Thursday, August 1, 2019

Animal sound communication, human language, and perspectivism

          I return to the question of animal sound communication, which I wrote about in January of this year. Animals—humans included—communicate with one another in song, speech, and various in-between modes such as chant. Animals also communicate by manipulating objects to make sounds, whether beavers slapping the water with their tails or humans playing musical instruments. Because animal communication is necessary for survival, it is necessary for sustainability of life as we know it on planet Earth. Sound, of course, is one of the principal ways in which animals communicate with one another.
         Among the questions that interest scientists about nonhuman animal sound communication are, first of all, whether species’ communication in sound is purely functional, or whether it has an aesthetic component. Do animals always make sounds for a practical purpose, in other words, or might they do it for pleasure, as humans do? Might some of their practical sounds, such as birdsong, offer pleasure as well as having functions such as locating oneself to one’s mate? A second question is whether animal sounds constitute language. That is, do they exhibit the structural and functional characteristics of what we know as language, even if in some simple stage? Or are their sounds merely signals? Songbirds, humpback whales, chimpanzees, elephants and dolphins seem to be good test cases for language. All of them communicate with a variety of complex sounds; in terms of their structure, could they constitute a language? Scientists do not agree on the answer. Generally speaking, the evolutionary biologists who study animal behavior and sound communication favor the idea that nonhuman animal sounds, no matter how complex they are in structure, constitute signals, stimuli that result in automatic responses in the listening animal. At the same time, many scientists are conducting experiments to see if that is really true, or if the complex sounds of some species could be said to constitute anything resembling a language, and whether there is any evidence suggesting that it also has an aesthetic component.
         Recently I came upon an educational website that pursued differences between human and animal communication. The linked to a lecture by a professor at the Leiden University Center for Linguistics, and then examined the supposed differences between human and nonhuman animal communication. As I read through these differences, I realized that some of the evidence from birdsong and humpback whale song casts doubt on those claims for difference, or at least for a sharp dividing line between human and nonhuman.
Black-capped chickadee. Photo by Ryan Hodnett
         For example, humans are said to be able to string sounds together in an infinite number of ways to create meaning via words and sentences, and animals are said not to communicate by arranging sounds in this way. And yet there is scientific evidence that chickadees string together phonemes in a simple manner to indicate, for example, not only that there is a danger from a nearby predator, but also how great is that danger. Humpback whales, also, have been observed to string together sounds in different ways to indicate different meanings. Part of the difficulty here, it would seem, is that humans do not understand animal language. For another example, humans are said to be able to invent new words easily, whereas animals must evolve in order for their signals to change. But the invention of new words and their addition to human language proceeds slowly, whereas animals change their signs before they evolve, and then evolution selects those whose signs are most suitable for survival. A few songbirds, for example, who are permanent residents near highways change the pitch range of their songs to avoid traffic noise, and only then does natural selection favor those birds that have changed their songs, resulting in a higher percentage of birds that have adapted and that can, presumably, survive better. Experiments have shown that this evolution is rapid.
         A couple of other differences turn out to have exceptions, also. It is said that humans acquire language culturally, by learning, whereas animal communication is inborn and cannot be learned. But that isn’t so. Songbirds raised by foster parents of another species learn to sing their foster parents’ songs. Another difference discussed on the website is arbitrariness: human language is symbolic and filled with ideas, whereas animal communication is said not to be symbolic. The jury is still out on that one, but one wonders how we would be able to recognize whether animal communication was symbolic when we don’t understand their sounds in the same way they do. In other words, what we conclude by observation to be no more than stimulus and response may in fact be arbitrary to some extent on account of its complexity, or on account of factors that we ordinarily wouldn’t take into consideration, such as the time of day or night of the utterance, its tempo, how frequently it is repeated, and so on.
         For centuries scientists have claimed that only human beings have language, but it no longer certain that this is true. Instead, it’s possible that language is something best understood to exist on a continuum of development, with humans having a more fully developed language while some other animals exhibit it at an earlier stage of development. If animals exist on an evolutionary continuum, it makes some sense to think of language in this way. Obviously, humans have had the capacity to develop language into a very sophisticated communications tool, and beyond that into an artistic expression with aesthetic qualities. At the same time, we should not be too hasty in assuming that animals communicate only by means of signals that act as stimuli to effect responses. After all, scientists do not know what it is like to communicate as a whale or a dolphin or an elephant.
         On the other hand, many Amerindian indigenous peoples’ ecological knowledges take a very different approach to animals and animal sound communication: perspectivism and multinaturalism. I’ve written about this to some extent in a completed chapter for an as-yet-unpublished book edited by Harris Berger, one that has been in the making for a decade or so: the "Oxford Handbook of Phenomenological Ethnomusicology." In it, I discuss evidence for expressive culture among animals. From a perspectivist viewpoint, animals have intentionality, consciousness, reflective thought, experience, aesthetics, language, and expressive culture because what it is like to communicate as a whale or dolphin or elephant from the animal’s point of view is exactly the same as what it is like to communicate as a human because animals think of themselves as humans.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Music's Carbon Footprint

Photo by Helgi Halldorsson

          Music and sustainability involves both the sustainability of music as it is practiced, and the sustainability of the planet. The first involves the sustainability of traditional music cultures and genres, whether indigenous traditional musics endangered by modernization, or music in developed countries such as blues and classical music. Periodically journalists and scholars ponder the future of these musics. Even though we know that these musics have always been adapting and changing, we wonder whether they will change so much as to lose their integrities and identities, becoming so different that they no longer resemble what they once were. The second involves the relationship between music as practiced and the environment. Anyone concerned with music and environmental sustainability will have wondered about music’s carbon footprint. How much does music contribute to habitat loss, species extinction, and global warming?
         For the first half-dozen or so years of this blog on music and sustainability, the sustainability of music as it is practiced was my main concern. But in applying an ecological approach to this problem, one that borrowed principles from conservation biology to see how they might apply to musical and cultural sustainability, it was inevitable that the topic of music and environment would become a concern. At first it surfaced within the larger topic of sound in the environment, and more specifically in the importance of animal sound communication for survival. This topic brought me to ecomusicology, where I found scholars interested chiefly in musical practice and the environment. Many ecomusicologists wrote about composers whose compositions involved nature and environments in one way or another. Other ecomusicologists were interested in music and musicians who were singing to save the environment; that is, to protest environmental degradation and raise consciousness in order to fuel a mass movement. Yet others explored the impact of musical instrument construction on endangered plant species, especially the woods used in making guitars and violins, within the context of environmentally sound forest management. In the hallways during ecomusicology conferences I sometimes heard people wondering about the impact of musical practice on climate change, but until 2014 I didn’t think about addressing this issue.
         In 2014 Denise von Glahn asked the provocative question, “What is the sound of climate change?” and one result was a symposium on “Music in a Changing Climate,” held at the University of Minnesota in 2015. I’ve written about that symposium elsewhere on this blog. But “music in a changing climate” can evoke traditional subjects for ecomusicologists—attention to composers concerned with nature, musicians protesting global warming, and music’s impact on endangered species. For the symposium I took a different approach, asking what sound in a changing climate sounded like, and what it signaled; and in “The Sound of Climate Change” I described the sounds and ecological significance for climate change of a horrific storm I experienced on the Maine coast in the fall of 2014.
         Recently I’ve been thinking about the differences global warming and climate change have made to sustainability thinking in the 21st century, and what this means for music, sound, and cultural sustainability. Before the new century, sustainability thinking was not directed at music nor was it about climate change; it had to do with the Earth's resources, its carrying capacity, and the future of both the environment and life on the Planet, mainly human life. To be sure, conservation biologists were interested in endangered species and habitat loss, but the bulk of sustainability thinking occurred in connection with developmental economics and human ecology, where the major problem was how to feed an exponentially expanding human population, given that the Earth has finite natural resources. The technological solution offered by developmental economics increased agricultural productivity many times over by introducing modern farming methods including the massive use of chemical fertilizers and large machinery. More food could, and did, support an increasing population. Critics, however, pointed out that this came at a cost of traditional ecological knowledges, and traditional cultures. Also, the increase in farmland devoted to monoculture crops pressured biodiversity as it altered habitat and impacted animals as well as plants. Finally, it became obvious that the technological solution involved an enormous increase in energy use. According to a study published in Science in 1976, researchers at Cornell University found that whereas in nonindustrialized agriculture manual farming produces 5 to 50 calories of food energy for each calorie of energy used in producing it, industrial agriculture requires 5 to 10 calories of energy to produce a single calorie of food energy. That is, 5 to 10 calories of energy from fossil fuels and other sources, mainly non-renewable, were used to produce chemical fertilizers, build and run farm machinery, etc. in order to get a single calorie of food energy. This appeared unsustainable on its face, but in the last century even though some were warning about carbon emissions from fossil fuel use and the warming planet, most sustainability thinkers were more concerned with the problem of how to feed an exploding human population and how to raise the living standard in third-world nations where the population increase was greatest.
         But if the major sustainability problem in the last century was the Earth's carrying capacity in the face of increasing human population, today the major sustainability problem is the Earth itself as we know it in the face of global warming and climate change. The link between energy use, carbon emissions, and global warming became well established and accepted in the scientific community in the 21st century, with models showing potentially catastrophic climate change if humans don’t significantly lower our carbon footprint in the near future. The caloric example in the previous paragraph takes on new meaning in this century: not only does it seem outrageous to expend so much more energy to produce a calorie of food, a back-of-the-napkin calculation of energy expenditures related to the production, distribution, delivery and consumption of music today gives cause for alarm. How much does music contribute to our carbon footprint?
         To answer that question we’d need to ask how much energy is expended in the production and consumption of musical instruments, for example, and not just ask about endangered species and habitat loss, important as they are. We’d need to take into account the energy expended in the production and consumption of music’s part of the economy, everything from the food needed to keep people alive and making music, to the energy needed to support music-making (concerts, sound reinforcement, heating large indoor spaces, musicians’ travel, manufacture of music products, etc.), to the energy needed to deliver music on the internet, including the manufacture of computers, smartphones, tablets, the network of cell towers and internet providers, and so on. Insofar as music is a significant part of the economy, it requires a significant expenditure of energy to produce, distribute, and consume. It might be useful in this regard to contrast nonindustrial music-making with industrial (and post-industrial) music-making, just as researchers at Cornell did for agriculture in the last century. How much energy is required for participatory music-making with acoustic instruments, versus presentational or hi-fi music-making as it is delivered in concert tours and over the internet? I suppose that the results will parallel those for nonindustrial versus industrial agriculture.
         We may ask, also, about the social ecology of nonindustrial farming versus industrial, and participatory music-making versus presentational and hi-fi. I’ve written about the latter, contrasting the community-building aspects of participatory music-making with the isolating aspects of presentational music. Wendell Berry has for more than fifty years been making a similar point about farming, contrasting the communal nature of tobacco farming in rural Kentucky with the isolating aspects of so-called family agribusiness industrial corn and soybean farming in the Midwest today. I needn’t go into that here; Berry’s work is widely available and he is much honored in his sphere.
         There is more to say about energy use, fossil fuels, the economy of music and the sustainability of the Planet. I’ve been thinking about this for several years now, and I know other ecomusicologists have been, also. It’s time to channel more of our efforts in this direction. 

Friday, June 21, 2019

An Immodest Note: Update on Publications

       After a hiatus of about 20 years, Powerhouse for God is available again, in a 2nd edition, with a new Afterword, and in paperback and eBook. Powerhouse was part of a book, recording and film project I undertook in the last century in an effort to document language in religious practice in Appalachia’s northern Blue Ridge. Beginning in the summer of 1976, with the most concentrated ethnographic fieldwork in 1977 and again 1985, I visited a church in Page Co., Virginia, observing the church community at home and in worship, befriending the pastor and his family, and collaborating with them and also with scholars Ken George, Tom Rankin, and Barry Dornfeld in making a documentary recording (1982) and documentary film (1989), all titled Powerhouse for God. The recording, out of print for decades, was re-issued a half-dozen years ago in CD form by Smithsonian Folkways, while the film has been available for viewing on for many years. The re-publication of the book makes the complete documentary package available once again. It’s available directly from the Press, and also from the usual on-line book outlets. 
       Books, recordings and films aimed primarily at academic audiences don’t usually get much attention in the popular press, but Powerhouse was an exception. Rock music critics Dave Marsh and Greil Marcus somehow noticed the album, even though it was published by a university press, not a commercial record company. They praised it in The Village Voice and Rolling Stone, putting it on their “best albums of the year” list; and this led to interviews on National Public Radio. A half-dozen years later the Powerhouse project somehow came to the attention of a producer for Nightline, who asked me whether he thought the pastor of the church would make a good subject for Ted Koppel, who was looking to film an authentic preacher for The Koppel Report who would act as a counterweight to the televangelists of the day who were being investigated for fraud. I said yes and encouraged them to see for themselves. Not long afterward, in front of a very surprised group of churchmembers, Koppel and his film crew landed their helicopter in a hayfield across from the church, went inside and proceeded to film Brother John for the program on televangelism, eventually using the footage to bookend his special report and as a contrast to the televangelists. This, of course, was nearly 30 years ago; but televangelism and evangelical fundamentalism remain major players in US religion and politics. Brother John died in 2008 and the church is led now by his son, Brother Donnie. I last visited them in 2016, forty years after my original visit.
       A second book is Cultural Sustainabilities, conceived and edited by Tim Cooley, in which several of my colleagues and former students wrote articles in fields such as ethnomusicology, folklore, ecomusicology, and media studies, related in one way or another to the research I’ve done on musical and cultural sustainability. This book was published a couple of months ago by the University of Illinois Press. Tim asked me to write an autobiographical and reflexive foreword, and then in a very generous gesture dedicated the book to me and wrote an introduction in which, among other things, he described the common threads in my ecological approach to understanding expressive culture over what is now a fifty-year period, counting from my earliest publication. This book is available in hardback, paperback, and as an eBook from the University of Illinois Press and also from the usual on-line book websites. 
       A third book, in press now but not to be published for another year, is my Toward a Sound Ecology: New and Selected Essays. A dozen of my published articles from academic and popular journals, some from fairly obscure places, as well as a new essay on my sound ecology project, will appear in this volume. I wrote an autobiographical and reflexive foreword for this volume also, in which I discuss the power of sound as the connective tissue that forms a pattern in my research interests over the years. It is scheduled for publication in 2020 from Indiana University Press.
       In addition, a special Ecologies issue of the journal MUSICultures, edited by Aaron Allen and me, has just been published by the Canadian Society for Traditional Music. The issue is themed on music, sound, and ecologies, and features a dozen articles from scholars and scientists in areas as diverse as soundscape ecology, ethnomusicology, Western art music, and the history of science. When Aaron and I issued our Call for Papers for this issue, we had no idea how much of a response we’d get. Fifty-five scholars and scientists sent us abstract proposals for the issue, and it was not easy for us to winnow them down to the final dozen. We were, also, quite hands-on in editing, which is something I’ve more or less changed my mind about. When I was editor of Ethnomusicology, the journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology, I relied on the specialists who evaluated the articles to suggest improvements to the authors. My more recent editorial work has been far more involved, either because I have more knowledge about the subjects or stronger views, or both. Yet, paradoxically, I seldom enjoy being edited by someone with strong opinions--unless of course they coincide with my own. For this special issue, Aaron wrote an Introduction, and I wrote an Afterword. MUSICultures’ publication policy makes the journal available for the first 3 years after publication only to members of the Canadian Society for Traditional Music; after that period, it is freely available to the public on its website. This protective policy means that it’s not freely available through the electronic portals of college and university libraries, either—which is unusual, for most academic journals are freely available to students, faculty, staff and in some cases, alumni this way. 
       I also have a few articles completed and in press at the moment. One is on ecojustice and a sound ecology, to appear in the Yale Journal of Music and Religion; another is on ethnography in the study of congregational music, to be published by Routledge in an edited book; a third is on a phenomenological approach to animal sound communication, to be published in the Oxford Handbook of Phenomenological Ethnomusicology, and a fourth is entitled “A Sound Economy,” from my keynote presentation at the 2015 joint SEM-ICTM forum in Limerick, Ireland, to appear in a book of articles based on that forum. I finished writing these in 2016, 2017, and 2018, but it almost always takes edited academic volumes several years of production before publication unless they are conference proceedings, in which case the conference papers are published quickly and more or less verbatim.
       Two final observations: one, in retirement since 2013 I’ve been able to focus a lot more on research, writing, public lectures, and publication; two, all of the publications I’ve mentioned in this blog entry, with the exception of the Powerhouse film and the special issue of MUSICultures, were written in response to invitations. Before retirement, of course, I spent a great deal of my working hours preparing and teaching classes, advising students, supervising PhD dissertations and directing the PhD program in my university department, and in other administrative and committee work for my universities. Now I don’t do any of that, unless I decide to accept a visiting professorship for a term or two—which I’ve done only once since retirement; and so I have far more time to devote to research and writing. In truth, most of my publications have come as a result of invitations from editors of journals or university presses who became familiar with my research in one way or another. Even the publication of my first book, Early Downhome Blues, was the result of an invitation from the director of the University of Illinois Press, who in 1970 heard me speak up in response to a paper delivered at a conference, and then buttonholed me, asked me if I was working on anything related to my response and said if so, he’d like to see it. Powerhouse for God was solicited by an editor at the University of Texas Press in 1977 after he saw my name announced on a list of fellowship recipients from the National Endowment for the Humanities, and wrote to ask if I had a book in the works. The Powerhouse recording also was an invited publication, from the University of North Carolina Press originally, and then decades after it went out print, another invitation, this time from Folkways. Of course, today’s job and publication situation for graduate students and young professors is different, and that is a different story. 

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Sound and Sustainability among the Whales

         How is sound related to sustainability among whales, and how is whale sustainability related to the sound commons?
         By now most people have heard, or heard about, the songs of the humpback whales. Baleen whales such as the humpback and right whales “sing” to communicate their whereabouts in the ocean, just as birds do in the air and on land. That is, like many other animals and insects they use sound for a variety of purposes including giving warning, attracting mates, and keeping the social group together. Public interest in whale “song” focuses on two other aspects of whale song: whether these utterances are signals like alarm bells or if they make up a language; and whether they offer any kind of aesthetic experience to whales, as music does to humans. While those are very interesting questions, there is not enough reliable evidence to answer them; whereas there is good evidence for their use as functional signals.
        When other sounds interfere with the sounds animals make, it becomes hard for animals to communicate with each other. When sound interference is frequent, or even constant, the habitat becomes unforgiving and animals cannot survive in it very well if at all. They must either adapt, as birds raise the pitch range of their songs in the presence of vehicular traffic noise, or move into a different habitat. Shipping noise, from powerful engines and turbines, and from naval sonar, travels long distances through the ocean water—much farther than it would on land—and interferes with baleen whale sonic communication. It's not the only way whale sustainability is compromised by human activity; hunting whales, now banned by most but not all nations, and inadvertent entanglements in fish netting, are two prominent examples. More subtle, perhaps, is the effect of shipping noise; but it is no less harmful for that. Shipping noise also interferes with sound communication among toothed whales, such as orcas (killer whales), that use sonic echolocation in hunting for their prey.  
Orca (killer whale), courtesy Wikimedia Commons
    Orcas, for example, emit sound signals that bounce back from fish such as salmon. When an orca locates its prey it continues to give off these signals, the sound indicating where and how close the prey is as the orca closes in on it. Shipping noise drastically limits the distance over which these signals can operate effectively. It causes orcas and other toothed whales to alter their migration routes but it may also confuse them and cause them stress, resulting in illness and unusual behavior resulting in death. The same is true of shipping noise and baleen whales.
Right whales are in the news where I live because lobster lines (ropes) are a hazard that entangles them and kills them; estimates indicate that only 450 of the North Atlantic Right Whale species still exist. Eliminating the lobster fishery in New England, a multimillion dollar business, would have a catastrophic impact on the economies of many coastal towns and surrounding areas that are overly dependent on lobster fishing. The fish and game management regulators that would limit the lobster catch must weigh the interests of the human populations versus the interests of biodiversity, ecosystem services and the survival of a whale species. There is no similar balance of interests when it comes to shipping noise, however. Ships traveling in known whale habitat are asked to slow down and limit their noise, while activists campaign, with some success, against the indiscriminate use of naval sonar exercises. 
        The sound commons, in this case the ocean, is a soundscape freely accessed and open to all with as little sound interference as possible. At certain times and places, on account of limited access, or competition among those who would access it, the soundscape must be managed. Sometimes this can be done chiefly or entirely by those who do access it. Many medieval agricultural commons were managed in this way. The soundscape of one’s own living quarters usually is managed this way, as family members agree to limit each other’s access. But sometimes self-management fails, and outside management is the only possible solution. Noise ordinances are one example, but these are not always effective and they may also be unjust. Usually the best management involves input both from the outside experts and those who compete for access to the sound commons. In the case of whales, of course, their input is implicit rather than explicit. Yet they occupy a sound commons, and humans would be wise to manage it for everyone’s benefit, rather than damaging it in exchange for short-term human economic gains. In the end, damaging the biodiversity of the Planet compromises human survival as well. 

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

A progressive, small college that is sustainable--so far

     In a recent entry I wrote about Hampshire College, a small, progressive institution located in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts, one that is in deep financial trouble. It’s no secret that many other small colleges face similar problems today; some such as Green Mountain College (Vermont) have already closed, others like Castleton have laid off many employees, and many others are in danger of going into a death spiral. For its part, since I wrote that entry two months ago, Hampshire’s president and some members of its Board have resigned, and the college has dropped its attempt to partner with another institution. It’s now desperately trying to raise enough money to stay afloat.
     Vermont seems to be especially hard hit. Besides Green Mountain and Castleton, Goddard College (another Vermont progressive liberal arts college) was placed on accreditation probation in November for failing to meet requirements on finance and governance, and the College of St. Joseph also is in financial trouble. It’s not only the progressive schools that are in trouble; so are the many liberal arts colleges and the smaller branches of the state universities. For now, the top- tier colleges and universities appear safe, but second-tier schools also are facing higher costs and lower numbers of applicants, reflecting downward college-age population trends coupled with over-expansion in the previous century, while ballooning student loans pressure students (and their parents) into making financial cost-benefit decisions about colleges, majors, and careers. No wonder the liberal arts are suffering. 
     Sterling College in Vermont seems to be an exception to this rule. I’ve blogged about Sterling before. It’s not only got a progressive curriculum, but it specializes in agriculture and environmental studies (including science), and the campus is coupled to a farm raising livestock and produce. Under supervision, students operate this farm and supply food for the college population and others. Although it has a liberal arts curriculum, it has relatively little depth outside of environmental studies, partly because it is so small—only 18 faculty members and 110 students, and compared with other colleges and universities, a much smaller proportion of administrators. Students are required do a lot of the work that staff does at other colleges--like Berea College in Kentucky, it is a work college. Also unlike Hampshire and some of the other small liberal arts colleges, Sterling has been very successful at fund-raising, and relies on tuition for only about 75% of its income, rather than the 90% typical of the others. Also atypical, they maintain almost no long-term debt. And although the food the students eat is fresh, wholesome and plentiful, it is without the upscale attributes of the food at some of the expensive colleges competing for students partly on the basis of the creature comforts they can offer them. And speaking of creature comforts, I can testify on personal experience that dorm living at Sterling is very spartan—bunk beds, small bedrooms, nails in the wall to hand your clothes on, shared bathrooms, and so forth. Their niche appeals to philanthropists and granting agencies. Recently they received a $2.5 million grant to launch the Wendell Berry Farming Program of Sterling College, not in Vermont but in Henry County, Kentucky, where Berry lives. Students spend two years in Henry County and graduate with a degree in sustainable agriculture. 
     Sterling's appeal is to a very small and idealistic segment of the student population, one that wants to combine hands-on farm work with environmental studies in a small, intense community of like-minded people. So small and concentrated is this group that the College admits 94% of those who apply. Only about 60% of those who start the program graduate, compared with 75% at Hampshire, 55% at Goddard, and 75% at the University of Vermont. Sterling offers majors in only a few areas: ecology, environmental humanities, outdoor education, sustainable agriculture, and sustainable food systems, along with self-designed majors. Careers that make sense for Sterling graduates often involve work for government, scientific, or non-profit organizations, many with a global footprint; but as major international corporations expand their commitment to environmental stewardship, Sterling graduates are in demand there as well. Unlike Hampshire, which offers a liberal arts curriculum with depth in many subjects, Sterling College serves to prepare a small group for a comparatively few kinds of careers.  
     Many of the smaller universities—regional branches of state universities, mainly—are beginning to shrink their liberal arts offerings in exchange for program development that more directly prepares students for careers in areas where there is strong demand, such as information technology, or nursing. Advocates of the liberal arts are crying foul, charging that these institutions are giving up on education and becoming vocational schools instead. But that is a subject for another blog entry. 

Sunday, March 31, 2019

The wind song of the Earth in ancient Chinese thought

Recently I took part in a roundtable on Music, Sound, and Nature in an Age of Environmental Degradation, at the New England Conservatory of Music, in Boston. I gave a short illustrated talk on the sound of climate change. I’d meant to offer the roundtable in the discussion that followed a quotation from the Tao, by Zhuangzi, which reveals the concept of earth song (as Thoreau called it), or the sounds of nature, as understood in early Chinese thought. I'd quoted this passage before, in a talk on "Thoreau and the Music of the Natural World" that was published in 2015 by Northeastern University. Thoreau was familiar with ancient Asian thought and may well have absorbed some of his ideas about the soundscape and the earth song from the Tao. Zhuangzi wrote, there, about the sounds of wind, the sounds of air, and of the breath; Thoreau was concerned with wind, echo, and the sounds of insects and animals, particularly birds, crickets, and amphibians. As some of the roundtable participants are following this blog, let me give the quotation here:

Zi-Qi said, ‘. . . You may have heard the notes of Man, but have not heard those of Earth; you may have heard the notes of Earth, but have not heard those of Heaven.' Zi-You said, 'I venture to ask from you a description of all these.' The reply was, 'When the breath of the Great Mass [of nature] comes strongly, it is called Wind. Sometimes it does not come so; but when it does, then from a myriad apertures there issues its excited noise; —have you not heard it in a prolonged gale? Take the projecting bluff of a mountain forest; —in the great trees, a hundred spans round, the apertures and cavities are like the nostrils, or the mouth, or the ears; now square, now round like a cup or a mortar; here like a wet footprint, and there like a large puddle. (The sounds issuing from them are like) those of fretted water, of the arrowy whizz, of the stern command, of the inhaling of the breath, of the shout, of the gruff note, of the deep wail, of the sad and piping note. The first notes are slight, and those that follow deeper, but in harmony with them. Gentle winds produce a small response; violent winds a great one. When the fierce gusts have passed away, all the apertures are empty (and still); — have you not seen this in the bending and quivering of the branches and leaves?' Zi-You said, 'The notes of Earth then are simply those which come from its myriad apertures; and the notes of Man may just be compared to those which (are brought from the tubes of) bamboo; —allow me to ask about the notes of Heaven.' Zi-Qi replied, 'When (the wind) blows, (the sounds from) the myriad apertures are different, and (its cessation) makes them stop of themselves. Both of these things arise from (the wind and the apertures) themselves: —should there be any other agency that excites them?’" —Zhuangzi, The Sacred Books of China: The Texts of Taoism, trans. James Legge (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1891), pp. 177-8.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Are Progressive Colleges Unsustainable?

       One of my recurring topics has been the cultural sustainability of the liberal arts at colleges and universities in the US. I’ve written about their transformation over the past 50 years from the collegial to corporate values and governance, how and why this occurred, and the dangers it poses to liberal arts education that nourishes intellectual curiosity and the free play of ideas at the expense, perhaps, of career goals. The head of the Board of Regents at my graduate alma mater, the University of Minnesota, once asked me why education in the humanities was so inefficient. I'd replied that intellectual curiosity requires time to explore and ponder ideas. A curious mind is going to follow them here, and there, into barren ground and back to fertile fields where they can grow. Ideas don't live well when they're gulped down and regurgitated back up, and out, on tests. Now comes news that one of the few colleges that’s retained collegial, horizontal governance and an exploratory atmosphere, Hampshire College, is in serious financial trouble. They’re looking either to close the college or to partner with another, more financially stable institution—although how that partnership would work is uncertain.
       Hampshire is of special interest to me because it’s one of the Five Colleges in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts: Amherst (my undergraduate alma mater), Smith, Mt. Holyoke, and the University of Massachusetts are the other four. Hampshire was founded in the middle of the 1960s, the year I graduated from Amherst; it opened in 1970 as an experimental, progressive college: no tenure for the faculty, an open curriculum, no grades for the students, and decisions made with input from all stakeholders—including students. Students and faculty worked together to design individual curricula for each student, suited to their intellectual interests and the faculty’s capabilities. Instead of grades, students received from their professors detailed evaluations of their demonstrated strengths, weaknesses, and overall performance in each class.
        A college like Hampshire—and there were others, many founded around the same time—appealed to students looking for something more participatory and less authoritarian, more experimental and less prescribed, while they spent four years immersed in a world of ideas and a close intensely social atmosphere. The lack of prescribed structure meant that some students floundered about for a while, looking to find out what truly interested them. Some knew they wanted a broad education that encompassed the arts, humanities, social sciences, and sciences; most tended to concentrate within only one of those four areas. Having followed where their curiosities led them, along the way developing their abilities to think, write, and converse critically, they were able to gain entrance to the best graduate and professional schools and to become lawyers, doctors, and professors; and they were able to succeed in the business world, if they wanted to, because in the highly participatory college atmosphere they’d developed superior social, communication, and thinking skills.
       In the 21st century Hampshire and similar colleges—one, for example, is in Maine, the College of the Atlantic, and several are in Vermont, Goddard College being the best known—have fallen victim to a dwindling pool of qualified applicants interested in this sort of education. Changes in the US economy, the shrinking of the middle class, the growth of income inequality, and a new instrumentalism that values career preparation at the college level, are some of the most important reasons. Financial mis-calculations by some of these colleges also have contributed to their plight.
       It's important to me that Hampshire be able to sustain itself. I admire their values and form of governance. I agree with the progressive ideals they embody in their curriculum. I wouldn’t want to teach there, for reasons that have to do with me, not them. Nonetheless I've felt close to Hampshire over the years. For one thing, it's in the town next to Amherst, where I spent my own undergraduate years; and I should add that some of the people I knew at Amherst College helped to found Hampshire and participated in its operation during its first decades. For another, the two children of a couple I've been friends with for more than 30 years went there and had the benefit of a good experimental education. For yet another, one of the students in the Brown doctoral program I led for 27 years has been teaching at Hampshire ever since she got her Brown PhD. And another reason is that when I was a visiting professor at Amherst some 25 years ago, some of the most interesting students in my classes were from Hampshire. The “five college” arrangement encouraged students to take courses at any of the five colleges, especially those that weren’t offered at their home college. Many more students signed up for my classes than Amherst would officially permit, but along with a few from Smith and Holyoke and a majority from Amherst I admitted several from Hampshire officially, and several more unofficially.
       The occasion for this blog entry—I’ve gotten around to it at last—was an article that appeared in the March 4 New York Times, by one of its education reporters, Anemona Hartocolis, whose name suggests a flower. Students, she reported, have been occupying the office of Hampshire’s president for the past five weeks. That is a long time for a student sit-in. They're of a mind that the college administration hasn't done enough to prevent the looming financial disaster. The college doesn't have much of an endowment to carry it through hard times, and it's dependent chiefly on tuition income. Evidently only 75 of their applicants for next year's freshman class were able to meet the admission standards; normal class size is around 300. Given the current turmoil, it's hard to see how they'd be able in good conscience to admit anyone. 
        Hartocolis contextualizes Hampshire’s problems by looking at the difficulties other “alternative” colleges are facing, and offers a few reasons of her own for those problems: high tuition (although many students are on scholarship); a dwindling college-age population; competition among too many progressive colleges for too few interested students; small endowments because the graduates of these colleges tend not to be attracted to high-paying jobs; and so on. Some colleges that were progressive in the 1970s, like Sarah Lawrence in the Bronx, have become conventional today, emphasizing STEM courses, and where once they were like Hampshire in not giving letter grades, today they most certainly do. Not being able to admit a full class to Hampshire would, I think, result in a death spiral unless they can find a partner school—but on what terms? How could they keep their residential arrangements, their faculty, their participatory government, their democratic curricula, and the close, in-person nature of their daily education if they partnered with another school? And how could they find enough money to keep going without changing their nature beyond recognition?
        It seems, in other words, as if this particular progressive model for liberal arts education is unsustainable in the US in the 21st century. And yet what the current moment needs more than anything is a well-educated citizenry to become high-information voters and to choose our leaders and policies rationally based on facts and truths, not propaganda and lies. And this is precisely what liberal arts education encourages, and what experimental colleges like Hampshire, when they succeed, are able to accomplish. Hampshire’s horizontal governance shows what democracy can be like at its best (and also, be it said, at its most demanding, and annoying).
Some students and faculty at Sterling College, Vermont, 2018
     Are there other models that might succeed where Hampshire is having such difficulty? I've mentioned the College of the Atlantic, which has a curricular focus and strengths in environmental science and the environmental humanities. On a much smaller scale, the environmental college in Vermont that I wrote about, Sterling College, appears to be succeeding, with a similar focus. Possibly a focus such as the environment, which of course is timely and could be viewed as career preparation for a life as a scientist, or for working in an environmental organization, will enable an experimental college to be resilient. At the same time, though, it's impossible for these colleges to offer the depth in the liberal arts curriculum that Hampshire has offered. Yet for now this may be the only kind of adaptive management that maintains resilience and the sustainability of the progressive educational model among small US colleges.  

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

Animal sounds and imaginative experience: the possibility of language

    With this entry I return to the kind of speculative "idea-dump" that characterized this research blog in its early days. The object is to put some ideas out there, half-formed, for rumination and contemplation, that they may develop into something further. For nearly a year I've been thinking, writing, and speaking about a phenomenological approach to animal sound communication. I'm in the revision stages of a 10,000-word article on that subject, for The Oxford Handbook of Phenomenological Ethnomusicology. I've also been researching animal sound communication for several years from two other standpoints: behavioral ecology (the dominant approach taken by Western science) and indigenous ecological knowledges, where animals and their relations with one another, with humans, and with their environments are conceived variously and differently. A phenomenological approach did not appear promising at first, but phenomenologies of embodiment and perception have opened up a number of possibilities. Recently I've been thinking about the possibility that instead of conceiving that animals "communicate" (in sound and in other ways), their language may be connotative as well as denotative, and if so, it may be that their responses are not merely reactions to stimuli, but far more complex in the sense that they experience, in their own ways, the world as it is evoked in animal language. Here is what I've been thinking; my apologies to readers if it is obscure. Much of it remains inchoate. 
     It follows from von Uexküll’s conception of umwelt that animals have experiences in their own embodied ways. For that reason, it’s possible to entertain the possibility that animal sounds don’t offer merely signals that stimulate responses, but also the possibility of experiences in a way appropriate to the animal. Human language, of course, offers experiences to humans; but I don’t mean to imply that they are translatable to the experiences of animals. And yet, there may be similarities.
     Human language invites readers or listeners to experience the world described and evoked in the language. By language I mean more than words; I mean gestures, attitudes, dispositions, prior knowledge and understanding, anticipated futures, and everything else that offers an experience of language as it occurs in the present. The language of literature, particularly story, offers perhaps the richest invitation to experience. But so does the language of the law address the imagination, and so does any language that is connotative as well as denotative, any language that is the least bit metaphorical—even the language of science. 
     Behavioral ecologists, of course, resist this possibility. Animal language for the behaviorist consists of signals that may or may not transmit information, but which nevertheless influence or manipulate the receiver to respond in some way—a physical response, movement of some kind in most cases. 
     But if we follow von Uexküll, and Merleau-Ponty (animal embodiment and consciousness), and Gibson’s concept of affordances, we may entertain the possibility that animal communication is not merely signal and response, as if it were a mechanical system, but that it is more complex—it is language which invites animal experience. For example, whereas an alarm call might provoke an automatic “fight or flight” response, a mating birdsong might evoke, in the listening bird’s brain, a cognitive simulation of any number of possibilities involving what it would be like to be a mate with this bird. In other words, the listening bird would “imagine,” as it were, acts of companionship. I realize that this line of reasoning risks anthropomorphism, and that is why except for the word “imagine” (in scare quotes) I have tried to avoid humanizing; but the fact is that we cannot avoid thinking about animal behavior in human terms. Even the behavioral ecologists do not avoid it: a good example is the way they apply game theory and cost/benefit analysis to predict animal behavior, for games, play, and cost/benefit are human concepts. 

Friday, December 28, 2018

Should ethnomusicologists be pundits?

Steve Sack, in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Should ethnomusicologists be public commentators? This question generated one of the roundtables I participated in during the Society for Ethnomusicology’s annual conference last month, in Albuquerque. The roundtable’s organizer had written some op-eds for national newspapers including the New York Times, concerning music and nationalism. For one of the op-eds earlier this year, the newspaper had identified him as an ethnomusicologist—previously he had been ID’d as a professor at a university and director of an area studies program—and the responses to his op-ed on line questioned whether ethnomusicologists had any business commenting on public policy. The gist of the negative comments was that he should stick to the subject of music. Would the negative comments have surfaced in response to my colleague’s op-ed had he been identified as a historian or a specialist in political science, a sociologist or a specialist in ethnic studies? Possibly not; but those readers took a rather narrow view of music's place in human life.
     Instead of sticking to the subject of music, my colleague--incidentally, a professor who'd studied with me and gotten his degree at Brown--went on to write more op-eds and to organize this roundtable on the subject of ethnomusicologists, advocacy, and expertise—where does it lie, and what should ethnomusicologist be doing in the public arena, now? A few of the participants took the opportunity to offer autobiographical presentations about their increased participation in politics, both inside and outside universities. I took a different tack, an overview of the Society for Ethnomusicology’s history with political participation, and a counter-argument to Stanley Fish’s book, Save the World on Your Own Time. Although I did mention this blog as an example of public commentary since 2008, I wanted to take a broader and longer view about ethnomusicologists in the political arena. 
     As individual citizens, ethnomusicologists have always participated in politics in their own ways and in their own nations, insofar as they’ve been free to do so. My colleagues’ passionate autobiographical presentations about their current activism exemplified something that some ethnomusicologists always have done. It’s fair to say that in today’s political climate more are taking an active role than before, although few are acting as public intellectuals or spokespersons by writing op-eds, maintaining blogs, and writing or speaking to a broad audience. As in most fields of knowledge production, ethnomusicologists write chiefly for our colleagues in the universities. There’s a sense in which our teaching is more public—we reach, over the years, a cross-section of the public simply by virtue of their presence in our classrooms—but in those classrooms we confine ourselves to our subjects; we do not advocate particular political positions in a partisan manner, and we do not propagandize our students.
     Fish, a professor who’s written numerous op-eds for the New York Times, agrees that professors should confine ourselves to our subjects, or academic disciplines; and that we should not, in our teaching, be political partisans and attempt to indoctrinate our students. Fish, writing eight years ago, believed that professors and universities have crossed the line into politics. No doubt he believes it even more strongly today. He does not share the anti-intellectualism of many conservatives who denigrate higher education, especially the liberal arts, and who wish for a more vocationally-oriented curriculum for colleges and universities. Nevertheless, he is emphatic that while as citizens we have every right to be political activists, we should keep activism out of the classroom and out of our professions as scholars. It follows that professional academic societies, such as the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM), ought also to stay out of politics.
     That’s what SEM did until about ten years ago. Since its inception in 1955, SEM’s objective has been to promote research and scholarly communication in the field of ethnomusicology, taking only an occasional political position vis-a-vis scholars detained and imprisoned by governments. In 2007, however, SEM issued a position statement condemning the use of music for the purpose of torture. SEM had, also, transformed itself in the 1990s into an organization that supported ethnomusicology as a profession and also supported ethnomusicologists—that is, SEM increasingly promoted the field among educators at all levels, K-12 and higher, and it considered part of its mission professional development of graduate students, something previously left to the faculty at their own universities, particularly their dissertation advisers—some of whom regularly did so, but others did not. What had been, in 1971 when I joined it, a group of scholars who came together at regional and international conferences and published a journal for the purpose of sharing research and advancing knowledge, had now become an institution devoted to sustaining the field itself. No doubt this is helpful at a time when the number of qualified ethnomusicologists is greater than the number of jobs in the field, yet I confess to a bit of nostalgia for the old days when more of the informal conversations at these conferences was about ideas than careers. 
     In addition to his views that professors should “do their jobs” (teach their disciplines and do research in their fields) and “not do someone else’s job” (that is, don’t do anything else as teachers, such as promote political activism in the classroom), Fish believes that professors should “not let anyone else do their jobs.” But this is why professors become activists—that is, when people other than professors tell them how to do their jobs, and enforce those views by various means—redistributing budgets, hiring more part-time labor, encouraging vocational training, and so on. I have written here before of the threat to higher education in the transformation of the university from a collegial to a corporate institution, with a corresponding transformation in values among administrators, if not faculty. 
     But for the past two years, with a new politics of populism and anti-intellectualism ascendant and in control of state legislatures (which allocate money to state universities) and Congress (which allocates money to funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation, and whose political appointments to head these agencies change their direction), professors face a different and equally serious threat to the values of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. Which is to say, the academic professions face that threat; and increasingly, SEM and other academic societies (as well as universities themselves) are issuing position statements on political matters (such as DACA, immigration, minority rights, and so on), with the near-full support of their constituent memberships.
     This doesn’t answer, directly, the question about why a professor of ethnomusicology might be qualified as a political pundit. But that answer is simple. Ethnomusicologists’ expertise isn’t confined to music. We are also historians, anthropologists, sociologists: we study society, history, and culture. Some of us also have backgrounds in the sciences. We don’t just study the structure of music, or how to appreciate it, or how to perform it, although these things are important. We are concerned with music and sound not simply as structure or aesthetics or a craft, but as a way of life. And that requires understanding life as it is lived, not only in our home communities and nations but all over the world. 

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Sound of Wind on Mars


InSight Spacecraft with solar panels that vibrate in Martian winds
In 2016 the long-sought proof of gravitational waves arrived in the form of a cosmic sound, a “chirp” signaling the merging of two black holes 1.3 billion light years away from Earth. A couple of weeks ago, we were treated to the “sound” of wind on Mars. Wind moving across the InSight spacecraft’s solar panels caused fluctuations in pressure that vibrated the panels, and the vibrations were recorded on the spacecraft’s seismometer. These vibrations occurred at a low frequency, out of the range of most human hearing; but by shifting the frequency up an octave they could easily be heard. One of the scientists of the InSight project compared the panels to a flag waving in the wind, creating pressure oscillations that the ear hears as flapping. When I listened to it, however, it sounded like Earth wind noise recorded by a microphone—which doesn’t sound like wind as normally heard, at a distance, but as if close and blowing directly into and across the ear. Making the strange thus familiar is, oddly, comforting when one thinks about what it would be like to live in the Martian environment, with its atmosphere chiefly of carbon dioxide, as if eons ago the inhabitants of Mars were overcome by a “greenhouse effect” far worse than Earth’s—although if we keep burning fossil fuels while global warming releases other CO2 into the atmosphere we may be on our way to an irreversible Martian atmosphere eons hence.  

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Environmental Toxicity, Narrative Ecology, Perspectivism and a Sound Ecology: The 2018 AFS Conference

The annual conference of the American Folklore Society took place in Buffalo, New York last week. It is always good to connect and re-connect with folklorist friends and colleagues in person, especially now that I’ve fully retired and don’t see the students and my friends and colleagues at Brown on a daily basis anymore. Of course I connect via email, but the internet doesn’t provide anywhere near the same feeling of presence that in-person does. For folklorists this is felt especially strongly because one of the best definitions of folklore was Dan Ben-Amos’ in the 1970s as “artistic communication in small groups” that were present face-to-face. Besides, presence by means of sound plays a very important role in my developing theory of a sound ecology. 

I went to a number of presentations, especially those where folklore is shading over now into the environmental humanities, and activists are increasingly concerned with ecojustice. I was present at the founding meeting of the folklore and science section, a group of folklorists interested in the interface between the two areas. And I presented on a panel called “Sensate Worlds,” in which four of us in turn summarized our research in areas related to folklore and sense perception. 

Several panels were devoted to folklore, oral history and environmental toxicity. They took up the question I addressed in my Yoder Lecture last year; namely, how can folklorists, whose skills in interpreting life stories of so-called ordinary citizens have been well developed, contribute to society’s recognition and amelioration of the environmental damage that unfairly targets rural areas and disadvantaged populations? The flood waters from Hurricane Florence only weeks ago released many tons of toxic metals, including mercury, in the coal mining waste into the Cape Fear River. It’s been an open secret that the mining corporations that blast off the tops of mountains and the electric utilities that burn coal store this waste in vulnerable sites. The Obama Administration strengthened regulations of coal waste storage, but under the current Administration the EPA has relaxed these (and other) regulations, and the resulting harm was far worse than it otherwise might have been. One panelist addressed the environmental and human health impacts of fracking in eastern Ohio, through interviews with farmers whose land and water was poisoned. Stories like this have been in the news, but folklorist activists have long-term listening and policy-influencing skills in the public arena that journalists who report on fracking and other environmental impacts do not. It’s heartening to see folklorists move back, after decades of work inside academia adding to the storehouse of knowledge, and decades of work in the public sector celebrating the diversity of community folk arts, into the activism that characterized folklore in the US during the Great Depression of the 1930s. This activism fell victim to the mobilization for World War II and the fear of Nazism and Communism after the War, accompanied by a nativist turn, the HUAC hearings, and a retreat among folklorists to the safety of the ivory tower. Today’s nativism, however, is resulting in the feeling that this is not normal, and among folklorists as others who celebrate cultural diversity, it is a time to resist. 

The “Sensate Worlds” panel brought me together with Danille Patterson (who organized it as part of her folklore and science initiative), Mary Hufford, and John McDowell. All of us had participated in the groundbreaking folklore and environmental humanities panels that ran throughout an entire day at the meetings two years ago; and John was one of the organizers of the DERT (Diverse Environmental Research Team) group of folklorists, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists and ecomusicologists who got together in the spring of 2016 (I could not attend on account of knee surgery) and who will be bringing out a book edited by John and the other founders sometime next year, we hope. Mary has been pursuing several research projects simultaneously; she presented here on her “narrative ecology” project, linking it with the senses, phenomenology, and Merleau-Ponty’s “flesh of sensibility” theory. Like me, Mary is especially interested in the natural environment; and for more than 25 years she has been studying the ways people tell stores about environmental history and change as it impacts various named places, particularly in Appalachian West Virginia, with a time depth going back to pre-European contact. John’s presentation was both an acknowledgment and critique of de Castro’s perspectivism, a theory of New World native Americans’ ideas about the relations of humans with plants and animals that is far more sophisticated than anthropological theories of animism. As we increasingly recognize that we are in a post-human era, with a relation to the environment that can no longer be exploitative, indigenous perspectivism offers a possible pathway to a new and healthier relationship to nature. Is the Western world ready to learn from our Native brothers and sisters at last? Danille spoke about how the use of the senses (especially smell, and of course taste) was an integral part of cooking as revealed by cookbooks prior to the scientific revolution wtih recipes ushered in by Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School, where precise measurements and ingredients and directions largely supplanted the uses of the senses along with less precise indications of the amount of ingredients along with more general directions. This scientific revolution in cooking occurred in the late 1800s, and I believe it ushered in a trend that peaked in the mid-20th century with its gleamingly modern, clean kitchens and grade-school classes in home economics. My own presentation represented a small portion of my sound ecology project and asked whether a phenomenological approach to animal sound communication would yield information and insights. I described recent research in the field of ecological psychology, specifically the so-called phenomenological proposal theorizing direct social perception and direct perception empathy, and in the area of mirror neurons that, combined with a phenomenology of umwelt and affordances offered a way of thinking about the expressive culture of nonhuman animals in their own terms.

In one way or another, all four of us were working at the interfaces of folklore and science. It might not seem as if John’s work with perspectivism did so, but consider that indigenous ecological knowledge does what Western science does in offering an explanation of nature and a means of prediction and, to some extent, control. The inaugural meeting of the folklore and science section revealed quite a variety of interests, matching the four of ours and extending them in various directions. It will be exciting to see how this develops. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t close by mentioning a supper and reunion that I had with some of the graduates of Brown’s doctoral program in ethnomusicology: Cliff Murphy, now head of the Folk Arts Division of the National Endowment for the Arts; Bradley Hanson, now the Tennessee state folklorist; and Maureen Loughran, deputy director of the Center for Traditional Music and Dance, in Manhattan, New York. We spoke about old times at Brown, and about new concerns. Each of them has their PhD in ethnomusicology and each is working in the field of public folklore, where ethnomusicologists have contributed mightily since, well, the 1970s as far as I know. It was in 1976 when I had been teaching ethnomusicology for only two years (and folklore for five) that I worked as a public folklorist for the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife, in Washington, DC, in its bicentennial gala year when the Festival ran all summer long, with seven different performance stages and seven more interpretive stages showcasing and celebrating the expressive cultural diversity of the traditional folk arts in the United States along with their counterparts in other nations.  
Big Joe Williams and friend at 1976 Smithsonian FAF.
Photograph by Jeff Todd Titon
So, for example, there were music performances and crafts demonstrations from the Franco-American and Cajun communities side by side with the same from Quebec and from France. The synergy was something to behold. I couldn’t have had a finer introduction to the joys and problems of public folklore. In the next two decades I served as a consultant and panelist and site visitor for the Folk Arts Division of the National Endowment for the Arts, and when I began directing the PhD program in ethnomusicology at Brown, I could not—and didn’t want to—avoid introducing students to public folklore as well as to applied ethnomusicology along with their education in the more standard academic subjects of fieldwork, ethnography and musical analysis. It’s gratifying to know that some of our graduates—these three are by no means all—have found satisfying careers as ethnomusicologists working in the field of public folklore, while others have found more traditional careers as college and university professors.

Monday, September 24, 2018

Sound Baths and Sound Walks

Soundwalks are popular among ecomusicologists. Walking amidst any environment we pay attention to the sounds we hear while walking (or stopped to hear more closely a sound in a particular place). At some ecomusicology events and conferences, and in a growing number of college and university courses on sound, walkers accompany a leader on a nearby soundwalk during the first class, take mental notes only, and then right afterwards they talk about what they heard. Needless to say, the walkers listen to environmental sounds; if they are used to walking around with mp3 players and earphones on, they put these away. The leader usually has done the walk before and identified certain sounds at certain places where they may stop—water moving along a stream, the sound of an HVAC, places where they are likely to hear birds, traffic, airplane fly-overs, and so on, including relatively silent spots (if there are any). 
     Soundwalks usually combine indoor with outdoor places, but they may be taken anywhere. The main object is to increase one’s awareness of the surrounding soundscape. A secondary aim is to reflect a little about what those sounds may signify—how the sounds interact with one another (interference, blending, etc.), their impacts on all the creatures in the landscape and our well-being, and so on. Some soundwalkers bring along sound recorders and microphones, sometimes fairly elaborate ones, along with headphones, transforming the soundwalk experience into a less reflective experience. Some later create sound environmental compositions using what they recorded, along with synthesized sounds and music. But although these too are called soundwalks, their purposes are quite different from the kind of soundwalk I am writing about.
     A soundwalk is a deliberate ear-opening experience that leads to reflection. A sound bath is meant to be a healing experience. Sound baths have become commercialized, with any number of therapeutic benefits supposedly resulting. Predictably, they have become a fad. An internet search reveals articles with titles such as “I Tried a Sound Bath and Learned I Am Definitely Not a Sound Bath Kind of Girl,” with descriptions of sound bath emporia that make their activities appear like restorative yoga to “activate the chakra points” while listening to singing bowls, gongs, and so on. All very New Agey. Somewhere in the middle between soundwalks and sound baths fall the sound environment Apps which supposedly help put one to sleep or wake one up gently, or ones that encourage meditation. 
     Thoreau was the original model for my own soundwalks in the woods behind my house. As his journals reveal, he walked (or boated) nearly every afternoon in the woods and hills and meadows and streams and rivers around Concord, Massachusetts. Of course, a soundwalk needn’t last for several hours every day, as Thoreau’s did. On his walks he brought a notebook, and from time to time he would stop, think, perhaps meditate, and jot down a few words about what he saw and, also, what he heard. He sought certain sounds, like the wind in the wires of the telegraph lines that vibrated the air and the telegraph poles (to which he pressed his ear), or the sounds of the crickets, or the spring peepers, and especially the birds. Right now, as I write, I just heard the sound of a pileated woodpecker in a tree not far from the house. A pair have lived nearby all summer, as last. 
     Thoreau’s walks were deliberate attempts to keep his senses of sight, hearing, touch, smell, even taste, in good condition and in tune, so to speak, with nature. This was not merely restorative, but also a kind of necessary maintenance for body and soul. It wasn’t exercise. There were exercise fads in Thoreau’s day. Predictably, he thought it ridiculous to do exercises to build muscles and endurance when one might instead keep them in shape by daily walking, cutting wood, and so on—including work for a living (he earned money as a surveyor). Being in shape involved all the senses, and balance—something that sound bathers must understand—for well-being, and of course for personal sustainability. Ironically, Thoreau himself was predisposed genetically to tuberculosis, and he succumbed to it in middle age; but his soundwalks made a lot of sense (no pun intended) and were, I know, personally sustaining. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

Going to Graduate School in Ethnomusicology -- 2018 update

       Since 2015 when I first wrote this entry for anyone contemplating graduate school in ethnomusicology, I’ve heard from dozens of people with questions about their particular situations, and I’ve tried to answer as best I could. But what I wrote was meant as a general statement for prospective students—pros and cons, along with some advice. In the three years that have passed, I have not changed my mind, but I have learned a few things about my audience. So let me write a few things that I overlooked or didn’t emphasize enough in my earlier entries first, and then condense and update some of the things I wrote three years ago.
     Several people emailed me saying that they wanted to combine a life of musical performance with a life also spent thinking about it. I had written that this is difficult to do because there is not enough time in graduate school to maintain professional musical performance ability, let alone a career, while learning what is required in order to become a scholar, learn the theories and methods of ethnomusicology and related fields, and complete the dissertation (which requires research and a book-length piece of writing). Unless one already is a gifted, world-class performer I would say that this is impossible, but for the musician of truly outstanding talent it is possible, particularly if one's dissertation research centers on one’s native musical tradition. But only a tiny percentage of ethnomusicologists are this gifted, talented, and accomplished. 
     Several people wrote asking whether I thought that the academic job market for PhDs would continue to worsen, or if I thought that the market would go in cycles, poor now but better at some future date. The sage Yogi Berra is supposed to have told his ballclub that predictions are difficult, especially about the future. His team had finished in last place and some thought the team had nowhere to go but up; but in fact they could—and did—remain in the cellar. Anyone entering a PhD program now would want to know what the job prospects will be 6-10 years from now when they start looking for a position. I don’t think that the job market will change for the better until and unless some of the reasons why it’s been increasingly poor change; and I don’t foresee that happening anytime within the next ten years. The graduate schools still produce many more ethnomusicologists with PhDs every year than there are decent academic jobs for them. Only if they cut back the size of their programs, or if fewer people make it all the way through to the PhD, or both, will the supply become more in line with the demand—if the demand for ethnomusicology professors stays roughly the same. But will it? 
     Probably not. On one hand, for the past forty-five years the number of colleges and universities with ethnomusicologists on their faculties has increased. The typical top and second-tier college now has one ethnomusicologist, while similar universities have at least one—more if they offer graduate degrees involving ethnomusicology. It’s not unusual to find them at third-tier colleges and universities either. But on the other hand, the typical academic job available for ethnomusicologists, as for other professors, now is a part-time or adjunct job, with low pay, no benefits, and no job security. Forty-five years ago, even twenty-five, the typical academic job was a full-time, tenure-track position, with better pay, full healthcare and retirement benefits, and the promise of lifetime job security if one earned tenure. What now? I don’t think that the number of institutions hiring ethnomusicologists will grow at the same pace as in the past 45 years, while I do think that the percentage of part-time and adjunct positions will continue to increase, simply because hiring adjuncts and part-timers, or full-time lecturers (also with lower salaries and without job security) enables a college to distribute its resources more flexibly elsewhere, whether in facilities, athletics, student support systems, or in shrinking the number of faculty teaching unpopular majors and expanding in those areas where there is more student demand. It also puts more money into the pot for student scholarships, and helps the institution offset reductions in financial appropriations from state government and gifts from private donors in an uncertain economy. 
    As I wrote earlier, the chief motivation for graduate school in ethnomusicology (as in the other arts, humanities, and social sciences) today ought to be a love of learning and a desire to spend several years learning and mastering a body of knowledge. But what then? The graduates, if they don’t get jobs as professors, can, with luck, become public ethnomusicologists—that is, put their knowledge and skills to work for the public good, employed by NGOs, or client organizations (private corporations) involved with music. Or they may become what is known as an “independent scholar,” doing their research and writing in their spare time for the love of it while employed in some tangentially related, or completely unrelated job—like the classic case of the actor who drives a cab (or these days, an Uber)—and hoping that they may some day be able to find a position that encourages their scholarship.
     Overall, a bleak picture. But if one is absolutely determined to go to graduate school in ethnomusicology, what then should one do? Apply only to the graduate programs most suitable for your particular interests, with the professors whose work you most admire. Once in the program, work diligently towards an understanding of ethnomusicology, its history, its theories, methods, techniques. Support the work of your professors and fellow graduate students and they will support yours. Take your time to find an original problem to work on for the PhD, one that you will love working on (because you are going to be with it for a long time) and one that has both narrow appeal to specialists yet will also interest most every ethnomusicologist and a portion of the general public as well. Read as much as you can in related fields such as anthropology, folklore, history, sociology, philosophy, literary theory, and so on that bear on the original problem you’re working on. Talk with scholars in these fields. Borrow ideas (but always credit the source) for inspiration, but do original work. Be generous in acknowledging the work of others; learn the art of critique through suggesting how this or that argument could be better, rather than by tearing it apart or, worse, attacking the person along with the argument. But don’t make a habit of giving props to others at all times, or your praise will become meaningless or even suspect. Be reasonable. Try not to be cynical, even though at times it will be hard not to be. There is more that can be said; indeed, books have been written on navigating one’s way through graduate school, including establishing and maintaining relationships with dissertation advisers, and so on; but that’s enough for here, and now.
     Finally, the annual rankings of the national universities have been updated once again on the US News and World Report website. Those with PhD programs in ethnomusicology are the only ones relevant to this discussion. Find out all you can about the graduate ethnomusicology programs in advance. Read the Society for Ethnomusicology’s guide to programs in ethnomusicology, available on their website—even though some entries are outdated. Look for those with PhD programs. Read each ethnomusicology PhD program’s self-descriptions on their university’s websites. (Some of them name the degree as one in ethnomusicology, some say music, some say musicology, some in various combinations.) When you find a program that seems interesting, look at the kind of research that students and professors in the program are doing. Read some of the professors' writing and see if it excites you. Narrow the list down to the four graduate programs that interest you the most. Visit the programs if you can afford to do so; consider it a good investment. Speak with the professors and graduate students to learn what it is like to be there. Some lower-ranked universities have programs and professors that are more suitable for particular students on account of their special strengths and emphases within the field of ethnomusicology, because these strengths and emphases match up well with what the student wants to study. Among the top twenty ranked universities, nine have PhD programs in ethnomusicology. Some excellent programs also exist at lower-tier universities: for example, Virginia and Michigan (tied at 27), NYU and the University of California at Santa Barbara (tied at 30), Illinois (46), Washington (59), Florida State and Pittsburgh (tied at 70), SUNY at Stony Brook (80), and Indiana (89).