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.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Applied vs. Academic Ethnomusicology: A Persistent Error

    Why do people continue to believe, mistakenly and with harmful consequences, that applied ethnomusicology stands in oppostion to academic ethnomusicology? I wrote about this in passing, in a 2011 blog entry. Here, as I prepare my part of the Introduction to the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, which I'm co-editing with Svanibor Pettan, I return to explain the reasons. The mistake arises out of a confusion of what applied ethnomusicology is, with where the person doing it is employed. Think of a grid with two fields and two categories. The fields are places of employment: either (1) inside colleges and universities, or (2) outside them. The categories: (1) ethnomusicological reseach and scholarship, and (2) ethnomusicological research and scholarship put to practical use--i.e., applied ethnomusicology. None of these is mutually exclusive. Ethnomusicologists do scholarly research whether employed in the academic world or not. Ethnomusicologists do applied work whether employed inside the academy or outside of it. In fact, considered as a worldwide phenomenon, more academics than non-academics are engaged in applied ethnomusicology.  
    One recent example of the persistence of this false dichotomy: At the 2013 conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM), a meeting of “program heads” was convened for the first time, bringing together representative directors of university doctoral programs, faculty from colleges offering only undergraduate degrees, and heads of institutions doing applied ethnomusicology in the public interest, such as Smithsonian Folkways Records, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. For those who may not be aware of their work in this area, Smithsonian Folkways promotes the music of traditional musicians in minority groups and cultures, while the Rock and Roll museum has a large educational music outreach program. The convener of this event asked me (as a co-chair of the Applied Ethnomusicology Section of SEM) to suggest names of people who would represent “public sector ethnomusicology”—that is, ethnomusicology practiced by those employed by taxpayer dollars in government-funded institutions at the federal and state level. Not only did such a charge overlook the NGOs doing applied ethnomusicology, but it was based on the same mistaken bifurcation of academic vs. applied, while locating applied ethnomusicology as something done outside of the academic world, in the public sector. And at the program heads meeting, I noted that most of the "heads" unthinkingly adopted the same bifurcated view.
    As an aside, the term “public sector ethnomusicology” hearkens back to the 1980s when public folklore was called “public sector folklore.” This was a misnomer then, as it is now; and it arose out of the same mistaken dichotomy between academic and public in the folklore world, which dichotomy was valiantly opposed by the then-president of the American Folklore Society (AFS), Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, in her 1988 address to the AFS, later published in the Society’s Journal. Must ethnomusicology repeat folklore’s agonies 25 years later?
    Why, then, does this division persist in the minds of ethnomusicologists? I don't think it's only a matter of confusion, and that once the facts are on the table, the error will disappear. The reasons for it are deeper, and the explanation is cultural--in the cultures of our own institutions. Unless those cultures change, the division will persist. One way to pursue it is to ask why so many ethnomusicologists employed outside the academic world are content to equate applied with non-academic. In the early 2000s, on the initiative of its Applied Ethnomusicology Section, SEM regularly sponsored panels on alternative careers where practitioners employed outside academia spoke of how they did applied ethnomusicology in their work. Among these were public folklorists specializing in music. The Section also invited people from the corporate and government worlds to speak to SEM. They included, for example, field recordists who had produced a significant body of world music recordings, such as David Lewiston with the old Nonesuch Explorer series. I think it’s a stretch to call what he did applied ethnomusicology, but it surely was a different kind of career from university teaching and research, and it did involve making field recordings of the kinds of music that academic ethnomusicologists recorded and studied. The difference was that these were aimed at the general public. Ethnomusicologists employed outside academia welcomed these presentations not only because they provided models but also as opportunities to learn how to navigate outside the academy in the corporate and government worlds. They also were attractive to younger ethnomusicologists, including graduate students, concerned about whether they would ever become tenured academics. In addition, some ethnomusicologists employed outside the academy have mixed feelings about the academic world, viewing it as privileged and elitist, thinking it ought to be more involved in the world outside the ivory tower, and regarding it as mired in useless theorizing and arcane scholarship which has little or no practical use. Ethnomusicology graduate students stronger in music performance than in musical and cultural theory may become resentful when they are unable to compete with talented scholars. Applied ethnomusicology outside of the academic world then becomes a more attractive alternative. In short, ethnomusicologists outside the academic world persist in equating applied ethnomusicology with non-academic employment because they look at their cohort and find that to be true about themselves. They overlook the fact that academics also do applied ethnomusicology.
    Another way to ask why the false dichotomy between applied and academic persists is to shift the question to the academy and ask why many US professors do not place a high value on applied work. Of course some academics, myself included, do place a high value on it; but frankly within the academy we are a minority, particularly in the US. Besides, we do research and publish scholarship as well. Here, the problem seems to be institutional, tied to the nature of the research university and the ways academic disciplines operate in them. Research and scholarship are more prestigious and result in more rewards than applied work, or teaching for that matter. To get tenure and remain in the university world today, young professors, no matter how good in the classroom, need to earn a strong reputation by publishing their research. The ways academic institutions must reproduce themselves by training graduate students in their own image is another reason. The need for a relatively young field such as ethnomusicology to establish its credentials among the academic disciplines, and to institutionalize itself within the structure of colleges and universities, is a third reason. Finally, whereas outside the US professors often are involved in politics and the public sphere, inside the US there is no such tradition, despite the cries from the conservative right that professors lean left. Taken together, these cultural aspects of US academic institutions make applied ethnomusicology difficult to practice while employed in them, particularly prior to tenure. I will have more to say about them in the next blog entry.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Pete Seeger (1919-2014)

    Pete Seeger died three days ago. The Press is calling him a hero. But not that long ago the establishment portrayed him as a villain, a Communist who refused to testify to the US Congress in the HUAC hearings of the early 1950s. I was a little boy at the time, but I recall my parents being outraged at the way Joseph McCarthy and his know-nothings were smearing Americans who had as much right to be Communists as to be Republicans or Buddhists. Seeger's days as a Communist were long behind him by then, but he still believed in communal ideals. Alan Lomax was so worried that he (Lomax) would be tarred with the same brush and then unable to accomplish the work he felt called to do, that he fled to Europe, where he was able to continue that phase of his remarkable career, collecting and promoting folksongs and folksingers. Seeger remained in the US, convicted and sentenced; and although cleared later on a technicality, he was blacklisted and prevented from appearing on major venues such as television. He was the original “alternative” musician, forced to make his way outside the established channels where only a few years later folksingers like The Kingston Trio, who had not taken the same political stand, became establishment darlings and were well paid for it.
     Pete was a populist, someone who believed in the inherent worth and dignity of the so-called common person. He gave his heart and soul, his hands and his songs to the workers, the unions, the oppressed and downtrodden. So humble a man he was, that only now is his influence in the various rights movements of the last century—labor rights, women’s rights, civil rights, the environment, the right to dissent--becoming known. Until now few knew, for instance, Pete was a crucial link in the chain that transformed the old, African-American gospel song, “I Will Overcome,” into the Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”
    I spent some time with Pete Seeger in 1981. We were working for the Folk Arts Division of the National Endowment for the Arts, trying to decide how to apportion grant money in response to the dozens of proposals for projects that had come in. At our meetings where we discussed these proposals, Pete didn’t say very much. Much of the time he seemed bored, distracted. He would tilt his head back, showing even more of his already prominent Adam’s apple. I could understand how some people might have been put off over the years by what they thought was a patrician distancing, inherited from his father, the musicologist Charles Seeger. But he was paying close attention. He just didn’t think he had much to contribute, so he mostly kept silent. But there was one proposal that I recall he spoke for, passionately.
    It was a proposal made by an arts organization in one of the northern New England states, possibly Maine, or maybe it was New Hampshire. The organization wrote that they wanted to hire a professional photographer, with experience in taking pictures of vernacular folk art, to travel around the region documenting the yard art that people used in decorating the spaces outside their houses. Not the carefully manicured bushes, walks and foundation plantings of the suburban middle-class, but the oddball sculptures, the paintings and things hung on barns and garages, the junk carefully constructed and arranged in seasonal collages to depict the first Thanksgiving, or the piles of stones balanced one on top of the other—the sort of thing you'd find in the countryside. The best of these were to be collected into a traveling photo exhibit that would tour the public libraries in the region for a few years.
    We had read all of the proposals well before the discussion. This was one that I myself had particularly liked. I’m not sure why, but I’d been fascinated by yard art for years. Not the pink flamingos and stooping-over ladies showing their bloomers—that was store-bought yard decor—but the eccentric, individual expressions, the one-of-a-kind homemade signs like those announcing the end of the world, and the elaborate figures made out of found objects, the flowers made from old springs and gears and bottle caps, the window shades that people painted with allegories of their dreams, the old tractors and farm machinery reminding people of the way that land once had been treated, everything showing how so-called ordinary people weren’t ordinary at all in their impulses to create, to pattern their worlds aesthetically and turn the most common objects into things that deserved witness.
     I must have blurted out something like that when the discussion of this grant proposal finally began. At any rate, I spoke in favor of it. Everyone else, except Pete, looked at me as if I were crazy. One of them said, quoting the old saw, “Yes, but is it Art?” A second person said that he didn't want to see a photo exhibit of junk cars and old lobster traps. Another was worried that the Endowment would become a public laughingstock when some Congressman intent destroying it pointed out that we had given someone a bunch of money to go around the country photographing Christmas lights.
    At that point Pete, who had been unusually attentive, cleared his throat. “I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I like this idea. Yard art is something lots of folks do. And it’s something lots of folks understand because they do it. And something lots of folks like. Maybe not the highfalutin’ folk who sit up here in the national endowments, the ones who have paintings on their walls that ordinary folks wouldn’t know which side was up. This yard art, or whatever you call it, is of the people, by the people, for the people—you know that. And we should celebrate it, and support it, not just by how it looks, but for what it is.”
    That was the longest speech Pete made to our group. I hope I remembered his words right. I think I got the gist of it, anyway. When he was done I was ready to applaud. But the others were like trees standing by the water, and they would not be moved. Pete and I were the only ones in favor of the proposal. We were outvoted. Majority vote ruled, and the proposal was not recommended for funding.
    Pete Seeger is gone now, but as I was saying to a friend two days ago, and to the radio man who interviewed me about Pete yesterday, he isn’t gone. Like Joe Hill, whom he often sang about, Pete Seeger lives on.
   

Monday, January 27, 2014

The US postal service — a tragedy of the commons?

    Today the US postal service announced it is raising the price of mailing a first-class mail letter to 49 cents, and a postal card to 34 cents. I am old enough to remember when it cost one cent to mail a postal card. It even had a name: the penny postcard. Good grief. Meanwhile, the postal service is losing billions of dollars. It’s tried and failed to get government approval to close to smaller post offices, and to halt Saturday mail delivery. What is wrong with the US postal service? What is wrong with us? Is our fate a tragedy of the commons?


     I’m prompted to ask the commons question not because of the price increases and threatened cutbacks, but because of a meeting I attended at my small nearby post office last week. The postal service had declared that its window hours were going to be cut back from 8 to 4 hours per day. We were surveyed about (a) whether we’d prefer that it be shut down entirely (no one chose that option), (b) whether we’d prefer that it be shut down and a stamp-selling operation be opened in a nearby retail shop (no one chose that option either), or (c) whether we’d prefer four hours of window operation instead, and if so, mornings or afternoons? It was like being mugged and offered a choice between a broken arm or a broken leg. As someone at the meeting pointed out, we were not given the option to vote for it to remain open 8 hours a day.    
     I wouldn’t normally think of the mail as a resource commons. True, it appears to be what these days is called an “entitlement,” a utility that government provides citizens in exchange for taxes. It became partly privatized back in the 1980s. It’s still a government agency, though, and it answers to Congress and, one would hope, to the citizens. But what made me think of it as a commons was something that came up at a citizen meeting last week.    
     In an effort to save money, the head of the postal service proposed closing the smaller post offices, which ones to be determined not only by their geographical distribution, but also by the amount of gross sales they make—that is, how much money they take in from the letters and packages that are mailed from their post office, how much money they make in selling stamps and postal supplies, etc. Citizens protested to their representatives at the state and federal levels, and the postal service decided that instead what they would do would be to cut back hours at those post offices, not eliminate them entirely—or at least, not yet. 
    What this did, though, was to put all of the post offices, and their postmasters, in competition with each other to do the most business so that they wouldn’t have to cut back hours. Those of us who regularly use the postal service weren’t informed about these criteria or the competition. The commons analogy appears here. Given a limited resource, if the post office were managed as a commons, the citizens would have been informed and decided which basket(s) to put their eggs into, and the postmasters would have been part of the discussion and gone along with those choices. But that didn’t happen. Instead, the postmasters of each of the smaller offices competed with one another, probably because they wanted to secure their own working hours. In my neck of the woods, what this meant, among other things, was that the postmaster in charge of the largest post office regularly withheld supplies (including stamps) from the postmasters of the smaller offices, forcing the customers to go to the largest post office to obtain them. Of course, they were given some stamps and supplies, but not so many as would meet the larger and more costly purchases of the customers. Predictably, the largest post office has kept its hours, while the one nearest me has been cut back to four, and another one not too far away has been cut back to two hours.
    As we pointed out when we met with the regional postmaster at our local post office, this is a slippery slope. The postal service will continue to evaluate based on sales volume. Now, a post office with its window open only four hours a day is at a disadvantage, and one open for two is doubly disadvantaged. The handwriting is on the wall. Soon they’ll be cut back further, and then cut out.
    The US postal service is not yet enacting a tragedy of the commons. That tragedy, as Garret Hardin famously wrote a few decades ago, supposedly occurs when individuals acting out of selfish interests overuse and deplete a resource commons, making everyone poorer as a result. True, the behavior of the postmasters in competition with one another might qualify as this kind of tragedy. But Hardin neglected to consider the possibility that those who used the commons could get together and discuss the problem and then attempt to manage it, by agreeing to follow self-imposed guidelines and regulations. In fact, that's what the lobster fishery off the Maine coast does, although the management is done by the government as well as by the fishing communities (and they don’t always agree).
    In the case of the postal service, citizens were not offered an opportunity to help manage the resource. Postmasters—who knows if they discussed among themselves the possibility of cooperation as well as competition? The result was the predictable tragedy anyway. The situation is made even more complex since the post office loses most of its money not because its own operations cost so much, but because the US government requires the postal service to pre-fund retirement health care for its employees. This is something no other business organization, to my knowledge, is required to do; and in fact very few do. My employer, Brown University, not only does not pre-fund health care for its retirees, it doesn’t fund retirees health care at all. They’re on their own, just as almost every other US retiree is, now. The result is that citizens are increasingly inconvenienced because Congress cannot agree on lifting the pre-funding requirement (let alone much anything else).
    Re-thinking and then managing the postal service as a resource commons might just help solve the problem. The tragedy that’s being enacted now was scripted by the US government; the postal service and the postmasters are the bad actors, and the citizens are the captive audience. Ticket prices are too high, and local theaters are going to be closing soon anyway. It can all be avoided. And there are analogies with music and sustainability to be made here, as well, particularly when considering such things as Internet neutrality, copyright legislation and monopolies.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The commonwealth of culture

    “The commonwealth of culture” was the title of the Fellows forum that I put together for the annual conference of the American Folklore Society, which took place in Providence in October, 2012. By  cultural commonwealth I refer to expressive culture as commons, as a shared resource—that kind of wealth, not material wealth. On that forum, as well as in my keynote at the cultural sustainability conference in Vermont last August, I spoke about expressive culture—that is, folklore—within the contemporary commons discourse, particularly the digital commons, copyright, and cultural rights.[1] Commons is a familiar topic for readers of this blog, but it is not familiar, yet, to folklorists even though they are now so occupied with cultural sustainability that they made it the official theme of their 2012 annual conference. The abstract I wrote for the forum on the commonwealth of culture read in part:
    “Although today we associate commonwealth with a political entity such as a state or nation, the original meaning was public welfare or general good. It has something in common with res communes, which in Roman law referred to those things which then could not be “captured” or owned, such as the oceans or air mantle. But in modern nations commonwealth has moved closer to res publicae, the Roman law term for a state-regulated public domain, such as fisheries and air travel flyways. Commonwealth is therefore allied with the notion of a cultural commons, the domain of ideas and performance which folklorists like to think of as a group’s expressive culture. Much in the air today are arguments over enclosures such as copyright that limit the free flow of ideas in the digital, cultural, and/or creative commons. Folklorists, who have a long history of considering culture as a common group possession, have a great deal to contribute to this discussion. Commons thinking is one means of theorizing folklore and cultural sustainability, and so each of the participants in this forum will address those issues briefly and in turn before we invite general discussion from the audience.”
    Altogether six folklorists, all Fellows of the American Folklore Society, spoke on the forum: Mary Hufford, Burt Feintuch, Dorothy Noyes, Nick Spitzer, Lee Haring, and myself. I won’t rehearse their presentations here, or my own. But I would like to expand a little on the idea of folklore, expressive culture, intangible cultural heritage—the competing synonyms today for that part of culture which folklorists claim to know something about—both in the context of the above abstract, and also in the context of what I said in my keynote at the Vermont conference on cultural sustainability.
    Folklorists, I told the group in Vermont, have had a longstanding concern with expressive culture as commons. The idea that folklore is a common resource goes back to very early conceptions of folklore as the expression of a group, not an individual. The author of a folksong, folktale, proverb was thought to be anonymous. The originator of folkways used in making barns, farm implements, crafts and decorative objects was unknown. Of course, someone must once have originated it, but over time the folklore was modified and improved as it passed from one person to the next and down through the generations until it became accepted as a common resource, “traditional” and rightfully shared.
    What folklorists can contribute to the discussion of a cultural commons, then, is based in part on this longstanding concern, where the advantages for a community of shared resources are plain: acceptance by, and accessibility to, anyone and everyone. Aesthetic satisfaction through community validation is yet another advantage. In my presentation for the AFS conference, I emphasized the legal aspects of cultural commonwealth, suggesting that the history of folklore studies lends weight to the argument that no one must “own” culture if we are going to be good stewards of it. Ironically, folklorists are very much involved today in international efforts (e.g., those by WIPO) to propertize culture in order to protect it. (See my blog entry on WIPO.) But thinking of culture as intellectual property, and thinking of groups as possessing cultural rights in this property, while it may seem attractive in the short run, is a losing strategy in the long term, for by putting a price on expressive culture it degrades and transforms it into commodity, thereby furthering the mistaken project of economic rationality.
    In my keynote at the Vermont conference I took the same position, exemplifying it through sound and “orality,” another longstanding concern of folklore studies. My plea that we manage the soundscape as an acoustic commons for all creatures derives in part from this concern with oral communication. But in folklore studies, orality has always been constructed in opposition to literacy, with the result that this distinction has shifted attention away from something I think is more fundamental, and that is how orality (or sound) is experienced as a medium in itself, directly through vibration linking one being to another. This model of sound communication, I argued in that keynote, as well as in the keynote talk I gave in May to the Association of Brazilian Ethnomusicologists, is a cornerstone in the construction of an environmental rationality that stands in opposition to neoliberalism.[2]
    I felt a proprietary interest at the AFS conference in their theme, for to my knowledge I was the first to apply the sustainability concept to folklore, delivering a paper on that topic with special reference to music cultures, at their 2006 conference, then organizing a panel on that subject there for the 2007 annual conference. The idea gained traction, and late in 2008 I received an invitation from Rory Turner to take part in a conference of folklorists and other culture workers at Goucher College, chiefly to advise him and other faculty and administrators about starting an MA program in cultural sustainability, something that they had begun work on earlier that year. In 2009 Goucher did establish the first degree program in that subject, with Turner as founder. Since 2010, when Goucher’s first class enrolled, their MA program has taken the lead in folklore’s commitment to cultural sustainability. Turner has worked effectively to promote the concept. As a result of all these efforts and the discipline’s receptivity to sustainability, its enshrinement as the theme of the 2012 AFS conference may be the first indication that cultural sustainability has become the new paradigm for public folklore.
    Cultural sustainability has come so far, so fast because public folklorists think it an improvement over the previous paradigm, cultural conservation, which ruled from the 1980s until now. Of course, sustainability and conservation have much in common, but they also are significantly different both in concept and history. I've been writing about those similarities and differences in an essay on music, sustainability, and resilience for the forthcoming Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, co-edited with Slovenian ethnomusicologist Svanibor Pettan, for Oxford University Press. This volume, with more than 20 contributors, has been inching along for the past five years and probably will not be published until 2015 at the earliest. I wouldn't be surprised if the idea of folklore as an expressive cultural commons also gained traction within the academic side of folklore studies.[3] As the anonymous proverb-turned-cliché puts it, time will tell.

[1] My keynote talk for the Vermont conference on cultural sustainability in August, 2012 may be downloaded as an mp3 file at http://www.vermontfolklifecenter.org/education/cultural-sustainability/abstracts.php

[2] My keynote talk for ABET in May, 2012 on "The Nature of Ecomusicology" was published in their journal, Music E Cultura, and may be downloaded at http://musicaecultura.abetmusica.org.br/index.php/revista/issue/current

[3] Anthony McCann's pioneering work in commons and enclosure has important implications for folklorists. See https://independent.academia.edu/AnthonyMcCann