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.

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