Monday, November 15, 2010

Nature's Economy at the Ethnomusicology Conference

At the annual conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology, Nov. 11-14, 2010, in Los Angeles, I read a paper similar to the one I presented at the folklore conference (see my blog entry for October 26, 2010), but I framed it differently, aiming it at an audience of ethnomusicologists. I wrote about the way my pursuit of music and sustainability is an effort to theorize one aspect of applied ethnomusicology. And because the panel was entitled “Revisioning Science,” I summarized a few things about the historical development of the idea of "Nature's economy," and its relation to natural philosophy (the analytical and experimental side of what we now call science) and to the beginnings of ethnomusicology in the science of comparative musicology. The historical development of economics and, to a lesser degree, ecology also occupied some of my attention.

Rather than reproduce the entire paper here, I will simply reproduce the additional paragraphs, which can be read along with the paper for the folklore conference:


"For the past five years I've been speaking and writing on the topic of music and sustainability. In so doing I am theorizing one aspect of applied ethnomusicology, that aspect which concerns applied ethnomusicologists’ desires to give back something to our friends and acquaintances in the musical communities we study, those who have given so much to us, in order to help them sustain their musical practices and move confidently into musical futures of their own choosing.

"Today the “sustainability” concept is omnipresent. If one aspect of sustainability is preservation, then it could be argued that ethnomusicologists got interested in sustainability more than 100 years ago, in their efforts to preserve and display musical documents in archives and museums. But today’s sustainability efforts are attempts to sustain music cultures in situ, rather than only in archives, museums, and on the internet. UNESCO’s international treaty for safeguarding intangible cultural heritage is perhaps the best known contemporary effort at sustaining music cultures, but only the latest in a series of efforts that gathered momentum in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

"Musical sustainability is vastly under-theorized. The most powerful contemporary sustainability discourses occur in the sciences; that is, in the science of ecology and in the science of economics. And so I have been visiting in these sciences to learn how conservation ecologists and developmental economists are thinking about sustainability, with a view both towards critiquing their discourses and gaining insights that might be helpful in theorizing musical-cultural sustainability. Interdisciplinarity, of course, is an old habit in ethnomusicology, for we are both by name and by nature interdisciplinary. We need not apologize for it; it is who we are and what we do….

"This concept (Nature’s economy) may be traced to the ancient Greeks. It became commonplace in eighteenth-century Europe to speak of “the oeconomie of Nature.” The natural and economic realms were governed in the same way, with wealth and commerce explained by natural law. But beginning in the late eighteenth century, in the field of natural philosophy, Nature and the economy parted ways, with the de-naturalization of economics and its emergence as an area subject not to natural law but to human institutions and agency. In the study of Nature, however, the idea of Nature’s economy persisted well into the nineteenth century, although the Deism which justified Linnaeus’s vision of the “oeconomie of Nature” had all but disappeared for Darwin, though “Nature’s economy” remained an important concept for him and he did write about it. After about 1860, however, with the rise of biology and various specialized biological pursuits, “Nature’s economy” lost its force in natural philosophy. Instead, the idea became a mainstay of the conservation movements, which were arising at that time in Europe and a bit later in the United States…..

"Natural history and the idea of “Nature’s economy” will appear quaint to many contemporary scientists. But in order for ethnomusicologists to think interdisciplinarily with science (rather than just do science) it’s important to pay attention to the history of scientific ideas and the history of science as social practice. Michel Foucault famously claimed that the study of Nature had undergone a profound shift around 1800, when the observational, formal, descriptive, classificatory and historical orientation of natural history gave way to an increasing analysis of the inner structures of things and their functions, gradually leading to biological science in the nineteenth century along with the development of various specialties such as experimental morphology, a subject I studied while in college. This is a narrative in which natural philosophy triumphs over natural history to become modern science.

"However, at the risk of disagreeing with Foucault, I believe that the descriptive, classificatory, and historical orientation of natural history was just as useful to those nineteenth century sciences that were most influential on comparative musicology, namely linguistics and Darwinian evolution, as was the analytical orientation of natural philosophy, which could be found in the young scientific specialties embryology and comparative anatomy. I regard natural philosophy and natural history as complementary orientations that have been simultaneously available in the Western world from the Renaissance onward. In the early eighteenth century the Royal Society was run by both the natural philosopher Isaac Newton (its president) and the natural historian Peter Collinson; and as far as I know, they got along. And natural history courses such as botany were normal offerings in American colleges and universities as late as the middle of the twentieth century, after which time they both changed character (to a concentration on the natural history object as an organism) and quickly declined in popularity.

"Not surprisingly, the comparative musicologists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries drew on the orientations of both natural history and natural philosophy. In their fascination with scales and intervals, their transcriptions, analyses, and comparative work Stumpf and Hornbostel and the others were operating as natural philosophers, while in their descriptive, classificatory and historical work (for example, in the Sachs-Hornbostel classification of musical instruments) they were operating as natural historians. Natural history and natural philosophy are always available, just as scientific and humanistic standpoints are always available; and ethnomusicologists will embrace their interdisciplinary perspectives and methods insofar as they answer the questions that ethnomusicologists wish to ask…"


After presenting the paper there was an interesting discussion and some critique. One ethnomusicologist took issue with my portrait of economics, saying that I had unfairly “demonized” it. She pointed to environmental economics as a field where the practitioners were taking the natural world into account. I responded that it was the field of developmental economics that I was critiquing most severely. Environmental economics would include Herman E. Daly’s ecological economics, which I acknowledge as an important corrective to neoclassical economics. But I can't give full assent to “sustainable development,” and if environmental economists embrace that concept, then I part ways with them because I don't think they understand all its consequences.

I was asked, also, about transferring management techniques from conservation ecology to cultural sustainability, and given the example of what to do in the face of a forest fire. I replied that forest fires are managed, if possible, considering sometimes contradictory principles; on one hand, when they threaten human settlements, they are fought; on the other, there is a good deal of evidence to suggest that small, controlled fires will burn up the understory and prevent larger, catastrophic ones. Biomimicry would advise the controlled burn, but  when human lives and property are threatened, compassion trumps strict biomimicry and decrees that the fire be fought. There had been interesting critique at the folklore conference, also; and I am emailing with a colleague about the issues he raised. I look forward to discussing them in a future entry.

At the folklore conference, about 50 people had come to hear my paper, so for the ethnomusicology conference I imagined the interest would be at the same level. I made 50 handouts for distribution. To my great surprise, about 300 people came to listen to my paper. I was embarrassed and apologetic over having too few handouts. In cases like this, a blog where people can go to read the paper is a great blessing, and so I pointed them here.


  1. Dear Jeff,

    I am pleased to have have discovered your interesting blog. In my own doctoral music research I have come across some of the same issues. There is a slightly different slant that I would like to offer. (You may have dealt with these ideas somewhere here already - I haven't been through every posting. If so, please forgive my repetition.)

    The scientist Jared Diamond has proposed that the consumption-factor (CF = use of raw materials/energy and creation of waste products) of people in the Western world is 32 times that of people in the so-called "developing" world. This is a problem because as developing countries acquire Western-style consumption patterns, the strain on the planet will increase tremendously. Westernization is perhaps even more of a threat than over-population.

    It is also interesting to ask whether the making of music in the West also has an average CF 32 times higher than elsewhere. If so, followup questions are: how "sustainable" is Western music? And should limits to growth be placed upon it?

    Some kinds of Western music seem to have a very high CF, when one takes into account the professional training of musicians, building of venues, manufacture of instruments, electricity & fuel, expensive props & clothing, recording studios, music videos, etc. etc. Some obvious examples are stadium rock bands and classical orchestras.

    Much of the music-making that ethnomusicologists and folklorists are interested in, however, is low CF music. This may be because it is unmediated by expensive technology, or part of a balanced subsistence mode of living, or an informal "homemade" music practice with few expensive trappings. Perhaps CF might be a new kind of analysis in the study of music; and a positive value scholars could advocate. CF could be a key index of whether a music is "sustainable".

    To be truly self-reflexive in this line, however, Western music researchers would also need to look at the CF of their own scholarship. Is this also 32 times that of those in the developing world? I have often wondered what the CF footprint of the average music studies conference is - quite large I imagine. Then there are the huge overheads of the university-based system.

    In light of what is evidently a looming global resource-crisis in the next few decades, I believe these questions are worth thinking about.

    Yours faithfully,
    Mike Brown

  2. Thanks for the helpful comment, which looks at sustainability for music from a different perspective than I've been considering. It's apparent that music which requires technology that uses plenty of fossil fuels contributes to resource depletion, exacerbates global warming (I detest the phrase "climate change" -- folks, it's global warming), and joins with other energy-intensive activities that make our present way of life unsustainable. I take your point, also, that the CF footprint of the average music studies conference is high, just as the average CF footprint of city living is high. I am presently writing this at a computer run by electricity which is generated by roughly 40% hydro here in the state of Maine. The temperature outside is around freezing and I am heating the house, which is in a rural area, with a renewable resource, wood, on a cast iron wood stove that is 30 years old and continues to serve me well. This evening I collected a bushel of brussels sprouts from my garden, and put them up for the winter and spring. Despite these energy conservation measures -- which, incidentally, result in tastier food, good exercise, and more pleasant heat -- I'm sure that my CF footprint still is much higher than the world average, and I regret that. One other comment: I don't quite understand how limits to growth could be placed on Western music (or other music), per se, at least not in our present economy. I understand how a carbon tax would work, but I can't imagine it being music-specific. Probably I'm missing your point here. Perhaps you can explain?

  3. Hello Jeff,

    Thanks for your reply. I must confess I don't have any specific legislative or legal mechanism in mind as to how the growth of high-CF Western music could be limited. But it is worth thinking about. There are probably some areas that might be looked at, like the use of rare hardwoods for instruments like electric guitars and pianos. Or perhaps music organisations receiving state subsidies could be required to demonstrate carbon-neutrality. Maybe this already occurs in some places.

    The issue is quite perplexing as high-CF seems to related to important Western sound-ideals, for example, "high fidelity". Think of all the resources that go into satisfying this ideal.

    Although the whole topic is contentious, I wonder if the c.1600 societal collapse on Easter Island might be seen as a consequence of cultural over-production? Although the moai statues are magnificent works, they apparently came at a cost.


  4. Mike, thanks for the follow-up. In brief, as you know, endangered Brazilian Rosewood is no longer used in manufacturing acoustic guitars (although I understand some wood around had been cut and stored before the ban occurred, and that this is used, at a very high price). Regarding the high fidelity sound industry, I've been advocating (see the very first entry in this blog) that people make more music themselves, which would mean less listening to recordings; and of course live music has the highest fidelity of all.


  5. Providing talent and good product, this is going to create whole new model for launching successful music career that far from the traditions of industry. Where the independent artist who embraces internet with an open mind and determination will make much better living than they could ever hope to make working for someone else, or by using agent or distributing their music through traditional channels & this includes iTunes.

    Monir Sider

  6. Internet distribution channels offer a great opportunity to distribute one's music without the gatekeeping of the music industry. My feeling is that this will increase the spread of amateur music, just as photo websites enable sharing of family and personal photos, and social networking sites offer informal channels for community, more than it will provide an alternative to the music and media industry in launching careers. The independent artist who is determined to be heard via the internet is still competing with tens of thousands of others to be heard and become successful in traditional terms (making one's living from music).