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.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

DeKoven: Music Appreciation Subversive

Much about classical music appreciation is middle-class, and middlebrow. The appreciation industry popularizes by simplifying and making classical music accessible, chiefly to people with little or no training as musicians. (For those with more training, music history is taught at a deeper level of musical analysis.) In the nineteenth century, classical music concerts in Europe and America were potpourri of mixed genres, often with soloists whose performances and choice of repertoire appealed to popular rather than cerebral taste. Opera appealed across a wide range of social classes.

One of the more interesting phenomena of the mid-twentieth century was the increasing media representation of classical music, which made it more accessible than ever to the middle classes seeking to "acquire culture." The advent of the long-playing record in the 1950s made it possible to hear lengthy pieces of music with little or no interruption, and major record labels such as Columbia and RCA Victor devoted a substantial part of their budgets and catalogs to classical music in this new format. In the 1960s classical music on LP records expanded with the rise of new companies such as Nonesuch and Turnabout which specialized in recordings of lesser-known composers, and complete sets. Many of their LPs were "budget" priced, and as a result the major labels came out with budget lines, often showcasing great recordings from the past in their budget series. Whereas the 78 era had emphasized music from the nineteenth century, now all centuries and periods were represented. It became possible to accumulate a record library that represented a larger part of the classical music repertoire than ever before. The music of certain periods, particularly the medieval and baroque, became popular among a growing audience of classical music aficionados. On the backs of the record jackets, music critics and journalists offered brief discussions of the structures of the compositions on the recordings, in the language of appreciation-talk. This language, while it addressed elementary structural features, assumed a familiarity with the terminology of basic music theory and was attractively highbrow and slightly mysterious to classical music fans who came to record collecting without any education in music.

Radio was another medium where classical music became more accessible after the middle of the 20th century. Radio stations such as WQXR in New York programmed classical music only, in the 1950s and beyond; in the 1960s FM radio stations down towards the bottom of the dial began to devote their programming largely, if not exclusively, to classical music and later many of these became public radio stations, again with many hours of classical music programming.The phenomenon continued strongly to the end of the century, diminishing somewhat as a greater number of musical choices became available on recordings, radio and, finally, the internet.

Usually the classical music announcers practiced a kind of radio minimalism, seldom doing more than introducing the piece, performer(s) and composer by name, being careful to pronounce the foreign words properly. Occasionally the announcer would venture an anecdote concerning the piece or composer, but almost never would the announcer engage in appreciation-talk of the educational variety. The exception to this rule was a classical music disc jockey named Seymour DeKoven (1903-1984).

DeKoven, who always went by his last name (few listeners knew his first name), produced  a syndicated classical music radio program from the 1950s through the 1970s, entitled DeKoven Presents. It featured baroque and rococo music exclusively, or barococo as he often called it. DeKoven would wax as excitedly about a particular composer or composition as a rock deejay would exclaim over the Beatles. With his New York (or was it New Jersey?) accent, along with his brash enthusiasm for pieces he called "out of this world" or "super out of this world" (there were even more superlatives), he presented a marked contrast to the cerebral, minimalist world of the public radio classical music announcers and their finishing-school accents. DeKoven was different in another way, too: he engaged in appreciation talk, instructing the listeners as to the piece (or movement's) basic structure and points of interest much as a college professor would do, except that his overbearing manner could be regarded almost as an unintentional caricature of a music appreciation professor.

DeKoven represented a paradoxical voice, a democratization of classical music; in this he was a throwback to an earlier century. Like the musicians who performed in nineteenth century concerts, he often played single movements rather than the whole piece of music. (The slow movements did not, as a rule, excite him.) He was not only a deejay, but a pitchman; like a televangelist he solicited contributions at the end of his show, threatening the audience that he could not continue to produce and offer it without their sending him money. Finally, he did not hide his prejudices and opinions, but proclaimed them with absolute certainty; and in advancing rococo and baroque music he disparaged the music of other periods. Needless to say, the rather staid classical music establishment was amused--a little--and also contemptuous.

DeKoven was in some ways a precursor of a later democratizing (but far more intelligent) classical music announcer who plied the appreciation trade, Peter Schickele, whose show Shickele Mix has been popular on public radio for a couple of decades. But Schickele is mild and earnest whereas DeKoven was always over the top and seemingly on the verge of exploding. Are there DeKoven shows archived somewhere on the Internet, or in a sound archive somewhere? Once heard, he could not be forgotten, even though some listeners wished to do so. For as much as DeKoven was amusing, he also subverted the refined image of culture that the classical music establishment wished to project.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Music Appreciation, Cultural Tourism, and Cultural Capital--What Is It Worth Today?

    In this blog's entry dated January 21, 2009, “Is music useless,” I wrote about the classical music appreciation industry, with its paraphernalia of college courses, professors, composers, musicians, concerts, concert-goers and critics, and its media presence, all supported by private, corporate, and government patronage. I’ve also written here, frequently, about heritage and cultural tourism. Now I want to bring the two together, and think about music appreciation as cultural tourism. For if we want to think critically about the contemporary practice of sustaining the traditional arts by constructing them as heritage and then marketing them for tourists, we can look to an earlier model of this very same process in the rise and fall of the classical music appreciation industry, one which is losing relevance daily as the contemporary media engender enormous changes in the way people receive information and in the kind of information we do receive. What might we learn from this example?

    Several years ago I revised my syllabus for an introductory course in ethnomusicology, one meant for music majors at my university. For the most part these are practitioners of music, ones who will take many courses in music-making, and whose courses in music theory, history and appreciation will be taught at a deeper analytical level. The introduction to ethnomusicology course is required of our majors, many of whom would prefer to be off making music themselves, composing, or practicing their vocal or instrumental techniques, than to ponder the ideas and musical curiosities that we ethnomusicologists like to vex ourselves with. I decided to try to reach the students a little closer to where I thought they were, and to turn an ethnomusicological lens on the classical music industry. Never mind that I overestimated their interest in classical music; based on their previous training in Western art music they felt, at least, on more common ground. I decided it would be enlightening to have a look at the prefaces and introductions to the twentieth-century music appreciation textbooks to see what they said about what they were doing and why. We noticed in these textbooks, first of all, a defensive tone—why study music, why is art important in a world where most people are concerned with getting and spending, with family and neighbors and politics and power and war and peace and anything and everything but music?

    These appreciation textbook authors were not hedonists; they did not justify the pursuit of music on the grounds of pleasure, or as aesthetic object, “music for music’s sake.” Such a justification, though it  gains assent from music-makers and music-lovers alike, was not suited for the music education business. There must be Purpose, and the purpose was Culture. The authors of the textbooks usually justified appreciation in terms of “acquiring culture,” in the sense that one’s mind and soul would be improved, ennobled, and liberated by encountering the great cultural monuments of the past—Our Musical Heritage, as one textbook was titled. (Interestingly, this particular textbook took a very broad view of that heritage, but that is another story.) Engaging with Great Ideas, Great Art, Heritage, “the best which has been thought and said in the world,” as Matthew Arnold put it in Culture and Anarchy, was, of course, the purpose of a liberal arts education—uh, wasn’t it? This engagement developed taste and refinement in one's personality, a more "civilized" human being, a better person. It is no accident that this is the same justificatory rhetoric that was used to promote the actual Grand Tour, cultural tourism, the European monuments, the museums, the cathedrals, for a century and a half.

    What the authors of these textbooks did not say was that taste, or aesthetic discrimination, leads to collecting and connoisseurship (getting and spending); and that appreciation creates a class of patrons who support the arts. Late twentieth-century cultural theory informs us that music (and art) appreciation builds a kind of cultural capital (that is, knowledge and taste as a stock of cultural goods and strategies) as well as a refined personality that once served the middle classes well in their striving for power.

     But I write "once served," in the past tense, because it is becoming clear that taste matters less and less in the world of common culture (the information commons) and (un)civil discourse, a world dominated by celebrities whose confrontational behavior (whether among politicians or on talk radio or FOX news) is not considered rude and boorish, except by a generation of old-fashioned elders and a small group of young idealists. Ironically, the cultivation of cultural capital is now proving an obstacle, as the refined public personality is no match today for the angry naysayer in the public sphere, or “shock and awe” on the battlefield.

    I am reminded of an observation told to me some years ago by a professor of music, whose  discriminatory powers were highly developed. It concerned the makeup of the student body in the appreciation course being taught that semester. “A majority of them are Asian!” the professor exclaimed. “Not that I have anything against people of Asian extraction," he added, "but where are those whose Heritage this really is? They’re the ones who should be taking this course.” But they weren’t, perhaps because they were unconvinced that the course would provide much useful cultural capital for the twenty-first century. And so we may ask what kind of cultural capital, if any, will be useful in our still-new century?