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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.