Sustainable Music


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.