Sustainable Music


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.


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.