA programs in applied anthropology also exist. Why not public ethnomusicology? Those programs could feature academic courses, internships, and employ professors of practice. I believe they should have a thesis requirement that includes ethnographic fieldwork. Fieldwork requires many skills useful in public ethnomusicology—observation, documentation, organization, and social skills. Most important, fieldwork in ethnomusicology occurs today in a postcolonial atmosphere encouraging respect, collaboration, reciprocity, engagement and social responsibility. In that special issue 25 years ago, I wrote that fieldwork was best based not in investigative reporting or distanced, neutral observation, but in friendship with one’s field partners. As a younger generation of ethnomusicologists is increasingly motivated by social responsibility, they are increasingly making public ethnomusicology a central part of our field. Twenty-five years ago this was but a hopeful dream; today it is fast becoming a reality.


Monday, October 31, 2016

Environmental Humanities, Music and Sustainability

Photo by Jeff Todd Titon, E. Penobscot Bay, ME
    Environmental humanities is only six years old, one of a proliferating number of fields prompted by the current environmental crisis. My interests in sustainability and music have taken me, over the years, into a number of environmental areas: conservation biology, human ecology, ecological economics, and ecomusicology, to name a few; and now environmental humanities. Environmental humanities, according to one definition, is meant to integrate humanistic research on the environment from cultural geography, ecocriticism, cultural anthropology, environmental philosophy, and political ecology. The ideology behind it seeks to move beyond a “holistic vision of nature as a privileged place in the history of ecology,” to an understanding of humans and our concerns “within the everyday places in which we live.” It is said to turn away from a conception of an ideal nature constructed as unspoiled (by human culture and corruption) wildness, to an idea of an environment that humans have impacted for millennia, with problems such as climate change and environmental injustice. This conceptual shift turns away from the radical environmentalism of deep ecology, and toward an integration of the human, and humanities, into environmental thinking, at least inside the academic world. Instead of envisioning the restoration or preservation of wilderness ecosystems, “environmentalists are re-envisioning nature as pervasively and enduringly shaped by humans. These concepts are beginning to put pressure on the key concept of ‘sustainability,’ which has organized a good deal of environmentalist thought for the last two decades.”
    One way of looking at the way these developments are “pressuring” sustainability is to consider the critique of the sustainability from within resilience thinking. Advocates of resilience (and I am one) maintain that, first, sustainability is a goal, not a strategy; and second, that insofar as sustainability implies maintaining a climax equilibrium state of natural balance, it is out of step with current thinking in ecological science, which has abandoned the idea of the balance of nature. In chapter 5 of the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, I develop this critique of sustainability and discuss resilience as a better way of thinking about musical and cultural continuity and integrity. My thinking about resilience has, itself, changed over the years, from skepticism to a guarded optimism.
    Fall is conference season for me, and only last week I was asked to present about environmental humanities at the American Folklore Society’s annual meeting, in Miami. I spoke about how folklife studies, with its long history of ethnographic documentation of traditional beliefs, customs, and practices, including folk medicine, agricultural adaptations, and beliefs about the place of humans in the natural world, could contribute to the discussion of traditional ecological knowledges in the environmental humanities. I was asked, also, to speak about my own background in the disciplines related to the environmental humanities. I might have said something about studying with Leo Marx, my honors thesis adviser at Amherst College. Marx is surely one of the earliest environmental humanists, an ecocritic whose book, The Machine in the Garden, measures the impact of technology on the American pastoral ideal, as revealed in the literature of writers such as Melville, Hawthorne, and especially Thoreau.
    But I chose instead to speak about my background in ecology, mentioning my introduction to the subject when I spent the summer after my sophomore year working in a human ecology project, for Dr. Lawrence Hinkle, at the Cornell Medical School, in Manhattan. In the following academic year, I studied with Oscar Schotté, a biologist whose academic pedigree extended back to Ernst Haeckel, the German embryologist who in 1866 coined the term ecology and defined it as “the whole science of the relations of the organism to the environment including, in the broad sense, all the ‘conditions of existence.’”
    I went on to talk about my sound ecology project, and concluded (again, in response to my assignment) by repeating some of the conclusions I’d come to after decades of research in fields related to environmental humanities. These included the four principles of interdependence, diversity, limits to growth, and stewardship. They also included some of the conclusions I’m coming to from my sound ecology project, concerning the implications for communities, economies, and ecologies of a sound ontology and epistemology. I also spoke about these a few weeks ago in a keynote address to the southwest chapter of the American Musicological Society, while an earlier formulation of these ideas on a sound ecology are scheduled for publication in Ethnologies later this year, or early next.
    It was fascinating to see the explosion of the environmental humanities at the AFS conference. There were two days of panels on the subject last week, whereas in previous conferences not much if anything. On the panel with me were several friends and colleagues whose thinking has inspired me for many years, including Rory Turner, founder of the cultural sustainability MA program at Goucher College; and Mary Hufford, whose pioneering work in public ecology and folklife is finally getting the recognition that it has long deserved.
    The conference season is always stimulating, as I feel pulled in two directions: one, I want to be with my colleagues, learning from them and sharing ideas; two, I want to be back at home, developing those ideas, thinking, reading, and writing. I have one more conference this fall, the ethnomusicology meeting in Washington, DC in a week. For that, I was asked to speak about public ethnomusicology 25 years after the publication of the first (and only) issue of the Society for Ethnomusicology’s Journal that was devoted to the topic of ethnomusicology in the public interest. This topic falls within another relatively new field, public humanities. And all of this—environmental humanities, public humanities, and so forth—arises in a crisis period when “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,” as the saying has it.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Prisons and Music

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

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Sustainability, Sound, and the Study of Folklore

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

Monday, July 25, 2016

The Song of the Loon--Is It Sustainable?

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

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Natural Sounds in the National Parks

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

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Sustainability and Just Price

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

Friday, April 29, 2016

Digital Access for Independent Scholars

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Music, Sound, and the Environment: A Symposium

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

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Essays on Thoreau's Sound Observations

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

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Public Lectures and Collaborative Project on National Park Soundscapes

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

Friday, December 25, 2015

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

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

Stonington Harbor, photo © by Jeff Todd Titon.

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

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Labor Dispute at the AFS Conference 2015

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

Saturday, October 3, 2015

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

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

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Music in a Changing Climate

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