Sustainable Music


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ethnomusicology, cultural policy, and change

From time to time we hear predictions about the death of music. Of course, music is a hard-wired human activity, and like language, it is not in any danger of disappearing. What these predictions mean is that certain kinds of musical languages and practices as the author knows them are threatened. Predictions of the death of blues have come regularly almost since it first came to notice in the common culture during the 1920s. Predictions of the death of classical music have come regularly for hundreds of years. Neither has died; both have changed.

In the past century or so, formal music education and the institutions associated with it have exerted more and more influence on music as it is heard, known, understood, and practiced. Any exploration of music and sustainability needs to take these institutions and their influence into account. But it is a complex subject, worthy of far more reflection than can be published here.

My little corners of the educational institutions associated with music are called ethnomusicology and folklore. These are educational "disciplines," which does not mean that they enforce rules on their members, but rather that those who practice them more or less agree on their particular subject and method. Some years ago I wrote that I thought the subject of ethnomusicology was "the study of people making music, all over the world." That definition has gained wide acceptance within the discipline. This begs the question of how ethnomusicology studies its subject but the fact is that ethnomusicologists bring many methods--humanistic, anthropological, scientific, psychological, cognitive, philosophical, and so forth--to the study of people making music. Ethnomusicologists, in other words, use all the means that scholars employ to study people; and in addition, to study musical structure, we use the method of musical analysis, which to some outside the guild is unfamilar because of the way music is written.

Folkore, also, admits of similar methods. Academic folklorists regard it as the study of people's expressive culture, which involves artistic and aesthetic communication in small groups and in everyday life. Burt Feintuch's introduction to the volume, Eight Words for the Study of Expressive Culture, defines expressive culture as ". . . processes, emotions and ideas bound up in . . . forms and performances in everyday life."

This emphasis on everyday aesthetic experience is an evolved subject for folklore, for in the 18th and 19th centuries folklore's subject was "popular antiquities," and for most of the 20th century its subject was the study of oral tradition, as expressed by the "folk" in their songs, stories, and other verbal art, along with customs, pageants, and crafts (including vernacular architecture, painting, even farming). As the 20th century wore on, the term "folk" became problematic, looking, as it did, condescendingly toward a group of peasants or a proletariat characterized by functional illiteracy and marginality. Academic folklorists felt that our subject was disappearing; hence its reinvention, or revision, since the 1970s, into the performance of expressive culture.

The public, on the other hand, still regards folklore with some nostalgia as the quaint, the false, and the outmoded. Folklore as expressive culture has not gained any traction with the general public, and may never do so. Similarly, the general public wrongly thinks of ethnomusicology as the study of ethnic music. Of course, ethnomusicologists do study the music of ethnic groups, but that is limiting; ethnomusicologists also study the music of non-ethnic groups. As "ethnos" in ethnomusicology is from the Greek word for people, ethnomusicology is the study of people making music.

Folklore and ethnomusicology occupy very small spaces in the colleges, universities, schools of music, and music conservatories that are involved in activities sustaining music. We might generalize and say that while most of the educators in these institutions sustain music through teaching and practicing (composing and performing) it, folklorists and ethnomusicologists in the academy are at one remove from this, with a few of us thinking about how music is, has been, and can be, sustained--today usually through what is called cultural policy. Some also practice cultural policy; that is, some academic ethnomusicologists and folklorists are involved with agencies that make and apply cultural policy, and with communities that are the intended beneficiaries. Such ethnomusicologists are called applied ethnomusicologists; the thrust of this work is outside of the university, in the public sphere. Such folklorists are called public folklorists, for similar reasons. In fact, many applied ethnomusicologists, and most public folklorists, are employed outside of the academic world; they are culture workers, not professors. And so applied ethnomusicologists apply what they've learned from the study of people making music, to cultural policy involving music all over the world. Increasingly this cultural policy turns on sustainability.

Preservation, conservation, protection and safeguarding are often used to describe the aims of cultural policies meant to prevent threatened musics from becoming extinct. Usually these musics are called heritage, presumably giving them added value. What does it mean for a music to become extinct? Are we speaking of music cultures dying? Most often the alarm bell is raised over particular musical genres, such as blues, or categories of musical practice, such as classical music. But as I wrote above, these change. Music cultures effect genre changes; this is how music grows. Categories of musical practice are more difficult to sustain, as the music cultures that do the particular practice appear endangered.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The constitution of heritage

In 1993 I wrote the following about the blues revival of the 1960s: "Those of us who participated in the revival thought we had discovered an object called blues, which we then set out to think about, document, analyze, and in some cases, perform. Instead, by our interpretive acts, we constructed the very thing we thought we had found."* The same is true of music when it is sustained as cultural heritage. It's not new in 2008 to think about heritage as made, not found; but it is no less relevant now than it was in 1993. The paradox is that the heritage industry behaves as if heritage is discovered, not constructed; and then it sets about to construct (or constitute) a representation of what it supposes it has discovered.

A related post on this blog is "The paradox of authenticity."

*Jeff Todd Titon, "Reconstructing the Blues: Reflections on the 1960s Blues Revival," in Transforming Tradition, ed. Neil Rosenberg. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993, pp. 222-223.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Sustainability and Property Law

Returning from the annual Society for Ethnomusicology conference, I was struck again by the way the discourse over intangible cultural heritage (aka folklore) and cultural policy is still dominated by the question, "who owns culture?" Because most of the conference panels were devoted to professors and graduate students presenting their ethnographic-based research on a variety of music throughout the world, cultural policy was not a major theme; yet it was not absent, as many of the applied ethnomusicology panels and papers took it up in one form or another. My colleague Marc Perlman, who took a year off from teaching to attend law school, contrasted two approaches to intangible cultural heritage policy: stewardship and ownership. WIPO operates in the area of ownership (copyright law) whereas UNESCO takes more of a stewardship approach (in theory, at least). In my thinking on the subject I've been supportive of stewardship initiatives and skeptical of promoting ownership and property rights as a means toward sustainability. Yet there is no denying that without legal ownership of their cultural heritage, indigenous peoples have been/will be exploited for their music, medical knowledge, etc. Probably I've been too idealistic in avoiding thinking through ownership because I have misgivings about art as commodity. But sustainability thinking, I still believe, tilts towards stewardship. Considering ownership, I wrote in my essay for The World of Music that Emerson's poem "Hamatreya" reveals that the farmers whose names are on the Concord gravestones mistakenly thought they owned the land they worked. They had the deeds to it--for a time--but the poet observes from the names on the stones that the land owns them.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Special issue nears completion

Yesterday the last essay, Turino's, revised, came across my transom. Today after reading it I put a few finishing touches on my guest editor's introduction and by the end of this week I will have the special issue on music and sustainability off to the editor of The World of Music. Altogether it's a strong issue, with contributions in diverse areas of theory and practice. Turino's essay proposes four fields of music-making, including presentational (virtuoso performance before an audience) and participatory; Faux's essay is a case study of Don Roy's involvement with Franco-American music in Maine; Topp-Fargion proposes a newer, holistic way of thinking about sound archives and their relation to music-cultures; Wilcken describes how "payola" funds were diverted in New York State to support community music-making; DeWitt's essay is a case study of the Creole/Cajun music and dance scene in the San Francisco Bay area; and mine applies four principles of ecology to cultural management policy regarding music: diversity, limits to growth, connectedness, and stewardship. All are concerned with issues involving the sustainability of music in culture. The journal issue should be published sometime in 2009.

In the writing process, which has gone on now for more than two years, I've generated enough to fill a book, although it's not organized very well at this point. It's possible that I will move in that direction, as I see in outline how it could take shape; but there are areas where I need to do more reading and research--I'm not ready to write it yet, or to give up the topic either. And so this blog will continue.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

The paradox of authenticity

Although we are told that in the postmodern age no one believes in authenticity any more, evidence to the contrary is overwhelming. Intellectuals have shown (and most academics now believe) that authenticity is constructed by the observer, rather than inherent or intrinsic to the person or practice or object. But the general public is deaf to these discoveries; the majority still believe in authenticity, or its possibility; and many seek it. Entire musical industries are premised on it: early (classical) music, with its notion of historical accuracy; "alternative" musics of all sorts (alternative music is authentic because the musicians haven't sold out); and music that represents cultural heritage.

I wrote earlier that one of the three sustainability practices was the creation of heritage spaces, places where cultural heritage is represented, often to tourists. In this way it, or rather a representation of "it," is both preserved and given new life. Museums, festivals, historic buildings, even historic towns (Colonial Williamsburg, Old Sturbridge Village, Plimoth Plantation) are careful to represent "authentic" music, true to the period, repertoire and performance practice as close to the original as informed research makes possible. When the period is recent, older tradition-bearers who grew up learning this music in their families and communities are called on to perform this music in a heritage space, where it is always presented as authentic (true to its time and place, embodied in people who lived it, and may live it still). The implicit, and sometimes explicit, contrast is, again, between authentic music made for the community (i.e., folk arts) versus inauthentic music made for profit, or by people who do not belong to the community represented.

The paradox of authenticity is that for it to be "real" it cannot be represented. That is, as soon as something is represented to be authentic, it is staged and no longer authentic. It may (or may not) be a representation of something authentic; but that is not the same thing as music in its original form, unmediated to outsiders. The singer and guitarist B. B. King is represented, let us say, at a major folk festival, where he is introduced as someone who sang and played for years for black Americans on the "chit'lin'" circuit, and as someone whose standing in the blues community as an innovator, as a practitioner, and as an influence on those who came after him make him a master artist; these things authenticate him and his performance. But the onlooker does not see and hear an authentic performance in this heritage space. To see and hear an authentic B. B. King performance, one would have to go somewhere else, when the performance was not mediated, not self-conscious, not identified as heritage, but part of the ongoing dailiness of life in a black American culture that understood and appreciated B. B. King's music.

It so happens I saw and heard such a performance, in Atlanta, around 1960, when B.B. played at the 617 Club, at the corner of Ashby and Simpson. This was a club on the chit'lin' circuit. There was no mention of heritage, no attempt to authenticate anything. Any attempt to do so would have, paradoxically, inauthenticated it. But no one thought about it then, in that time, in that place, in that way. It did not need authentication: it was authentic. B.B.'s performance in that club was unmediated except for the announcer's introduction of "the king of the blues." At that time, with his music, the line between blues and jazz was not clearly drawn; the 617 Club presented B.B. one weekend and Ray Charles the next and the Modern Jazz Quartet after that. B.B. sang and played blues, leading a jazz combo with his guitar.

I have not been back to Atlanta in many years, except a couple of times when I was trapped in hotels downtown at conferences; I sometimes wonder what ever happened to the 617 Club. I imagine it must have folded in the late 1960s. I don't imagine it recreated as a heritage space, but if it were, and if B.B. King sang and played there, it wouldn't--couldn't--be the same. And that is the paradox of authenticity in a heritage space: what is presented as if it were authentic cannot possibly be so.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Introducing the Subject

For the past two weeks I have been drafting an introduction to a special issue of an academic journal devoted to music and sustainability. The special issue grew out of a group of papers that were presented in Honolulu at the annual conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology in 2006. My problem is that I've been working on this topic for so long that I've accumulated more ideas than can easily be organized in an introduction to it. This blog is helpful, but it remains difficult to put myself in the place of an ethnomusicologist who is new to this particular topic. How to connect this material with the common knowledge of the discipline of ethnomusicology is one issue. How to begin to explain the topic and its importance is another. My notes on the topic over the years have filled the equivalent of a book. It was Samuel Johnson who famously apologized (was it to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu?) that he had written too long a letter because he lacked the time to write a short one. But I must write a short one, and finish it soon.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The discourse of management

If music is to be sustained on a model of cultural heritage management based on ecosystem management, we had better examine what forms management takes. The discourse of management now recognizes that control is beyond possibility; it seeks to realize goals in a world of uncertainty, whether the manager is a conservationist, a corporate manager, or a manager of a baseball team. A manager is a strategist; when managing people, also a motivator and a coach.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The new conservation

The generation of scientific conservationists that came of age in the 1970s and the following decades responded to the growing environmental movement by proclaiming a new direction. From now on conservation would be based on ecology, which itself was undergoing a paradigm shift. Whereas for most of the twentieth century ecologists had subscribed to the view that nature, left to its own devices, moved toward equilibrium, as in the succession of forest species moving to a stable, climax forest, the new view posited that change, sometimes disturbing change, rather than equilibrium and stability, was nature's norm. In the face of this uncertainty, management rather than control was the best that could be hoped for.

The new movement was at first called conservation biology. Today it is called both conservation biology and conservation ecology. In trying to characterize their field, they distinguished it from earlier conservation practice. Where endangered, single species had been the focus of earlier conservation policy, now the emphasis would be on managing the ecosystem as a whole. Earlier conservationists had attempted to control nature, but conservation ecologists understood that control was impossible because nature was subject to uncertainty. The fact that some conservation control efforts had fallen victim to the law of unintended consequences and produced results that, while aiding certain species, had harmed others, was taken as a sign that policy needed flexibility in the face of uncertainty and changing conditions. Thus management, rather than control, was the aim, and thus the revolution led away from conservation of targeted endangered species and toward what was termed ecosystem management.

What, then, is ecosystem management? What is management? How does one manage without attempting to control?

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

The three practices

Cultural heritage management today practices three kinds of sustainability interventions: (1) proclamations, from institutions with high cultural authority, that certain traditions or tradition-bearers (i.e., people who are outstanding traditional singers, musicians, craftspersons, etc.) are "masterpieces" (the UNESCO term) of exceptional quality, deserving safeguarding; (2) construction of heritage spaces, such as festivals, interpretive centers, heritage trails, museums (particularly living history museums) and the like, where heritage is performed and interpreted for an audience, usually tourists; and (3) collaborations between culture workers and community members, particularly community scholars and tradition-bearers, with the goal of preserving, maintaining, and promoting heritage within those communities which possess it.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The four principles

Four principles derived from ecology and conservation biology will aid in working with music cultures as if they were ecosystems. These principles are (1) the adaptive importance of diversity; (2) interconnectedness; (3) limits to growth; (4) stewardship [as much a value as a principle].

Friday, May 23, 2008

Folkdeath and folklife

The earliest European folklorists were nostalgic for ruins and popular antiquities. As they roved the countryside viewing monuments and inquiring about the odd, old peasant customs, they realized these were in danger of being lost, even to memory when they had fallen from use. Noting them down, writing about them, drawing them, was a way of collecting and preserving the specimens. Material objects could be collected and stored, if not at home then in a building set aside for such a purpose, a museum, a historical society. The imminent disappearance of the artifact, custom, song, or tale came to be a necessary condition for folklore: if it wasn't near to vanishing (or vanished), it wasn't folklore. I call this nostalgic, romantic vision folkdeath. But inevitably the nineteenth-century European conservation movement affected folklorists. Was it possible to conserve folklore in its natural state? Was it possible to preserve, not by collecting and archiving, but by sustaining aspects of folklife within genuine folk cultural settings? Was it possible, in a kind of Frankenstein-like movement, to generate folklife from folkdeath?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Passing it on

Every society passes music along as part of its culture. People learn by hearing, watching, and imitating. In some societies learning is more formalized, through apprenticeship arrangements, and even more formalized through what we in the West know as music education, with teachers and students and a written system of notation. In this way music is sustained as part of the normal cultural work that people in families and communities and societies do in bringing up the next generation. And yet music, or rather certain kinds of music, are regarded as endangered, as the cultural resources and the ways of life that would normally pass it on are threatened, sometimes toward extinction. Just as languages have become extinct, so have musics. The argument is made that just as biodiversity is adaptationally advantageous for life on earth, so is biocultural diversity (and hence musical diversity). For that reason, music should be conserved. Conservation is one means toward sustainability. 

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The real early music

Ethnomusicologists a generation before me discredited evolutionary theories of music's origin, but acoustic ecology gives us new insights into this major question. The evolutionary theories were regarded as too speculative, theory without fact. Besides, the racist odor of cultural evolutionism and social darwinism hung over the project. Finding music's origins, and reconstructing an original musical language (following the spectacular success of linguistics, which had postulated a proto-Indo-European language) was the project that both constructed and doomed comparative musicology. As of the 1950s the successor discipline, ethnomusicology, had a different project: ethnographic studies of music-making among contemporary human groups, from which comparative analysis might proceed on a sounder basis at a later date. Twenty years later, ethnomusicologists in the United States had become more interested in how people experience music, and what music means to people, than in musical transcription and comparative analysis of structure and function. Only a very few ethnomusicologists were asking questions about music's origin in the 1970s and 1980s. Yet by the 1990s cognitive scientists were pursuing these questions, again by means of evolutionary theory, which was making a comeback. Conferencing with one another and publishing scholarly articles, out of which a few popular books have emerged, they have made it possible to be taken seriously when speculating on early music--the real early music. But in light of acoustic ecology, their pursuit appears too narrowly focused on music rather than on sound, too beholden to analogies between music and language, too Eurocentric, too human-centric. In this pursuit I find that it is more helpful to think in terms of the niche that human sounds occupy in the overall soundscape, and the acoustic interdependence of their sounds with the sounds of the natural world. A few ethnomusicologists--notably Steve Feld, Tony Seeger, and Marina Roseman--have pursued acoustic ecology among the Kaluli, Suya, and Temiar peoples. We can learn from them.

Monday, April 28, 2008


Analogous to landscape, soundscape refers to the acoustic environment in a particular place. As a landscape is seen, a soundscape is heard. The soundscape includes all the sounds, music or not. The rattling of a window by the wind, speech broadcast on the radio, the hum of a computer's hard drive, the whoosh of air moved by a fan, the sound of tapping on the keyboard--we are surrounded by sounds. An acoustic ecology embraces the entire soundscape, not just music. We may consider music as soundscape--this is not really new--or we may ask about music within the context of the soundscape. That is, we may think about music as one kind of creature utterance within a soundscape, the utterance of human creatures. Two ecological principles apply to natural (non-human) soundscapes: niche and interdependence. Examining sound spectrograms in places where no human sounds are present, Bernie Krause found patterns showing that the sounds made by various creatures occupy particular aural niches based on frequency, timbre, rhythm, and other structural features. In other words, every species has its particular bioacoustic niche. Further spectrogram examination revealed to Krause that in a healthy, wild habitat creatures vocalize in a symbiotic, or interdependent, relationship, sensitive also to non-creature sounds such as made by wind, water, rain, thunder, and other elements of the acoustic environment. The health and sustainability of a soundscape is revealed by the variety of aural niches and the degree of interdependence of the individual voices. Where is music in the soundscape?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

How to think about music

Attempts to answer the question "what is music" land us in an essentialist swamp, for music is both sound and cultural product, with the notions of what music "is" and "is not" varying from one human and one group to another. Although ethnomusicologists a generation ago discredited evolutionary thinking about music, today scientists, philosophers and aestheticians have returned to the questions of music's origins and meanings with a vengeance. Did musical sound precede language, or vice versa, or did they emerge simultaneously, perhaps from a common ancestor? Is music (without words) a kind of primitive language of the emotions? Is it a language at all? Does musical sound have something like a vocabulary and a grammar; is it rule-governed? How does music communicate? What does music mean? How does music mean? Why assume universal answers to these questions when music is so culture-specific? Ecological thinking leads us in a different direction: how do people experience musical sound within an overarching soundsphere? What is the acoustic ecology of musical sound in various personal and group spaces?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Music as resource?

Thinking about sustainability usually involves resources. Insofar as sustainability refers to a process that can continue indefinitely, renewable resources help sustain those processes. Sustainable forestry, for example, is based on human interventions that maintain a stable forest ecosystem conducive to harvest and regrowth. Is it useful to think of music as a renewable resource?  

Friday, April 11, 2008


Welcome to "sustainable music." The term "sustainable" has been doing a lot of heavy lifting lately. We hear of sustainable energy, sustainable agriculture, sustainable forestry, even sustainable clothing. Everyone seems to want to live a sustainable life. We are concerned about global warming, aka climate change. Sustainable means so many things these days that some claim that no one knows any longer what it really means. In my view, that is the mark of a powerful idea: that it does mean many things. Here I explore sustainable in relation to music.

When I speak to colleagues in ethnomusicology, I speak in academic language. It is the language of the university world. And so in this research blog I theorize various ways that music can be thought about as a human biocultural resource. In a nutshell, I will critique the currently prevailing sustainability strategies aimed at encouraging musical diversity by embracing economies through commodified products. Instead, I favor community partnerships encouraging collaborative, small-scale, amateur, face-to-face music-making without mediation or display. I believe that insights from applied ecology and from organic gardening will help in thinking about music and sustainability.

I have been thinking about "worlds of music" as music-based cultural ecosystems since 1984 when I introduced the idea in the book, Worlds of Music (New York: Schirmer Books, 1984, p. 9): "Each world [of music] can be regarded as an ecological system, with the forces that combine to make up the music-culture . . . in a dynamic equilibrium." In saying so, I was implicitly drawing on my understanding of ecosystem science as developed by Howard Odum, whose book Fundamentals of Ecology (1953 and subsequent editions) was important to me as an undergraduate in the 1960s. There, Odum developed Arthur Tansley's taxonomic understanding of ecosystems into a dynamic model centered on energy exchanges. Music exchanges are at the center of music-culture ecosystems.

Although much of my activities over the years as a folklorist and ethnomusicologist have involved music and sustainability, I began to try to theorize it more systematically a few years ago, writing and lecturing on the subject beginning with the Nettl Lecture at the University of Illinois in the spring of 2006, and then organizing a panel on music and sustainability for the annual conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology in that same year. I also spoke about musical and cultural sustainability at the American Folklore Society conference that year.

I will be posting to this blog various observations and ideas on music, sound and sustainability, some from past years, others going forward. Readers interested in the subject are invited to post comments and suggestions.