Saturday, November 21, 2009

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.


  1. A wonderful summary. Thanks for posting it.

  2. Thank you Jeff. May I ask you about the term "salvage ethnomusicology"? - I've come across it occasionally and would be curious to know who coined it.

  3. As far as I know, "salvage ethnomusicology" is a term taken from the earlier term "salvage anthropology." I don't know who coined it, but Alan Merriam and some of the other founders of the Society for Ethnomusicology were using it as early as the 1950s, chiefly to disparage a certain set of assumptions about what ethnomusicology ought to be and do, assumptions which had characterized much of the ethnographic work in anthropology, folklore, and comparative musicology (one of the predecessors of ethnomusicology) for the previous hundred years.

  4. Thanks so much Jeff!
    I enjoy your blog.