Sustainable Music


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.