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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Documenting the Documentarian

I’d been thinking over whether to become a consultant on a film project, a documentary film about a folk music collector. It struck me as interesting that a film should be made to document someone whose work was documenting others’ music. Documenting the documentarian! One can imagine the production film made of the making of this film as well: three tiers for documentation!

Of course, documenting and then archiving in a private collection, public archives or museum has proved one of the time-honored ways of sustaining music sound, even though the goal was not preservation for sustainability but rather comphrension through classification, analysis, and comparison with other specimens. The re-patriation of sound documents from the 19th century is one of the cultural partnership success stories of the last couple of decades.

Serendipitously, Monday's morning radio news brought with it two more instances of document, which got me thinking about what a document may mean today. The first was an appreciative review of Bach’s cello sonatas, the story line featuring Pablo Casals’ discovery of the score in Barcelona in 1898. “Without the discovery of this document, Casals would never have been able to practice the music for twelve years and then bring Bach’s masterpiece to the world's attention,” the radio host said, while Casals’ 1939 recordings played in the background.

The second instance: the president of Iran, Mamoud Ahmadinejad, was confronted by ABC news interviewer Diane Sawyer with a document allegedly showing that his nation’s scientists were building a “trigger” for a nuclear weapon. Ahmadinejad refused to look at Sawyer's copy of the document, waving it away. "No, I don't want to see this kind of document," he said. "These are some fabricated papers issued by the American government."  [See http://abcnews.go.com/WN/diane-sawyers-exclusive-interview-mahmoud-ahmadinejad/story?id=9383487].

This was a special “moment of truth”: there was a document, presumably proving something, and the political official refused to acknowledge it—refused even to look at it, as if the act of examining it would have lent it a certain credibility. What strange powers a document is granted! Document, forgery, "see for yourself"—our Western culture habitually imbues a document with truth-power. In the postmodern age, the document is a special case of truth-claim. What is it?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bess Lomax Hawes

Bess Lomax Hawes, daughter of John Lomax and brother of Alan Lomax, passed away two days ago. She was a pioneer in American efforts at cultural sustainability. Many younger public folklorists may not realize that as director of NEA-Folk Arts, Bess Hawes was the driving force in establishing the network of state folklorists in the US, chiefly attached to state arts councils since the late 1970s. Shortly after I joined the Folk Arts panel in 1980, Bess began asking me why there wasn't a position for a state folklorist in Massachusetts. It wasn't long before Jane Beck and I were lobbying at the state arts council, telling them that the NEA would fund a position for a state folk arts coordinator for three years, and that when the arts council saw how valuable it would be to have one, they would surely pick up the funding from then on. The head of the arts council agreed, and why not? An added position, free for three years, with no obligations (or so she thought). Brilliant. And that is how the position that Maggie Holtzberg has now, with the Mass. Cultural Council, originated. The pattern had been established before Massachusetts, and it was repeated in state after state.


Besides this critical infrastructure work, without which public folklore in the US would have had a much diminished presence in the last 40 years, under Bess's direction NEA-Folk Arts pioneered in the efforts to aid communities develop and maintain their expressive culture (what UNESCO today terms intangible cultural heritage), giving grants totalling nearly $3 million annually during the 1980s. The current major efforts by UNESCO and WIPO to "safeguard traditional culture" can be seen as emanating in part from the pioneering US public folklore efforts of Bess Hawes--along with others such as her brother Alan, Archie Green (who also died this year), Ralph Rinzler, Joe Wilson, and Alan Jabbour who, if I'm not mistaken, preceded her as the director of NEA-Folk Arts before he left to become the director of the newly formed American Folklife Center. Unlike her brother Alan, she didn't seek the spotlight but worked behind the scenes to bring scores of folklorists and, later, ethnomusicologists in or out of the academy into the public arena. At the NEA she exercised her considerable charisma and was remarkably effective in bringing and keeping folk arts at the table. She was a steward over American folklife and her numerous "children" (public folklore workers for two decades and beyond). Her efforts, and those of Joe Wilson, angered some musical revivalists who felt that NEA-Folk Arts, and the NCTA, and the Smithsonian, exercised purist notions of authenticity in determining who should, and who should not, be recognized and funded as folk artists. To some, these purist notions are anachronistic in a postmodern world of diasporas, blurred genres, multiple identities, interpretive communities, and contested authenticities. To others, they remain a worthy ideal.


I'm sure that many of us who sat on the NEA-Folk Arts panels, or worked as public folklorists and ethnomusicologists over the years, have "Bess stories." One of the best known is the US map she kept in her office, showing every state. Whenever a folklorist got a job in one of those states, a colored push pin went into the location. She used to point to the map with great pride as the number of pins, and states, and public folklorists, increased. It was as if this gentle lady was mapping an occupying army moving into positions around the country. Another story has to do with her weight which followed her family's genetic pattern and increased over the years, causing her some consternation. I recall seeing her after she returned from a visit to one of the Pacific islands where with Folk Arts grant money a fine documentary cassette tape had been produced. She was very pleased to make it known to us that she had been honored as a "big" woman. At panel meetings she managed to keep mum and let the panelists discuss whether to fund the grant proposals, but it was obvious each time that she had a few personal favorites and also a few that she thought beyond the pale. Occasionally one of the panelists would champion a proposal that Bess thought was impossibly problematic, and if it appeared that other panelists were beginning to jump the tracks and head off in the same direction, Bess still wouldn't say a word, but she'd tilt her head and roll her eyes; and panelists would notice and--usually--go back on the rails. Most impressive, to me, was the person behind it all: the dignity of a grandmother; always working like a mother for her many children (her natural children and then her adopted ones--public folklorists and even a few ethnomusicologists); and inside, the high spirited, graceful young lady she had been--and still was. She had a great gift of making the path through the dark and thorny forest seem obvious, inevitable, and right--and fun.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Music, Sustainability, and Cultural Policy: China Lecture 3 Summary


In this lecture I discussed ways in which government and non-government agencies may apply lessons learned from sustainability thinking to public policy initiatives aimed at conserving and/or developing musical cultures and music. I examined two music cultures--the blues musical culture, and the musical culture of the Old Regular Baptists (a religious group)--in light of cultural policies and sustainability. In the blues music culture, governmental and non-governmental institutions have intervened to sustain different visions of blues music, and the result is tension over issues such as authenticity and aesthetics. In the music culture of the Old Regular Baptists, a combination of far-sighted community leaders and a small number of scholars have partnered with governmental and non-governmental institutions to institute cultural policies that seem to be working to help strengthen these musical cultures. Ironically, because this is a religious musical culture, there is less outside interest in intervention and more internal interest in preservation; the result is that with more direction from within, the musical culture has been better sustained. 


 

Sustainability and Music Education: China Lecture 2 Summary


In this lecture I considered education as a means of sustaining music. For the ethnomusicologist, music education is but one means societies use in order to transmit music and musical skills from one generation to the next. However, music education also involves, implicitly, ideas about what music is (and is not), what music is good, where music comes from, and what is the purpose or function of music. I reviewed the development of public and private music education in the United States, and also discussed the place of folk and world music in it.

The most basic means of sustaining music from one generation to the next is by either informal or formal teaching and learning. Different social groups transmit their music through different kinds of education. Within any large social group many kinds of music education take place. What can an ethnomusicologist contribute to the discussion of sustainability and music education? Historically music education in the United States, as elsewhere, shows differences and sometimes philosophical disagreement in three areas. The first area of difference involves the distinction between formal instruction with lessons and written musical notation in the schools versus informal learning that takes place in a family or neighborhood setting by imitation and oral tradition, usually without lessons and almost never with notation. 

The second area of disagreement, which takes place in colleges, universities, and conservatories, is the balance in the curriculum and the structure of the musical institution between, first, practical instruction in performing music; second, theoretical knowledge in the history of music and how music is designed and structured; and third, courses in music education below the university level (i.e., how to teach music to children aged 5-18). 

The third area, which takes place at all levels of formal learning, whether in elementary schools, junior high schools, high schools, colleges, universities, and conservatories, is the balance in the curriculum and the institution between Western art music and multicultural music, including folk music and world music. The United States sees itself as a multicultural nation but until fairly recently the dominant view among American scholars and the general public was that the United States was a united group of people who had melted their ethnicities in a large pot into a single culture with a single language (English) and a single set of values: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all. But in the last fifty years this view has been strongly challenged by American scholars who view the United States as various groups of people struggling with different languages, histories, ethnicities, and ways of life towards the ideals of liberty and justice that have not been achieved for all, and that when they are achieved each group will retain its ethnic, religious, linguistic, and musical cultures. This second view is the view held by most ethnomusicologists: it is a vision of integration without loss of identity in which world music appears as a powerful symbol of peace, justice, and conflict resolution among peoples within a nation and among nations in the world.
 





Sustainability and Music: China Lecture 1 Summary


In China I gave a series of three lectures on music and sustainability. In the first lecture I considered the advantages of bringing sustainability theory to bear on our thinking about people making music. Sustainability theory and practice in the West originated with the conservation and environmental movements, but in the last few decades it has moved into the economic realm. Thinking about music as a commodity means considering it from the standpoint of economic sustainability, property rights, and copyright law. Thinking about music ecologically means thinking of music as heritage and musical cultures as ecosystems in which people act as stewards or trustees caring for music in the present and planning for music in the future. Here is a summary of the first lecture. Most of these ideas will be familiar to readers of this blog.


Something which is sustainable is something that can continue indefinitely. A process such as agriculture, or commerce, or energy use, is considered sustainable when it meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future. Typically we think about sustainability when something appears endangered, like animals that have been hunted near to extinction, or the planet itself due to climate change. Anthropologists think in terms of the sustainability of traditional ways of life among native populations. At first glance it does not appear that music is endangered. People will likely make music until mankind itself becomes extinct. Yet when we consider that certain musics and musical cultures have become extinct, we realize that it is not music as a human resource that is endangered, but rather it is particular musical cultures and practices, which contribute to the diversity of the world’s musical resources that are endangered. It is to these musical cultures that sustainability applies.

Considering sustainability in its broadest context, ethnomusicologists have tried to sustain musical cultures in three ways. First, music and ethnographic data are recorded and placed in archives. This “salvage ethnomusicology” does not sustain the musical cultures but instead preserves the music as a dried flower is pressed between the pages of a book or a butterfly is pinned to a mount in a glass case. Second, ethnomusicologists have attempted to sustain musical cultures by displaying them at heritage sites, hoping that this will raise cultural pride and encourage the people to continue making music. However, what usually has happened is that the musical cultures construct a particular repertoire and style for the tourists at these heritage sites, often in response to the ethnomusicologists’ requirements of tradition and authenticity. Third, and most recently, ethnomusicologists have partnered with governmental and non-governmental agencies (NGOs) and with community leaders to try to sustain the musical cultures directly in their home communities, working together to discover common goals and methods. Often this means that ethnomusicologists need to look anew at the processes of innovation and change and their effect on tradition, so that while we can and should help the musical cultures to understand their histories and traditions, we do not assume that musical preservation means that the music must remain the same, as that would be a death sentence. Instead, a partnership in conservation rather than preservation has been the goal. For this, the term sustainability is better suited than the terms preservation or conservation. As an idea, sustainability has been around for a long time, but it was only in the 1980s that the word caught the attention of public policy makers.


The sustainability discourse thus far takes place chiefly in terms of resources involving ecology and economy. And so the rhetoric of sustainability has been employed by applied ethnomusicologists to promote and justify conserving endangered musics, an example of what UNESCO calls “intangible cultural heritage.” As a result, traditional music usually goes on display for cultural tourists, and the income generated is meant to sustain the local economy and the musical culture. Sometimes, though, identifying particular musics as masterpieces deserving safeguarding results in unintended negative consequences within the music culture itself, such as political conflicts over tradition versus innovation, or the development of a special show or display repertoire for tourists. I will discuss the effects of UNESCO's designating the Royal Ballet of Cambodia a masterpiece of intangible cultural heritage in this context. It seems to me that the display of heritage for cultural tourism is less likely to result in musical sustainability than partnerships between ethnomusicologists and local musical cultures to conserve music within those local communities directly.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sustainable Music in China

As I wrote earlier, I was invited to China, to deliver a series of lectures on music and sustainability, at the Central Conservatory of Music, in Beijing. I was there from Oct. 31 through Nov. 9, delivered three lectures (I will post summaries shortly), and had a chance to learn from Chinese colleagues something of the Chinese view on music and sustainability. Indeed, this is something they have thought about and done something about.

Perhaps one of the reasons the Chinese have implemented a cultural policy meant to preserve traditional music is that since the Chinese Revolution (1949) and particularly during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) traditional expressive culture was under threat from the government itself. One of the foci of the Cultural Revolution was the abolition of the "four olds": old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. Another possible reason is that in the reaction against the Cultural Revolution, tradition was revalued; certain musical traditions like that associated with the guqin (ku-chin) zither, an ancient music known since the time of Confucius, were singled out by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage. Unlike the US, China has signed the UNESCO treaty on ICH, so it has even more reason to endorse it.

To show me an example of Chinese cultural policy meant to preserve the heritage of traditional music, I was taken to Qujiaying village, where I witnessed a concert performance by the village music society. This is the full orchestra, consisting of percussion (drum and cymbals) and winds (reeded end-blown flutes, transverse flutes, and sheng (a traditional Chinese mouth organ; note the vertical tubes):


The tour group included our host, a group of visiting performers and scholars from New Zealand, some students from the Conservatory, and myself. Qujiaying music dates back to the late Yuan dynasty. It originated in Buddhist funeral ceremonies. According to the official literature that we were given, "experts [from the Chinese Art Academy] think Qujiaying classical music is of great artistic and precious cultural value. It enjoys the reputation of the living fossil and the Treasure of the Chinese Culture."

This is the Qujiaying village percussion ensemble (a subset of the orchestra) in concert. The music performed, I was told, was ancient and originally played at village funerals, and still is. Interestingly, there is a notation; and in the museum we saw some very old examples. The musicians do not play from notation, though. After visits from prominent international music scholars, beginning in 1986, to this village and its music, the Chinese government began to pay attention to their' accolades. They designated the music as Chinese national heritage and poured $2 million dollars into the village. A museum and a concert hall (temple) were built. Now the music is performed for visitors in the temple, as it was for us. There is plenty of money to secure a continuing supply of instruments. Master village musicians teach a younger generation. The continuation of the music is assured. In 2000, it was awarded the first prize in the contest to celebrate China's 50th national birthday. In 2006 it was listed in the Catalogue of World Cultural and Natural Heritage.

  video

Indeed, the music was wonderful. To hear an excerpt, click on the arrow in the picture just above. With the full orchestra, much was played in a free rhythm, with the winds in heterophonic unison. With the percussion ensemble, there was a definite pulse beat, and much repetition, and syncopation, leading to trance.

Our trip to and from Qujiaying village involved a police escort along the 2-lane highway, a patrol car with siren blaring, clearing a way for our bus to pass between the cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, and pedestrians. After the concert we had a delicious late lunch, with the governor of the district and, I was told, various Party officials. No visiting ethnomusicologist would ever have been treated like this in North America!

After we returned from the village, I heard some discussion of the music in terms of heritage. I had lectured only the day before on some of the problems with cultural tourism, and here I was--a cultural tourist experiencing musical heritage in China. Was the music the same in concert as at a funeral? Not precisely; some was strung together in a kind of "suite." It is compared, in the official literature, with Western music: "it includes 13 divertimentos. . . and the melody of the four season. It also has seven concerto grossos." I assume these comparisons are meant to enhance its prestige as a classical music, but in my view the music does not profit from this kind of uplift. I heard, also, some questions about exactly where the $2 million went. It looked to me as if the buildings would have taken it all, buildings plus instruments plus costumes and salaries for the musicians; but there were those who wondered whether some of the village businessmen had also gotten some of it. But on the whole if there was criticism, it was muted. I noted that there were no CDs of Qujiaying music for sale. No admissions charge. No commodification of the music at all. A handsomely produced booklet with many color photos and some text (including a page in English) was given to the visitors.

Many village officials were there during the concert. Some began talking loudly and their voices could be heard in the soft passages. It occurred to me that at funerals this conversation would have taken place. For them, the music might not have been remarkable. But in the concert setting, it interfered with the visitors' experience of the music. A few visitors scowled. Perhaps someone said something to one of the hosts. Then one or two of the hosts went to the back of the hall and hushed them.

As our visit came to a close, I sought out the head of the village music society and thanked him. His picture is at the left. He was too old, I imagined, to perform with the group; but I surmised that at one time he'd been a master musician. Now he led us on the museum tour and described the instruments. In the museum old instruments were in glass cases, labeled. On the walls were pictures, including photos of some of the visiting scholars who had come to the village since 1986. Many--most--of the people there had digital cameras and were using them often. I was told that some day our pictures might appear on the wall.


Thursday, October 29, 2009

An Ecological Approach to Cultural Sustainability, pt. 2

My first case study involves the folk culture that has grown up around fishing off the coast of East Penobscot Bay, Maine. Here the relation to the natural world is obvious, as fish are responsible for the culture’s livelihood. Not many years ago the groundfish diminished greatly in number, the result of overfishing. The fishing grounds are a commons, and the fishermen acted out its tragedy, with ever larger boats and larger catches. As my fishing friend Hap Collins said, “You can blow up a balloon only so big before it bursts.” Here as elsewhere in the Atlantic fishery the principle of limits to growth could not be more starkly demonstrated. More recently, with the global economic downturn, the price of lobster has plummeted, leaving many fishermen “underwater,” with their catch no longer paying the mortgage on their equipment. In response, the heavy hand of state and federal government has intervened to limit the catch and number of days that a fisherman can be on the water. This conservation method is meant to relieve the pressure on the fish so they can re-populate, but it also increases the pressure on the fishing culture, as now no one can make a living with short days. Ted Ames, a local fisherman, developed a different solution. He thought if he could find out where the fish spawning grounds were, then instead of limiting days on the water the spawning grounds could be declared off limits. Instead of trying to conduct a scientific survey, he went to the old-timers who had fished years ago and got oral histories about those places where all the young fish seemed to come from. The locations of the spawning habitat turned out to be relatively consistent down through the years. And so Ames has proposed, with some success, certain off-limits zones instead of short days. Ames’s oral histories are now safely archived at the Maine Folklife Center, by the way. If his idea proves successful, the folk culture of fishing off East Penobscot Bay may become viable once more. We folklorists who display the songs and crafts of this culture, who prize the stories that the crab-pickers tell one another, would do well to understand their interdependent relation to the local economy and the natural world, the importance of diversity in the fishery (not only groundfish but also lobsters, clams, and scallops, as well as seaweeds, sea urchins, and other wonders of the deep and not so deep), the lesson of unlimited growth, and the stewardship role that the fishermen are taking on by acting in their collective interest and avoiding the spawning grounds.

My second case study involves the folk culture of the Old Regular Baptists, a religious group known for their lined-out hymnody, who live in the mountains and river valleys of the Blue Ridge in central Appalachia, a natural ecosystem of great diversity in those areas that have not been destroyed by logging and mining. Those I know best live in southeastern Kentucky, and I will admit that I have been involved in presentation and display of their music, with cassettes and then CDs published on Folkways (though distributed mostly to Old Regular Baptists, at cost), and by presenting them festival appearances. But however satisfied they, and I, are to know that their music is undergoing renewal, the fact is that their folk culture remains fragile for a number of reasons: the small size of their population, the concentration in a relatively small geographic area, the dependence on old-fashioned religious beliefs and practices which do not appeal to the young, the difficulty in performing their expressive culture, whether the hymnody or the sung prayers or preaching, and most important, the economic dependence of the population on coal mining. It is chiefly a lack of diversity that appears to be the problem here, but it is not one that is easily solved. Indeed, one might argue that it is not a problem at all, but rather an intensifier of the folk culture as it acts to preserve itself in the face of adversity.

In the early 1990s I partnered with this group to help them transmit their music from one generation to the next, in response to a request from their leader; and I was able to get them a grant to support musical self-documentation so that they could record some of their endangered melodies—in this case, not only the hymn melodies but even more important, the lining tunes. However, their attachment to the natural world (God’s creation) in that particular place, is very strong, as is their attachment to that soundscape and their identification of it with that natural landscape. They often speak of them both—soundscape and landscape—as expressions of God that have a peculiar “drawing power” for them. If they move away as young adults to find better-paying work, they return to the home place late in middle age and join the churches of their foreparents. But many do not move away: they work in the mines. Or used to: today strip mining and mountaintop removal have introduced new efficiencies and thrown a lot of miners out of work. If five hundred workers are needed in an underground mine, only ninety workers are needed to effect mountaintop removal mining.

Of course, there is more to the biocultural relation between Old Regular Baptists and mountaintop removal than unemployment. Mountaintop removal is a most horrific form of ecological disturbance, as the first step removes all vegetation and topsoil, not only leaving the landscape unable to protect the nearby towns from flooding in heavy rains, but also killing off the rare and endangered species that characterize the diverse mountain ecology. After the mining process is done the land is reclaimed by returning topsoil and reseeding for vegetation, but the average length of time in which the landscape remains an open wound is ten years. I am not satisfied to have focused my cultural conservation efforts so narrowly upon the expressive culture of lined-out hymnody. Yes, I believe it is a cultural treasure—as they do, although it is even more important for them as a spiritual communion—but in continuing my work in the community I intend to pursue economic subjects as well. In truth many of them are ambivalent about mountaintop removal, as mining remains an important source of income. I have listened to them talk about this for some time; now I need to listen harder and see if I can understand where they are coming from, so as to learn where they may be wanting to go.

With the folk culture of the Old Regular Baptists, diversity plays an ambiguous role. They are not diverse but, paradoxically, this may intensify their cultural traditions. Indeed, in the last few decades some ecologists have questioned the adaptive value of diversity in certain cases. Tropical rain forests are very diverse but also very fragile. Certain ecosystems that have a dominant species such as a particular kind of grass, and which are not diverse, nevertheless seem relatively persistent and stable. The interconnectedness of the expressive culture to the landscape and soundscape is explicit and strong. Dependence on mining has been problematic over the course of the last hundred years, and appears to be even more so now, as mountaintop removal pushes the limits of growth to an extreme that threatens the entire biocultural community. Stewardship emerges in this community among their leaders, particularly the head of the Association of churches, Elwood Cornett, a thoughtful and intelligent community scholar who has led a musical and cultural renewal among them for the past twenty years or so, to the point where their church membership has increased steadily and the health of the religious folk culture appears far stronger than it was when I first began visiting them nearly twenty years ago.

To conclude, then, ecology and economy require marriage counseling, but there is no divorcing them: they too are interconnected. In fact they come from the same Greek root, oikos, meaning household. The early ecologists brought economy and ecology together when they spoke of “Nature’s economy,” by which they meant learning from Nature: an economics of sustainability that follows the path of the natural world: diverse, interconnected, appropriate in size, and looked after by humans who consider themselves caretakers, or stewards, not owners. Our efforts at cultural conservation result in better best practices when we think of sustainability in these terms rather than in the terms of the economists. Following this construction of nature we emphasize stewardship, not ownership; performance and community, not product and commodity; human rights, not property rights; and not only human rights but the rights of all living creatures. An ecology or an economy dependent on continuous growth must fail. This is what Emerson meant in his poem “Hamatreya” when he wrote the Earth Song. Here the earth speaks:


      The lawyer's deed
      
Ran sure
      
In tail
      
To them and to their heirs
      
Who shall succeed
      
Without fail
      
For evermore.


      
Here is the land,
      
Shaggy with wood,
      
With its old valley,
      
Mound, and flood.—
      
But the heritors—
      
Fled like the flood's foam;
      
The lawyer, and the laws,
      
And the kingdom,
      
Clean swept herefrom.
They called me theirs,

Who so controlled me;
      Yet every one
     
Wished to stay,
and is gone.
      
How am I theirs,
      
If they cannot hold me,
      
But I hold them?

[And now the poet speaks:]


When I heard the Earth-song,

I was no longer brave;

My avarice cooled

Like lust in the chill of the grave.

An Ecological Approach to Cultural Sustainability, pt. 1

I've neglected this blog for a couple of months on account of preparing for the new semester and then teaching. But music, culture, and sustainability have not been idle. I reproduce below a paper that I read in front of the annual conference of the American Folklore Society, on Oct. 24, only a few days ago. In a couple of days I fly to Beijing to deliver some invited lectures on music and sustainability to the musicology department of the Central Conservatory of Music. I'll have more to say about this trip as it goes. But now, here is a copy of my AFS paper:

[Paper delivered at the 2009 conference of the American Folklore Society, Boise, ID]

For several years I’ve been trying to think through ways that the discourse on sustainability might be brought helpfully to bear for folklorists and ethnomusicologists working in cultural conservation. Sustainability, if we think about it for a moment, operates chiefly in two realms: the environment and the economy. Of course, the two are closely linked, but there is a good deal of tension between those who are working to sustain the biosphere and those whose goal is sustainable economic development. Today, when even Monsanto claims to be all about sustainable agriculture, and when we have Wall Street bailouts while the U.S. unemployment rate is ten percent and rising, we can ask the question who and what is to be sustained.

Some of us interested in cultural conservation, or in safeguarding intangible cultural heritage as UNESCO has phrased it, have struggled with this tension between conservation and commerce. We promote cultural tourism at heritage sites, while our non-profit cultural conservation organizations engage in strategic planning and adopt a business mentality in order to thrive in the world of commerce. Some of us are uneasy with this business model in which folk cultures are displayed at festivals, in museums, interpretive centers, heritage sites, and so forth, and tourists are both educated and treated as consumers who walk away with product from the gift shops: CDs, folk art objects, that sort of thing. Advanced consumerism leads to connoisseurship and collections; some of the finest collections are bought by museums, which can be seen as model cultural consumers. We have faith that cultural tourism raises consciousness and promotes cultural conservation and renewal. As the Old Regular Baptists say of their faith, we have a “lively hope.” But some of us who decry global corporate capitalism remain uneasy with this tension between cultural conservation and commerce. Let’s explore some sources of that tension briefly now by contrasting the way sustainability works in the two worlds of ecology and economy.


Conservation ecologists target endangered species; they intervene through conservation to protect and sustain populations. Economists target resources; they intervene through development to manage sustainable economic growth. Conservation ecologists value diversity; economists value efficiency. Both are engaged in policy-making, but conservation ecologists proceed from the principle of human co-existence with the natural world, whereas economists consider the natural world in terms of resources for human welfare. Economists are driven to think of their world in terms of property, commodities and exchange, whereas conservation ecologists are filled with wonder and consider the natural world a gift. We could say that economists look forward to a world of prosperity while ecologists hope for a world of equilibrium with its connotations of justice and equity.

At the moment, the cultural conservation model that public folklorists employ tilts in the direction of the economists. The latest issue of NEA Arts arrived on my doorstep a few days ago, with its lead article entitled “The Business of Culture.” But what would it mean to tilt in the direction of conservation ecology instead? What would it mean for us in our cultural conservation efforts to follow nature’s economy? Nature’s economy values diversity for adaptation, and puts natural limits on growth as ecosystems move toward equilibrium; nature’s economy is built on the principle of interconnectedness, that everything in the ecosystem is connected to everything else, and that, to take a most famous example, the so-called butterfly effect, the flap of a butterfly’s wings in a park in China can transform the storm systems the following month over a city in North America. In addition to the principles of diversity, limits to growth, and interconnectedness, we add to nature’s economy the human equation of stewardship, or good caretaking, as a trustee acts in the interest of the trust, not him or herself. These four principles form the core of what we might learn by following nature’s economy.

I am returning in my recent work to an older way of thinking; twenty-five years ago in the first edition of Worlds of Music I asked readers to consider musical cultures as analogous to ecosystems, interconnected, with diversity advantageous for sustainable adaptation. Just as conservation ecologists look beyond targeted species to whole ecosystems, so those of us interested in cultural sustainability must look beyond expressive culture to the social, political, and most important, the economic aspects of the folk cultures we hope to help sustain. As the organic gardeners say, for the health of the plant look to the health of the soil. And beyond those aspects we must look at the ways in which these folk cultures interact with and are impacted by changes in the natural environment, as many of those we prize have been and are being marginalized by changes in the natural environment driven by economic desires, sometimes purely exploitative, sometimes exploitation cloaked in greenwash, and sometimes offered for sustainable development. When we put these expressive cultures on display we are offering little more than life support if we do not also work with the people in their communities, not only to conserve the expressive aspects of folk cultures, but also to confront the social, political, and economic props that keep these folk cultures going well or going badly. I turn now to two case studies illustrating these principles of nature’s economy in the world of cultural conservation. [continued in next entry]

Monday, August 3, 2009

Sandy Ives and the Maine Folklife Center

[The following, with a few minor alterations, was posted to PUBLORE this evening, the public sector folklorists' listserve.]

Sandy Ives was a great inspiration to so many and his loss is painful. Let me add my voice to the chorus and say that as his friend and colleague for more than thirty-five years I will miss him terribly. It was only a few weeks ago that I visited Sandy and Bobby at their home in Orono, and Sandy and I talked for two hours. It seemed like only five minutes. His mind was fine, his conversation even better. He was aware of the troubles that the dean of the college of arts and sciences was visiting on one of his legacies, the Maine Folklife Center, but we didn't talk about that. We talked as we always did about folklore, poetry, fieldwork, teaching, writing, music, people and tennis; and we discovered as we always did, time after time, that we had yet another favorite thing in common--this time it was Ezra Pound's ABC of Reading, and he took me right to it on his shelf. Afterwards I spoke with his wife Bobbie and she told me how much he'd enjoyed the visit. I tried to tell her how much I'd enjoyed it, too, but enjoyed is only a roundabout way here of talking about what we were doing, affirming friendship in the face of death. I know he had many more visits from friends in his last days and I'm sure it was the same.

As a part-time resident of the state of Maine for thirty years now, I've watched the Northeast Archives grow into the Maine Folklife Center, in some ways as the Archive of Folk Song grew into the American Folklife Center, combining a newer public folklore component with its ongoing archival holdings. For most of that time I've been on the Maine Folklife Center's advisory board; Sandy set it up to advise him as director, because it was clear to him that it was going to move in the direction of public folklore, while he himself was not--he would concentrate on his research and writing projects. Of course, Sandy had been one of the first folklorists to sit on the NEA Folk Arts Panel, and he knew and understood what public folklore was going to become, and he supported it; he just didn't want to spend his time directing a center, and so he found university money to hire a part-time associate director to run the show, and set up an advisory board to help with suggestions.

In the last twenty or so years what had once been a volunteer operation--the archives--grew into a Center with a faculty Director, an associate director, an archivist, and an administrative assistant. When Sandy retired and his successor was (wrongfully) denied tenure and the faculty position lost in a previous budget crisis by the anthropology department, the Center became vulnerable. A few short years later and in the current budget tsunami, what had grown to four positions attached to a thriving Center when Sandy retired have become one position (the director) who is now under orders to raise soft money or in another year the Center will have to close and the archives will be transferred to the library, although at what level of care is uncertain.

It was only a couple of weeks ago that the dean of the college of liberal arts and sciences, who was responsible for the budget cuts to the MFC staff positions in the first place, took the director (Pauleena MacDougall) along with advisory board members David Taylor and me around to meet the deans of research and of lifelong learning, in hopes that they might be better able to house and fund the MFC. We got no more commitment from them than from the dean of the college. As I understood it, the units in those divisions already were supported chiefly by soft money. The dean of the college had two weeks earlier told our advisory board that he had devised criteria for budget cutting: teaching, research, and service, in that order. He was surprised at the end of his application of those criteria that the MFC came out so badly. He considers the MFC primarily a service operation, apparently overlooking its research function (fifty years and nearly fifty volumes of the Northeast Folklore monograph publications series apparently does not count much, nor does the public folklore research that the MFC has been carrying out, nor do the current director's publications, which would be the envy of most assistant professors) and unaware of the irony that when the university eliminated the regular faculty position for a folklorist, it cut the teaching component back to a few folklore courses offered by adjuncts, chiefly as distance learning over the internet. It's a little as if you cut out someone's tongue and then ask them why they're having trouble speaking.

And so the bottom line is that the Center cannot continue to expect to receive staff salary funds from the University of Maine. If it is to survive there, it will have to do so on grants and donations. That is why those of us interested in its survival need to mobilize support. Grants, gifts, anything and everything. The advisory board has been working with Pauleena for weeks now on a letter to be sent to the AFS membership list; it should be in the mail shortly, with suggestions about whom to write, whom to call, and of course how to donate if you care to. Other fundraising efforts are underway, grant proposals, appeals to the Stephen and Tabitha King foundation, and so forth, but the Center needs a great deal more help if it is to survive. UMaine has had a fifty-year legacy of folklife study, teaching, and research, is the leading institution in folklore in northern New England, and is missing an opportunity to build on excellence. My university, Brown, as most universities do, build in those areas where we are already strong; squandering such an opportunity completely by eliminating the faculty position for a folklorist and then eviscerating the Maine Folklife Center on the grounds that it does not well serve the chief mission of the university--teaching--is mypoic at best.

Let me add one more thing. When the staff cuts were made known a few months ago I'd hoped that a concerted campaign with some influential Maine state legislators could put pressure to bear on the university to fund the MFC. I'd even hoped that there might be line items in the legislature's funding of the university system so that certain funds could be earmarked for the MFC. But we were told that there is no way for the state legislature to earmark funds for particular part of the university system; the university gets a lump sum and it is the university that decides how to spend it. The best thing that could be done, I think, is a grass-roots campaign that gets something like a bill written in the Maine state legislature as it was for the American Folklife Center. We need another Archie Green for this. In the meantime, individual state legislators can be reached to talk up the Center. It turns out that the representative for the university's district in Orono, Emily Kane, is the niece of the dean of the college who made the decision to cut the center staff down to one (and that one only for one more year), and who led Pauleena, David and me around to the deans of research and of lifelong learning in hopes of finding a home for the MFC there. After those meetings, he had us meet with the university librarian and the head of special collections and we discussed the situation with the archives, which are part of the MFC and not now a part of the university library. The librarian understood the importance of the archives, as did the head of special collections; but they noted that without additional funding from the university they would not be able to do much more than house the collection and provide access. To conserve and digitize the collection, to grow it as a living, working collection--this would require additional funding. The dean of the college asked Pauleena and the head of special collections to work on a budget and submit it to him. It remains to be seen where the funding will come from.

Sandy Ives and Mike Seeger

I've been thinking about Sandy Ives and Mike Seeger in tandem for the past couple of weeks. Both folkorists were in hospice care, waiting for the end; Sandy died Saturday and Mike's time isn't long. Each was attracted to folk music early on, and both recorded albums for Folkways in the 1950s. But since then their paths diverged.

Mike had a career as a musician, solo and with the New Lost City Ramblers, and as an independent folklorist who located, interviewed, learned music from, and in many cases produced record albums of traditional musicians who at one time had made commercial recordings: Maybelle Carter, Dock Boggs, Eck Robertson, and others, including Lesley Riddle who did not record commercially but who gave his songs to A.P. Carter of The Carter Family. Mike is a half-brother to folksinger Pete Seeger and a son of the musicologist Charles Seeger; therefore an uncle to the ethnomusicologist Tony Seeger. His path was different from theirs as well, one that took the music that he found into himself, and that resulted in performances for the general public, whether the concerts of the New Lost City Ramblers, or with Alice Gerrard, or the lecture-demonstrations such as the one he gave at my university a year and a half ago to help our string band celebrate its twentieth anniversary. Toward the end of his life he made a number of instructional videotapes in which he passed on his knowledge of traditional guitar and banjo playing, which was more than just skills and techniques: it was an approach to understanding the history of this music and its complex cultural background, particularly the interchange among black and white musicians that resulted in what we now call "old-time music" and identify chiefly with the roots music of the upland South from the minstrel era to about World War II.

Mike was, above all, a musician. He didn't write very much; writing must not have been nearly as natural an expression for him as music was. He wasn't a talker, either; he would converse with you but his words were plain, thoughtful, and few. (His half-brother Pete has these same tendencies, magnified.) As a musician he didn't strive for virtuosity, but he was a master musician nevertheless, on guitar, banjo, and fiddle; I'm sure he could also play the mandolin but I don't recall him doing so. He delved deeply into traditional musical styles, took them into his playing and was able to demonstrate them at a high level of competence and to show the important differences among musical techniques on the same instrument. Whereas many in the generations of musical revivalists since the 1950s have drifted restlessly from one ethnic musical tradition to another, moving (say) from old-time music to bluegrass to Irish traditional music and then to eastern European music, constantly searching for something new before plumbing the depths of what was at hand, Mike went deeper and deeper into one tradition, old-time music, to the point where he had, by dint of a lifelong combination of learning and playing, taken into himself something of the history of the development of that music, and could bring it out in performance, imagining himself into the musical persona of a rural Georgia fiddler in the 1920s, or a blackfaced minstrel banjo player of the 1850s, or an African American banjo player from the early 1800s.

Sandy Ives took the academic path, but it was not a conventional academic path. His first interest was literature, and he got a job in the English department at the University of Maine in the 1950s; but soon he was enrolled in the folklore PhD program at Indiana University and got his degree after a year of residence there. Back at UMaine he began to focus on teaching and researching and writing about folklore, notably concentrating on the oral traditions in song and story of the state of Maine and nearby Maritime Provinces. He focused on a few long-dead men who had left an important legacy in the oral traditions of poetry, music, and stories: Larry Gorman, Joe Scott, George Magoon and Wilbur Day; and he wrote books about all three of them based on his fieldwork with people who remembered these men, sang their songs and told stories about them. His books were published by academic presses, well reviewed, and loved by the folklorists who read them--not many, although when you think of the number of people he touched in his life as a professor for more than 40 years at UMaine, and as a fieldworker who was known throughout the state, his influence becomes far larger than what he was able to achieve through his books, though these books will be his lasting academic legacy, and I believe thatJoe Scott: The Woodsman-Songmaker is one of the most important books about traditional music written in the 20th century. In it he goes against his early training in literature (and mine, be it said) and makes a case, largely implicit, that the popular poetry of songwriters and poets like Joe Scott deserves the appreciation of the cultural historian, and that this popular poetry operates on the basis of a cultural aesthetic that deserves understanding on its own terms.

Sandy didn't continue to pursue a career as a folksinger, but he would gladly sing a song or tell a story in company, the way they used to do a hundred years ago; and he was good at it. His public lectures tended to deal with local Maine traditions, and he was a master of the kind of interpretation that I describe as the peeling of the onion, going deeper and deeper and revealing one layer of meaning beneath another, ever more satisfying to realize how much is there. He taught generations of students who will never forget him, he built up the folklife center at UMaine (now, ironically, endangered in the face of massive university budget cuts), and retired to complete several more book projects. In his few last years he was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease, and whether it was this or whatever else it was, it took a terrible physical toll as he was unable to take much nourishment and grew very frail. His mind may have lost the unimportant details of daily life--where did I put those keys?--but almost to the end he was still the wonderful conversationalist he always was, holding "high converse" with me about folklore, fishing, and the sport of tennis for a couple of hours when I visited him and his wife Bobbie in their home only a few weeks before he died.

Two different paths, but maybe not so different after all.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Music and the Sciences (3)

In her article seeking a rapprochement between ethnomusicologists and brain scientists, my colleague noted that the brain scientist practices reductionism when seeking explanations of human behavior in the chemical and physical activities in the brain, changes in brain states that take place in response to stimuli such as music. These can, to some degree, be measured: this musical sound produces this chemical and physical change in this part of the brain, and may lead to this kind of behavior. In principle it may someday be possible to determine with great accuracy how the matter that makes up human brains both produce and respond to music.

The discovery of the DNA double helix, and the subsequent research on the human genome, is of course an example of the great explanatory power of scientific reductionism, one that has great practical consequences for human life and health. But, as I wrote in my last post, a combination of reductionism and holism seems to be the best strategy for understanding how things work. Here is what I wrote in my response to my colleague’s article: “Consider something as common as driving an automobile. If you notice a strange sound coming from your car, it’s good to know how an automobile works because sometimes you can guess—or test—and figure out what’s wrong. (You wouldn’t take a super-natural explanation seriously here, but you can imagine a group of people who would.) Yet in order to drive we also need to know how to operate the car, we need to know the rules of the road, and at a higher level of organization we need to anticipate what other drivers may do and adjust our driving accordingly. We move among similar strategies when we “do” ethnomusicology. Transcribing and analyzing, we are reductive; in reasoning inductively from ethnographic evidence to arrive at questions about people making music we seek to be comprehensive.”*

How would one formulate holistic questions about music and the brain? These questions would be addressed to the relationship between music, one's consciousness, and one's embodied consciousness (i.e., the body). They take us into questions about the nature of subjectivity and consciousness. We feel as if we have consciousness, we act as if we do, and we have a name for actors who do not have consciousness: zombies. But what is consciousness? Can it be accounted for by explanations at the chemical and physical levels of the brain, or isn’t it rather something that operates at a higher level of organization? The philosopher Thomas Nagel is identified with this viewpoint. His clearest exposition of it came more than 20 years ago: “The subjective features of conscious mental processes—as opposed to their physical causes and effects—cannot be captured by the purified form of thought suitable for dealing with the physical world that underlies the appearances. Not only raw feels [sensations] but also intentional mental states—however objective their content—must be capable of manifesting themselves in subjective form to be in the mind it all.”**

Musical consciousness, in other words, or musicality, as it is sometimes called, cannot be understood fully through a reductionist strategy alone. But scientists are not bound to such a simplistic strategy. As I hinted at the end of my last post, holistic, higher-level organization thinking is what usually generates scientific inferences, ideas, and hypotheses in the first place; and a combination of the two characterizes conservation ecology, which has such profound implications for music and sustainability.


*Jeff Todd Titon, "Ecology, Phenomenology, and Biocultural Thinking," Ethnomusicology, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Fall, 2009), pp. 502-509.

**Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere. New York, Oxford University Press, 1986, p. 16.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Music and the Sciences (2)

I've titled this series music and the sciences, rather than music and science, because it is telling that we speak both of science as a whole and the sciences as individual parts. Science education usually proceeds one part at a time; we study physics, or we study chemistry, or we study biology, or we study one of the social sciences such as sociology or anthropology.

As I've written here, some conceive of ethnomusicology as a science; Alan Merriam, in discussing an anthropology of music, claimed that ethnomusicology was "sciencing about music" -- that is, studying music as a scientist would study a human phenomenon. Merriam's book, The Anthropology of Music (1964), a period piece now, was influential for a generation and remains today a clear manifesto for a particular kind of ethnomusicology.

Obviously, then, there is science and there are sciences; that is, while individual sciences are different, there is evidently something that all sciences have in common. Often it is said that while the various sciences differ in their subject matter, they share a common method. In other words, while physics is concerned with matter and motion, chemistry with substances and how they interact, and biology with the study of living organisms, all three share something called Scientific Method. In any good high school science course, scientific method is taught along with the subjects of the individual sciences. One learns that scientific method, always identified with controlled testing by means of experiments, consists of a cycle involving, roughly in this order, observation, inference, hypothesis, experimental design and procedure, measurement, results, conclusion--and then further observation, inference, modification of hypothesis, another experiment, and so forth.

Identifying scientific method with the experimental (laboratory) sciences places them at the core of "science" and places experiment at the center of scientific method. This is a move with consequences. First, the core or experimental sciences have become models of "real" or "hard" science--what science aspires to be and do. Those sciences in which conrolled laboratory experiments are difficult, if not impossible, move to the scientific periphery, and their conclusions, unable to be experimentally verified, are thought to be less certain. Second, within the culture of science, experiment is elevated.

The effect of this on the social sciences, where laboratory experiments are difficult, is to orient research in the direction of measurement and quantification, if not toward experiments themselves. Despite late twentieth-century attempts to elevate qualitative methods, the culture of "hard" science moves scientists in the direction of what can be observed, quantified, tested, and measured. College students who wish to study psychology in order to understand human behavior soon find themselves doing laboratory experiments with mice. The ordinary language we use to understand human motives and behavior, such as thinking, intending, wanting, feeling, is thought to be imprecise and therefore unscientific. Consciousness itself is reduced to and understood as the product of the actions of neurons and chemicals in the brain.

Elevating the experimental sciences and Scientific Method in this way generates a crude theory of reductionism. Biology is said to be based in chemistry, and chemistry in physics. Because the universe is composed solely of matter, we could understand everything in it if only we could predict the behavior of its smallest particles. Many high school and college students, whose education in science goes no further, and whose worldview is not based in religious faith, believe in some version of this scientific reductionism; and although they aren't aware of it daily, they continue to hold this belief throughout their adult lives.

But this is not the only way to think about science, and the sciences. Histories of science can turn on many more themes than the progress of experiment and reductionism. One interesting place to look is to the study of what used to be called "natural history." Museums of natural history still exist, a testimony to this older and more holistic way of conceiving of something now called biology.

Most important, a careful look at Scientific Method reveals that the scientist is always moving between the simplification of reductionism (in designing experiments) and the complexity of holism (in drawing inferences). In other words, a more accurate view of experimental science indicates that scientists employ comprehensive, or holistic, strategies as well as reductionist ones. In this way of thinking, the experiment is merely the means, the engineering of the idea that derives from the inference that yields the initial hypothesis. A most important question arises: how are scientific ideas, inferences, and hypotheses generated in the first place--that is, before experiments?

Monday, June 1, 2009

Music and the Sciences (1)

Toward the end of 2008, the editor of the Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology asked me if I would write a response, for the journal, of about 3000 words to a major essay by one of my colleagues, on science in ethnomusicology, to be published sometime this year in the journal itself along with the article and two other ethnomusicologists' responses. Although I was already over-committed in research and writing projects, this was the kind of invitation I wanted to accept, and I did so. During the spring much of my time, apart from teaching and various other professorial tasks, I spent thinking about the subject and writing my response.

My colleague's essay was more narrowly focused than the general question of the place of science in music, but that didn't prevent me from taking advantage of the opportunity to think more broadly about the topic. Of course, insofar as sustainability theory draws from conservation ecology, science is right in the thick of thinking about sustainability and music. But first, some background.

Although music is considered one of the arts, in terms of the way learning is divided up in colleges and universities, music may be studied scientifically, and over the centuries it has been regarded from a scientific perspective. In the nineteenth century the science of acoustics, or the physics of sound, was quite ambitious in its reach, more so than today, as it was working, in part, with the heritage of an older European (and before that, Greek) belief system that regarded the mathematics of musical intervals as one key with which to unlock the mysteries of order in the universe. Music was given a more important place in medieval education than today; it was one of the four paths of the knowledge called the quadrivium (four roads), along with the other three: arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy. Today, of course, the workings of the universe are explored through particle physics, while the older heritage is regarded as a kind of mysticism; but this does not prevent those who are partial to music from pursuing a path from music to more general knowledge.

The early ethnomusicologists, who called themselves comparative musicologists, applied science to the study of music in a variety of ways, using nineteenth-century models of scientific procedure. Taking their cues from the discipline of philology (what we would call comparative linguistics today), itself much in debt to Darwin's ideas concerning evolution, they asked questions about the origins and diffusion of music, and they sought to gather adequate scientific evidence in order to formulate and test hypotheses concerning music as a pan-human activity. Some of the early ethnomusicologists, such as Carl Stumpf, were trained as scientists; they came to music as a test case for the more general theories they were interested in. I hope to write more about Stumpf and music psychology in a later post.

In any event, as the twentieth century turned, many comparative musicologists singled out the phonograph (which could make recordings, not just play them back) as a scientific instrument that would permit a recording to be played back any number of times so that a trained transcriber could write down the tones in musical notation. The phonograph recording offered a movement in the direction of scientific objectivity, and experimental replicability, as more than one transcriber might have a go at rendering a musical performance in notation. The notation itself, easily read by a trained musician, came to stand for the musical object, one which could be (and was) subjected to description, classification, analysis, and comparison (with other genres, and with the products of other musical cultures). The comparative musicologists hoped for success along the lines of the philologists triumphs in terms of the description, comparison, and history of languages; but for a variety of reasons they were unable to duplicate the success of linguistics; and by the middle of the twentieth century, ethnomusicologists began turning to additional, more promising, and seemingly more interesting goals.

My colleague's paper was addressed to the question of what ethnomusicologists could learn from brain scientists, and vice-versa. That is, what can we learn from brain scientists about music and human behavior? It seems like a natural, and important question to ask; in fact, the general public is interested, and the success of popular books on the topic such as This Is Your Brain on Music, and the writings of the scientist Oliver Sacks, testifies to that interest. But, as my colleague pointed out, ethnomusicologists had largely abandoned this question in the last third of the twentieth century, for various reasons, as ethnomusicology increasingly began to employ the methods of the human sciences, taking what in anthropology has been called an "interpretive turn," away from analysis (which breaks a whole down into parts) and toward a more holistic approach based on the culture concept: music as culture, music as performance, music as identity, music as power, etc. The musical object had given way to the musical subject: no longer were musical transcriptions at the center, but instead the person (subject) making music was the focus of attention.

The Ethnomusicology editor had asked me, he said, to respond to my colleague's hope for a new, or at least, additional, direction for ethnomusicologists, because I had written before about this "interpretive turn" and because my own work exemplified it. I was invested in it. He thought (and may have hoped) that I would be skeptical about a new "scientific turn" but of course I could write whatever I wanted to on the subject. At the same time, he knew that since the 1970s I've also pursued science as a way of thinking about certain ethnomusicological questions, whether in developing a generative grammar of blues melody, or in pursuing ecology as a way of thinking about musical cultures and sustainability. He knew I was interested in considering both scientific and interpretive approaches to music; and he's right: I am.

Well then, what of this particular instance? In her essay my colleague wrote about an experiment that she did, in which she asked whether brain science could reveal something in common among religious ecstatics who fall into trance when involved with music, and those people she calls "deep listeners," those who, although not necessarily religious, are greatly affected by music, to the point where they seek peak musical experiences that result in such responses as chills and tears. For her, interest in science has been latent; her own "scientific turn" came a decade or so ago. But she found that, without scientific credentials, she could not get funding for the experiment, and ultimately was refused publication in the appropriate scientific journal. And so the editor of Ethnomusicology agreed to publish it, with an added call for a rapprochement between scientific and humanistic ethnomusicologists, and the responses from three of her colleagues. This special issue of the Journal will appear later in the current calendar year. More on all this in the next post.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Ecology, Economy, and Music

Donald Worster's book, Nature's Economy, introduced me to the history of ecological thought. I read it in the late 1970s in preparation for teaching an American studies course, "Ecology and History in America," team-taught with an anthropologist, a biologist, and a literary historian. At about that time I was forming my idea that musical cultures could be regarded as ecosystems, and wrote it into the first chapter of the first edition of Worlds of Music (1984), and each of the four subsequent editions (1992, 1996, 2001, 2009). In recent years I've come to see an opposition between ecology and economy, or at least a commodity-based economy; and it was in the back of my mind as I wrote yesterday about stage-readiness. What does thinking about an economy of nature yield? Worster didn't explore the phrase that lent the book it's title, but it is well worth looking into.

To formulate the problem as clearly as I can, then. Diversity, whether biological or cultural, has a clear advantage for adapting to changing circumstances. For the future, therefore, we should place a value on encouraging this diversity, which means conserving species and protecting habitat, whether biological or cultural. That is an ecological first principle, and it is a principle of equity, for diversity requires the survival of all, or as many as possible. But a consumer-driven, commodity-based economy tends toward specialization, professionalization and concentration of like products, whether in agriculture (monoculture instead of mixed farming), or industry, or art--or wealth, for that matter. Concentration is the opposite of diversity and is disadvantaged for adaptation and thus disadvantaged for sustainability, whether biological or cultural. Musical sustainability is well served, then, by diversity, and ill served by thinking of music as an economic commodity.

Economy comes from two Greek words: oikos (house) and nemein (manage). There are, of course, other kinds of economies besides global corporate capitalism, which is a generally accepted description of our current economic system. "Natural economy," or Naturalwirtschaft, was coined by German economists to describe a situation in which barter rather than the exchange of money characterized most transactions, and they attributed this economy to the European Middle Ages. Of course, a barter economy still places a commodity value on work and production; but barter requires the presence of owners to barter goods and services, whereas global capitalism operates impersonally. In a barter economy the lines of responsibility, legal and moral, are clearly traced to particular human beings. In an economy based on corporate capitalism, the owners are not held legally responsible for the corporation's activities. Government officials, while subject in their personal lives to the same laws as anyone else, are not held legally accountable for actions taken by the government.

The current economic crisis is a natural outcome of global corporate capitalism's need for continuous growth. Whereas ecology teaches us that there are limits to growth, our economic system is dependent on ever-accelerating growth. We are told we must spend our way out of this crisis. The gross national product must not continue to shrink. We must avoid deflation. The new idea is that we can grow the green economy. But continuous growth as conceived under current economic conditions, whether green or not, relies on leveraging capital and creates a house of cards, a giant Ponzi scheme that makes us all vulnerable.

I recall my puzzlement when as a child I was told that the bank I put my meagre savings in did not keep the money I had deposited. Instead, they loaned it out; indeed, they loaned more money than they had. How could that be? Only if everyone paid back their loans, I was told, which they are legally required to do. Now, of course, there is another kind of payback; some loans are considered "toxic" and people are "under water" with their payments: that is, their commodities, on which they owe money, are worth less than the money they owe. This is the outcome, every so often, of an economy predicated on continuous growth: boom and bust. As my friend Hap Collins said, "You can only blow up a ballon so big until it bursts."

There is another way to think of "nature's economy." What, as Wes Jackson would say, would it be like to model our economy after nature? Of course, that depends on how we view or construct nature's economy; but there is no natural economy without human beings, not now. We are in nature interactively; the question is how will we manage that interaction in the biocultural world. An economy based on diversity, limited growth, interconnectedness, and stewardship may be inefficient in the short term, but in the long term it is sustainable whereas the other is not. The same holds for music. Heritage tourism involving music, insofar as it commodifies the product, is implicated in the wrong kind of economy. Instead, sustainability of musical cultures requires, as I have stated before, the application of those four principles and the gradual replacement of the idea that music is a commodity with the notion that it is an act as natural as speaking or breathing.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Stage Readiness, Economics, and Diversity

In my previous post on stage readiness I referenced one of the axioms of musical sustainability: that just as biodiversity hedges species bets and aids adaptation, so a diversity of musical cultures possesses adaptational value. The greater the diversity, the better chance to adapt to changing circumstances. Heritage sites also value diversity, not for adaptational value, but on the grounds of cultural equity. Yet, as I showed in my previous post, the criterion of stage readiness works against diversity. Stage readiness belongs to the realm of economics, and arises from the idea that the tourists deserve a good show (even if, as is the case in some heritage sites, they don't have to pay for it.)

But just as local ecosystems are disturbed by economic development projects, so local musical cultures are impacted by heritage decisions driven by economic considerations. Such decisions place a cash value on musical exchanges among people. The people are led to think music is a commodity, even in those musical cultures that feature amateurs who make music "for the love of it" and who would prefer to think of music as a gift.

If the product of a musical exchange is sold and bought, if music is a commodity, its adaptational value diminishes. Professionalism, competition, and virtuosity become sought after. Participation among the general public diminishes. Instead of regarding music-making as a human activity like language, something that everyone does without thinking much about it, a commodity-driven musical culture views music as a specialized activity requiring talent. Instead of music as a reflex, an activity in the world as natural as breathing, music becomes a privilege and requires training.

But the commodified musical product, now bought and sold in the marketplace, is fragile. It requires protection under copyright law. It requires expensive gear. It divides people into classes: musicians, consumers, those who are indifferent, and those who are deemed non-musical. Deemed, damaged, and doomed. Adaptationally this is a disadvantage, clearly, when so much apparatus is required to support music-making, and when only a portion of the population is able to engage in it. Those who are directing efforts in musical sustainability would do well to consider these negative consequences of decisions based in economics rather than ecology.

Stage Readiness and Heritage

Heritage presentations at festivals, museums, and other interpretive centers require that traditional performers be "stage ready," which in heritage parlance means that they be able to satisfy the tourist audience. This requirement rules out certain tradition-bearers, of course: those who are not used to presenting their traditions to strangers from a stage. Indeed, entire musical traditions exist apart from stage presentations; to represent them as heritage is to transform them.

I heard the term "stage ready" -- not for the first time -- when I brought to the attention of festival programmers a certain Native American musician, a long-time acquaintance of mine, a community scholar and activist who is considered a tradition bearer within his own group. To me, the most important consideration was that Native Americans had been under-represented at this festival, considering their history and contemporary presence in the region. Riding the horse of cultural equity, I was comfortable making this argument to people I assumed had the same commitment. I was puzzled why, if they were committed to representing ethnic diversity, they had not included Native Americans; but I assumed it was because they didn't know how to approach them. Well, I knew a Native musician with impeccable credentials and thought that all I would need to do was bring him to their attention and the match would be made.

Not so fast. "Is he stage-ready?" I was asked. Later I learned that they had tried to arrange for his appearance at the festival some years ago, but he had unaccountably refused at the last minute. There was some kind of mis-communication. I thought I knew what it must have been: he didn't know the festival programmers, and he wasn't entirely comfortable with the situation. Trust borne of friendship was important to him, and there was no one there he could trust.

"Is he stage-ready?" The programmers surely must be aware, I thought, that Native Americans staged performances among themselves. Powwows were the most conspicuous example of public music and dance; these could easily be transported into this festival context. In a sense powwows were festivals already. But I could imagine the possibility that these programmers, even though they were aware of powwows, held a certain stereotype about Native Americans as relatively closed societies, or even that they would somehow be innocent of the kind of staged presentations typical of folk festivals and unable to translate their traditional song and dance to the folk festival context. Thus: "Is he stage-ready?"

In fact, he was stage-ready, and I said so. He had been presenting for colleges and universities and at folk festivals on and off for 25 years. He was a superb spokesperson to non-Native groups. But I hoped that if he performed at this festival he would attract a Native group and aim his presentation as much at them as at the non-Native audience. (This is, in fact, what transpired.) It turned out he was more than stage-ready. Later this year he and his musical partner will sing at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

But that's not the point. The point is what the criterion of stage-readiness does to heritage presentations in the service of musical and cultural sustainability. It prevents certain musicians and groups, some who do not perform or consider what they are doing as performance, from transferring their activities easily to the festival stage. Of course, there are those who can make this transition, and those who can do so without much compromise. I have seen it with Old Regular Baptist singers; I have even presented them at festivals. But there are many who cannot.

And so as a site encouraging musical sustainability, in somewhat mysterious fashion by representation from the stage, the heritage presentation favors certain kinds of musical cultures and works against others. To make an analogy with the older kinds of conservation efforts, it is as if certain species or populations are singled out for preservation while others, perhaps more endangered, are left to fend for themselves.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Cultural Sustainability

Inspired partly by the meeting last December at Goucher College where a group of us consulted on a proposed new M.A. degree in cultural sustainability, three of my colleages and I are proposing a panel on the subject for a conference next fall. I had thought, at first, to examine heritage from a sustainability standpoint, but I changed my mind to a more theory-oriented topic, in an attempt to think further through some of the issues involved in bringing conservation biology to the musical (and cultural) sustainability discourse. This is timely because I've also been asked to write an essay for Ethnomusicology in which I respond to an article which advocates for scientific approaches within ethnomusicology and gives an example of an experiment done on groups of music listeners. More on that soon. For now, here is the abstract that I proposed for the conference paper:

An Ecological Approach to Cultural Sustainability

Attention to four principles from conservation biology, namely diversity, limits to growth, interconnectivity, and stewardship, will lead cultural policymakers and participatory action researchers to better best practices in cultural sustainability. I will illustrate this thesis with observations drawn from my experiences with musical communities built around spirit and place (such as the old time string band revival and the Old Regular Baptists of southeastern Kentucky); and with ecological case studies (such as land use and misuse in the upland South, fishing and overfishing in eastern Penobscot Bay, Maine, and conventional versus organic farming and orcharding). I wish to move beyond the nature/culture dichotomy and towards a biocultural synthesis that would help culture workers understand the dynamics of expressive culture in human communities within the natural world.

Conservation biology provides scientific reasons for opposition to strip-mining and mountaintop removal in the upland South, in terms of the ecological disturbances and natural disasters that follow on; here principles of diversity and limits to growth obtain. The severe cutbacks in fish and of the fishery off the coast of New England are well known; not so well known are the stewardship efforts of local fishermen in eastern Penobscot Bay to utilize oral histories and determine spawning grounds, thereby to make a case for selectively opening certain fishing areas instead of closing them all off and the fishing industry with it. The organic farming motto—feed the soil, not the plant—metaphorically suggests ways in which cultural sustainability may come about through efforts to sustain the interconnected conditions under which expressive cultures flourish.

Located within the coal-mining regions of central Appalachia, Old Regular Baptists are relatively non-diverse in terms of place and the possible economies there, and also class, occupation, and age, making them more vulnerable to disturbances than a more diverse population would be; old-time string band revivalists are diverse geographically and occupationally, but not especially diverse in terms of age and class. The face-to-face communication necessary to the culture of both groups is not endangered by population growth but will be affected by the growth and change in media such as the internet. Interconnectivity is strong in both groups and is strengthened by institutions such as festivals and the ways of visiting. Stewardship coming from leaders within the groups has been important in conserving both the old-time music revival and Old Regular Baptist music and culture, but it is more centralized and thus vulnerable among Old Regular Baptists. Understanding how these four principles—diversity, limits to growth, interconnectedness, and stewardship—operate biologically and culturally offers hope for a biocultural synthesis that will enable culture workers to plan in partnership with indigenous groups to promote cultural sustainability.

Friday, February 6, 2009

What Is Music

"Music," for the ethnomusicologist, is humanly organized sound--which is to say that music is sound that people, any people, all people, organize, whether classical music composers or children singing while playing games on the street, whether an orchestra playing a Beethoven symphony or a group of BaAka women in Africa hocketing their voices.

"Music," for the philosopher, is taken to be classical music, the music of the European-American high art tradition. Other musics are not under consideration. In its finest expression classical music is taken to be music for its own sake, without external purpose. It pleases the senses and the intellect but it has no meaning apart from the way its structure unfolds, no usefulness except as an object of delight. Here I want to critique that argument further than I did in my last blog post.

In the past few decades a number of university professors with an interest in music and philosophy have taken up questions involving music and asethetics, publishing essays and books on the subject of what music "is" and how music "works." The first difficulty with their argument is that their musical examples are taken from a small and atypical kind of humanly organized sound, i.e., classical music only.

Peter Kivy will serve as a representative of these philosopher-aestheticians who write about music. In his book Music, Language, and Cognition (Oxford, 2007), Kivy, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University, takes pains to show that music is not a language. He writes: "Music is, indeed, language-like in certain respects. Nevertheless, it is not language; it is not a language or part of a language. And thinking it is any one of these things has caused a good deal of confusion" (p. 214).

To try to make his point, Kivy determines that he will "be solely concerned with absolute music--that is to say, pure instrumental music, without text, title, or program" (214). In narrowing his concerns to absolute music, Kivy ignores most popular music, most folk music, most music outside of Euro-American classical music, and even much music within the Euro-American canon, which is to say music with words, title, or program. Indeed, prior to the Baroque, most European classical music did carry words. This is like saying we are going to talk about human life on this planet, but we're only going to consider life in Chicago from 1800 to 1950; or that we're going to talk about vegetables, but we're only going to consider cucumbers. Such a narrowing disqualifies one from generalizing about vegetables, life on this planet, or music.

Further, we might ask what Kivy's word "pure" is contributing to his conception. For "pure" means uncontaminated, and the suggestion in Kivy's remark is that text, title, or program makes instrumental music impure or contaminated, a lesser object or experience than absolute music. "Pure" lets us know something about Kivy's prejudices underlying his program. We can find out more about his prejudices by attending to his phrase "exotic jangle" in the following sentence: "But if I am completely unacquainted with the music of southern India, and I am enjoying the exotic jangle of the instruments while eating a curry in an Indian restaurant, I am neither enjoying nor appreciating the music" (p. 217). True enough, but the "exotic jangle" gives Kivy's orientalism free play here. Kivy's ignorance is also on display: "Someone brought up in China understands Chinese music but not the music of Haydn or Mozart" (p. 215). Evidently he is unaware that in China, as in Japan, Western music (classical as well as popular) is pervasive, and he is uninformed about the great classical music conservatories in Beijing and elsewhere. An educated "someone brought up in China" would understand, as well as an educated Westerner, structure in the music of Haydn or Mozart. Kivy's musical blindness here follows from cultural blindness and ultimately from the decision to focus exclusively on "absolute music" in the Euro-American classical music tradition. "Absolute" is rightly trumped by "relative" in this case.

Kivy is particularly interested in what it means to understand music, and he equates understanding with appreciation and enjoyment as the composer intended (p. 217). This conclusion is debatable on a number of grounds. Equating the meaning of an art object or experience with what the artist intended places too rigid limits on meaning because artists aren't consciously aware of their full intentions. It also gives them, and not performers or listeners, sole authority over meaning. We don't accept that kind of authority from government spokespersons or advertisers; why should we cede it to composers? Of course, it's helpful to know what the composer intended. But that is all it is: what the composer intended. And just as what the advertiser intends isn't the meaning of the ad, so what the composer intends isn't the meaning of a musical performance. Besides, an interpretative community will interpret art according to its current interests, biases, and understandings, regardless of the artist's original intent. And what happens when it is the case that the music is not intended as an art object to be enjoyed and appreciated, but as something else--let us say, as an experience of the divine?

I'm perplexed that Kivy, and a number of other philosophers interested in music and aesthetics, pursue the question "What is music" without attending to music as it is made and understood throughout the world. I am perplexed that such a narrow and narrow-minded view is endorsed by publication in prestigious academic journals and presses such as Oxford University Press, which only two years ago published Kivy's book.

Decades ago when asking the question What is music, I turned to aesthetic philosophical discourse thinking it would be helpful, but I was disappointed. I am disappointed still. The question remains. And the ethnomusicologist's answer, that music is "humanly organized sound" tells us something about music, but not all we want to know. It is a good beginning but there is more to it than this.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Is Music Useless?

In the discourse over music and sustainability, one of the important questions is "What is music for?" This question is related to the larger question, "What is music," but the ethnomusicologist's answer to that one, "Music is humanly organized sound," isn't controversial. What is controversial concerns the purposes of music, for many defenders of the arts believe in "art for art's sake," which is to say that arts have no instrumental purpose, no usefulness, beyond the aesthetic pleasure a person experiences when understanding and appreciating great art. And so the job of the artist is to create, of the art critic and historian to evaluate and help interpret, and of the consumer or receiver to gain pleasure. Some say the experience of great art is ennobling, that it raises one's spirit to undertand and appreciate the masterful achievement of great art in terms of its wondrous structure or its meaning (or both). The result is the arts appreciation industry, with everything from concerts and recordings and museum displays and architectural monuments, historic preservation, and college courses that teach appreciation, discrimination, and taste, leading to patronage.

Of course, the art for art's sake argument concerns only the "fine" arts. Popular and folk arts are thought to be sullied by purpose: the popular arts are commodified, the purpose is to sell objects to consumers; the folk arts have "functions" such as community bonding, and so forth. But this is not regarded as great art. Popular and folk music are granted, in this view, usefulness; but the high arts are somehow pure in their intentionality, freed from external purpose to be themselves alone.

As an ethnomusicologist, I am willing to let the apologists for the so-called fine arts make their arguments, even though I think they are weak. But I want to stop them when they take classical music as their only case in point. Throughout the world, music is purposeful in ritual; it opens a channel to and mediates with the divine world: it communicates from the human to the divine, whether a Christian hymn of praise or a Kaluli weeping song about birds. Any song is a powerful marriage of semantic meaning (through its words) with complementary sounds that take on the meaning of the words. True, some classical music is "absolute," free from words and the human voice, made only on musical instruments, and without apparent use except as an aesthetic experience. Yet much classical music involves this marriage of words and melody. Bach would have been puzzled to hear a philosopher praise his music as useless. While it is true that his fugues and suites are examples of absolute music, his cantatas and masses are not: they are vocal, purposeful, and semantically meaningful. In fact, for most of classical music's history, vocal music was dominant. Thus the circular argument that is sometimes advanced in defense of absolute music, that it is a fine art and therefore not subject to the purposes and functions that compromise the pure aesthetic experience of popular or folk music, does not even hold for all classical music. Some music, then, may appear useless; but most is meant to be useful. Is it all worth sustaining?