Sustainable Music


Sunday, December 25, 2011

Sustainable Futures

        As noted in the previous entry, at the 2011 SEM conference I was at last able to meet and speak with the music educator Huib Schippers, the founder and director of the remarkable Australian-based international project entitled "Sustainable Futures for Music Cultures." This ambitious project happens to rest partly on concepts that were introduced more than 25 years ago in the first chapter of my book, Worlds of Music (1984; and in four more editions since): the concept of the music culture (brought to the chapter by Mark Slobin), and an idea which as far as I know I was the first to conceive, namely that a music culture functions as an ecological system, or ecosytem. Sustainable Futures "acknowledges that there are serious challenges to many music cultures that are the result of recent changes in 'musical ecosystems.' Based also on a commonly-voiced analogy from cultural conservation work, that certain music cultures constitute endangered resources, it 'seeks to counteract the loss of music cultures by identifying the key factors in musical sustainability, and making this knowledge available to communities across the world. In this way it aims to empower communities to forge musical futures on their own terms'" (

    The project acknowledges continuity with earlier attempts at musical and cultural conservation, and "aims to identify ways to promote cultural diversity and ensure vibrant musical futures in line with those called for by organizations like UNESCO" (Ibid.) Such aims have, of course, been under discussion in this blog since I began it in 2008; but in the US they go back at least to the 1970s which saw the creation of three major federal agencies devoted to cultural conservation: the office of folklife studies at the Smithsonian Institution, with its festival of American folklife; the National Endowment for the Arts, with its folk arts division, and the American Folklife Center, at the Library of Congress. Where the Sustainable Futures project appears to differ from the earlier conservation efforts, though, is in methodology. Rather than direct action in the form of either support to artists, or funneling funds into projects meant to help communities maintain musical traditions; rather than supporting heritage spaces such as festivals where those musical traditions are presented for communities and tourists alike, and rather than forging direct partnerships between ethnomusicologists and other culture workers with communities to work toward mutual goals of a sustainable future for music, this project is a study meant to produce a cultural resource for communities who wish to take command of their own musical futures. It is devoted, first, to studying a select number of music cultures with a focus on aspects thought crucial for sustainability; and second, to establishing a template or set of suggestions, based on that study, that would be shared with communities seeking a sustainable future for their music.

    Another of the distinguishing aspects of the Sustainable Futures for Music Cultures project is its systematic approach to problem-solving. Schippers has designed the study so that the music cultures are being examined in five overlapping areas: musical content and structure; learning and transmission of music; social and cultural contexts of musical traditions; the infrastructure including those "spaces" where music is made, real and virtual, as well as various laws and regulations that affect music within the culture; and finally, the audiences, media and markets, for "most musicians and musical styles depend on communities, audiences and/or markets for their survival." Each of the music cultures under examination constitutes a case study, and of course they will differ in regards to the way they populate each of the five areas; nonetheless, this systematic approach is meant to yield information and a template that will be broadly applicable. The outcome is meant to be both an on-line space and a book or manual. Using the website, communities wishing to take action would be able to do a self-assessment to see where they fall in terms of those five areas, and then learn strategies for musical survival in specific circumstances that relate to their own. The book or manual would guide culture workers and help inform partnerships between them and community members seeking sustainable futures for their music cultures.

    This summary just scratches the surface of the project, which has been running since 2009 and will conclude in 2013. It is generously funded by the Australian government, but the case studies examine music cultures not just in Australia, but all over the world (none, however, in the US, perhaps because the US is not a signatory to the UNESCO treaty on safeguarding intangible cultural heritage) and they involve partnerships with researchers, consultants, universities and organizations in several different nations.

    In conceiving the project, Huib Schippers sought guidance from ethnomusicologists Tony Seeger,  one of the prime movers of the UNESCO initiatives; Deborah Wong, then president of the Society for Ethnomusicology; and a number of others active in the International Council on Traditional Music, which is the strongest organization of its kind outside of the US. He learned about my work and in the summer of 2009 he contacted me, saying that he was going to be at the 2009 SEM conference and would like to discuss the project with me. Unfortunately, our meeting had to wait until last month, because I had accepted an invitation to lecture in Beijing on music and sustainability at around the same time as the 2009 SEM conference, so I could not attend it. But he sent me information about the project, and then when we did meet we had an opportunity to discuss it.

   Huib Schippers and I confirmed that we had many thoughts in common, and that for me it has been exciting to see some of them implemented in such an ambitious way. He asked me if I would like to serve on their advisory board, and I said I would be glad to do so--albeit that the project had already been underway for 2 years--and then, after I returned from the conference, we continued our conversation by email. He invited me to come to Australia at some point next fall to spend a week or so consulting on the project, and in principle I accepted, although we must still work out a mutually convenient time. I told him that I was already contextualizing it within my own knowledge of related initiatives (in the US) in musical and cultural conservation and their history, unable to help myself in making comparisons. I reiterated that after spending a few decades doing applied ethnomusicology I was now at the stage where I wished to draw back and attempt to theorize it; as he knew, my thinking had since 2005 been focused on music and sustainability. I said that I was apt to be critical of certain aspects of the Sustainable Futures project, and was that what he wanted? He affirmed that he did, and that constructive criticism was always welcome. To me this is a promising development; and I look forward to contributing in whatever way I can, while undoubtedly learning a great deal to put to use in working out a theory of music and sustainability, within the field of applied ethnomusicology.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Music and Sustainability in Philadelphia at the SEM Conference

    The annual Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) conference was held last November 15-19 in Philadelphia, with implications for music and sustainability. Three aspects of that conference were very encouraging. I will comment on two of them here, and save the third for the next entry.

    First, SEM devoted a plenary session to an applied ethnomusicology project. The SEM president, Gage Averill, moderated a panel devoted to a recent anthology of writing on HIV/AIDS education through music in Africa, a project begun several years ago by my dissertation advisee, Gregory Barz, who has been teaching at Vanderbilt for some years and who discovered that the most effective way to get the word out in Uganda about how to prevent HIV/AIDS was not through leaflets, government media, clinics, or public forums but through music--specifically, song texts that educated people about the disease and how to guard against it. Observing that women already were spreading the word on a small scale about HIV/AIDS by making up lyrics about it, as song lyrics traditionally carry news and gossip, Barz more formally initiated a program to encourage HIV/AIDS education through song in Uganda, and the idea caught on throughout the continent, to the point where it has now become public policy. Barz coined a term to describe his work, "medical ethnomusicology," and with a single stroke named a new subfield within applied ethnomusicology. But more important than nomenclature by far is the good work that he and his colleagues have been able to accomplish. The anthology, just published by Oxford University Press, is edited by Barz and Judah Cohen, and titled The Culture of Aids in Africa: Hope and Healing through Music and the Arts.

    Second, as co-chair of SEM's Applied Ethnomusicology Section, I'd invited and convened a roundtable presentation, "Sustaining Folk Arts in Philadelphia," to be facilitated by Debora Kodish, director for 24 years of the Philadelphia Folklore Project (PFP). SEM chose the plenary session and our roundtable as two of only a dozen sessions that they videotaped and streamed live during the conference. They have been archived and may be viewed at

    The Philadelphia Folklore Project is a grass-roots metropolitan non-profit organization who, in their own words, are "committed to paying attention to the experiences and traditions of 'ordinary' people. Our focus is to build critical folk cultural knowledge, sustain vital and diverse living cultural heritage in communities in our region, and create equitable processes and practices for nurturing local grassroots arts and humanities" ( The PFP works with community scholars and directors of various cultural groups in the Philadelphia area, implementing a very pragmatic cultural policy guided not so much by principles of cultural conservation as by a dynamic vision of future possibilities. Debora brought three of those directors to the roundtable, and in answer to her questions they explained how the communities went about creating major ongoing musical, dance, and theatrical projects in the African American and Asian American communities.

    Borrowing here from Debora's language describing it, in the roundtable we explored the possibilities of engaged practice (applied ethnomusicology and public interest folklore), with a focus on how partnerships between community organizations and publicly-engaged scholars can reshape roles, issues, theories, and practices. The three directors of grassroots groups in Philadelphia, encouraged over the years by the PFP's enlightened cultural policy, shared examples of how they have used traditional arts as part of advocacy and outreach/organizing strategies to sustain vital communities in the face of draconian development strategies and challenging social issues, and how folklore and ethnomusicology theory and practices have supported these efforts. Lois Fernandez discussed the work of ODUNDE, a ground-breaking African American festival. Ellen Somekawa discussed the work of Asian Americans United, an activist organization that created the 15-year-old Mid-Autumn Festival and Chinatown's Folk Arts-Cultural Treasures Charter School. Dorothy Wilkie discussed the Kulu Mele African Dance and Drum Ensemble, Philadelphia's longest-enduring African dance and music ensemble.

   The PFP is one of the most, if not the most, successful community organizations of its kind. One interesting reason for its success is that instead of attempting to impose folkloric purity and academic standards of authenticity on the ethnic groups whose initiatives it encourages, it recognizes that to have any real life, the expressive forms of culture must arise from within the groups themselves, even when these forms appear to be inventing new traditions rather than continuing and reviving old ones. The idea of folkloric authenticity has its own peculiar history within Euro-American culture, and it is simply not congruent with the creative dynamics of tradition, the way (to take one of the clearest examples) African diaspora peoples have for hundreds of years drawn on the old in constructing new expressive cultural forms. This point was something that the National Endowment for the Arts, Folk Arts Division had a hard time understanding, back in the 1980s, when deciding not to fund grant proposals for support of celebrations like Kwanzaa, an invented tradition. (Kwanzaa was created and named by Maulana Karenga in 1966 as a holiday to bring African American communities together and celebrate a communitarian African heritage.) The ODUNDE festival, while not wholly invented, also falls into the category of those intentional celebrations to which a revivalist stigma attaches. Yet its intentionality combines with grass-roots cultural knowledge to give it the kind of vitality that bespeaks continuity within African diaspora community expression, and PFP's decision to embrace it, rather than discourage it in favor of something more past-oriented, reveals PFP's understanding of how authenticity works within African diaspora cultures.

   Oorganizations such as the PFP stand as examples of interventions on behalf of cultural sustainability that have taken place in the US during the past 40 years, some more successful and some less so. A more global perspective would be useful, and to some extent the UNESCO initiatives on behalf of safeguarding intangible cultural heritage are meant to fill that void. But another project, one which came to my attention in 2009, the Sustainable Futures for Music project, directed by Huib Schippers at Griffith University, in Australia, falls squarely into that global category. He was hoping to meet me at the 2009 SEM conference, and discuss his project with me then and there; but as I was in Beijing at the time, lecturing on music and sustainability at the Central Conservatory of Music, I didn't go to the conference and so didn't get a chance to meet with him. He sent me some information about the project, and in the meantime I was hearing about it from other scholars who understood that we had interests in common; and so we resolved to get together at the next SEM conference that he would attend. That was last month, and it is the third aspect of the conference that I want to bring up. I will do so in the next entry.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The limits of green

What is the relation of music and sustainability to the humanities? I’ve been thinking about this subject for a few months now in preparation for a lecture in the University of New Hampshire’s Saul O. Sidore Lecture Series (March 21-22, 2012). The theme of this year’s series is “Sustainability Unbound” — unbound, that is, from “the limits of green,” as their poster puts it. (Go to for information on this event.)

The context is this: the University of New Hampshire has a Sustainability Academy with faculty and outside fellows; it funds programs and curricular initiatives, monitors sustainability research, and tracks various UNH programs, centers, and institutes related to sustainability. Along with the UNH Center for the Humanities, they are sponsoring this lecture series. Five of us are to lecture at this two-day event which is open to the university community and the general public, and we are to explore the relation between sustainability and the humanities. We are, besides myself: Melissa Lane, a professor in the department of politics at Princeton, who is concerned with sustainability in ancient Greece and has focused attention on Plato's Republic; Lewis Hyde, whose work I’ve mentioned before in this blog, a professor at Kenyon and Harvard and a Macarthur Fellow. His book The Gift (1983) takes up many of the themes I’ve been concerned with over the decades in my own research; his most recent book, Common As Air, is a defense of our cultural commons. The other lecturers are Enrique Leff, a Mexican philosopher, economist and environmentalist; and Carol Mansour, a Lebanese/Palestinian filmmaker. I will be very interested in sharing ideas with them and with the UNH faculty, students, and general public.

What then, I wonder, do they mean by the limits of green? What first comes to mind is this: that there is more to living “green” than doing one’s part in conserving energy and recycling, which I suppose is how most people think of being "green." My university has a “Brown is Green” program which concentrates those two activities. Many colleges and universities have sustainability initiatives ranging from this sort of thing to attempts at making the entire campus sustainable in terms of energy use, with solar and wind power supplying all the electricity for example. Berea College, where I taught as Goode Visiting Professor of Appalachian Studies back in 1990, moved early in this direction, not only "greening" their campus but establishing an eco-village within the College featuring a permaculture forest, edible landscapes, ecologically designed buildings, and so forth. I find this interesting in that when I was a professor there, the College owned the oil-fired power plant which generated electricity for the entire city of Berea, Kentucky. If you lived in Berea, you paid your electric bill to the College. Your sewer and water bill, too. A quick check on the Internet reveals that Berea College Utilities is still in business, having merged with the city government only a few years ago. I could not find how much renewable energy the utility used to generate its power. Perhaps someone connected to the College will read this and let me know.

Another way to think about the “limits of green” is by considering what the humanities can add to a discourse that has been informed chiefly by the natural sciences (ecology) and the social sciences (economics). But one needs to recognize immediately that humanities thinking is already on board. Conserving endangered species, for example, is often justified both on instrumental and ethical grounds--and ethics is a traditional concern of the humanities. Here, it may be helpful to separate out two strands of “green” science. One is the ecological study of the natural world using objective and value-free empirical methods. (I will leave aside for the moment the powerful critique of scientific objectivity that arose in the second half of the twentieth century.) The other is the ecological study of the natural world guided explicitly by principles of justice, applying them to all species (including humans). This latter is a kind of applied ecology, putting ecology to practical use, and is usually termed conservation biology or conservation ecology. It provides a scientific basis for the ideology of environmentalism and “living green.” But it is also deeply grounded in the values of the humanities.

Monday, October 31, 2011

The past as past... or present?

    Sustainability thinking is present and future minded. The "uses of the past" in the present and future are many. That is the nature of applied work. As readers of this blog know, I'm interested in acoustic ecology, and in the place of sound in the biocultural evolution of life on this planet. As a historian I'm interested in the past as past--what it was like, for example, to live in the sound environment of a medieval French peasant. But as an applied ethnomusicologist I'm curious about that sound environment not only because I'm interested in the acoustic experiences of a French peasant in the past but because I want to know how understanding that sound environment might help us develop policy regarding sound in the present and future. Although it's a pleasurable thought experiment to imagine myself inside the world of Martin Guerre, I wouldn't want to dwell there.
    And what if I found a stringed musical instrument buried in a medieval French peasant's grave? My first questions, of course, would be how was it made, how was it played, what did it sound like, and how was it used? I might take measurements and see if I could construct an instrument very like it. (I would want to preserve the original for study, in its original state.) In that regard I am interested in the past as past. But when I begin to conjure up the medieval French sound world I am always comparing it with present-day soundscapes, just as I do when I read and imagine Thoreau's soundscape descriptions of Walden or a mid-nineteenth century Massachusetts farm.
    I began thinking about this in response to a series of talks on vernacular architecture as history, at the American Folklore Society conference a couple of weeks ago. In particular, Jerry Pocius and Thomas Carter both lamented present-day folklorists' lack of interest in doing folklore and architectural history, period, let alone doing it the way they did (and still do): take meticulous and accurate measurements, imagine what it was like to use these objects and live in these spaces, and use oral history as a way to get at the past as past (not as it bears on the present). Pocius and Carter attributed the problem to what I've called "the ethnographic turn" to interpretation in folklore (it was the same in ethnomusicology and cultural anthropology), a turn that emphasized synchronic studies, ethnographic presents. After the ethnographic turn, the past was important chiefly insofar as it illuminated the present.
    I suppose most North American folklorists contemplating the history of folklore would say that this ethnographic turn rescued folklore and finally gave it a subject, expressive culture, that was not disappearing (or had vanished) with peasant ways of  life. Folklore's preoccupation with the past as past seemed a problem to many American folklorists beginning in the 1960s. The University of California, Berkeley folklorist Alan Dundes famously wrote about the "devolutionary premise" in folklore studies, that folklore had always existed more fully in the past, when it was integrated into daily life; today what we have are fragments and survivals. Folklore, in other words, was always in a state of decay, disintegration, and devolution. Folklore was a disappearing subject, constantly receding, needing to be collected up and archived before it vanished entirely. The eminent folklorist Albert Lord, my friend and colleague from Harvard when I taught folklore at Tufts, represented this view well. On first learning that I studied folklore in the United States, he wondered aloud and only half-jokingly whether, without peasantry, there could be any folklore in the United States at all. What he meant was that it had degenerated; as an example he mentioned that the guslars (epic singers) that had been recorded in Chicago were incompetent in comparison to those he and his teacher Milman Parry had found in Yugoslavia forty years earlier.

    In the United States, our generation's answer to this devolutionary problem was to emphasize ethnography rather than history, to redefine folklore as expressive (aesthetic) culture, and to make new theoretical models from process and performance more than from genre and text. Yet for some folklorists this ethnographic turn made texts all the more important. It did for me; my fieldwork documentation in the 1970s and succeeding decades was even more meticulous than it had been, as I was interested in grounding theory in actual texts. Thinking of a text as any object of interpretation meant that one had, after all, to have an object before it could be interpreted; and it would be good to know that object as much and as carefully as one could. Hence the fieldwork; hence the measurements that had to come before the interpretation. 
    And now here were friends and colleagues of my own generation lamenting this ethnographic turn, wanting today's folklorists to understand history once more. As they indicted ethnography and fieldwork, I was puzzled. I'd always attributed the ethnographic turn to my generation's personal response to doing fieldwork, as we turned away from collecting and survey work and towards long-lasting relationships with the people whose expressive culture we were learning about, and whom we were learning from. I thought about Henry Glassie, sitting there in the audience, whose meticulous work on folk housing in Virginia had served as a model for Tom Carter, Jerry Pocius and many others. Glassie's Virginia work was not without theory, either; structuralist analysis, based on the binary oppositions that worked so well for Levi-Strauss, revealed the meanings of these vernacular structures. And yet, after completing this work, Glassie moved to rural Ireland and although he still made his meticulous measurements and wonderful drawings of buildings and other artifacts, the book he wrote based on his stay, Passing the Time in Ballymenone, drew most of its considerable power from the way he represented people, his new friends, telling stories of local history and making history meaningful in the present--and future.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

On the origins of "giving back"

It's a good idea to differentiate the "giving back" under discussion here from the "gift of culture" exemplified by certain humanities agencies. And good, also, to ask about the origins of this "giving back."

I recall my surprise and pleasure at reading a review by Loyal Jones, nearly 30 years ago, of a documentary vinyl 2-LP set that Ken George and I recorded. It was published in 1983 by the University of North Carolina Press and featured singing, preaching, praying, witnessing, and storytelling from a community in Virginia's northern Blue Ridge Mountains. Jones, then director of Berea College's Appalachian Center, pointed out that although this enterprise had been funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, it was in fact the reverse of the usual humanities effort. Instead of bringing the light of high culture to the less well educated, as Jones characterized most humanities initiatives, the recording brought the powerful expressive culture of a less formally educated group to a university press audience. Another way of looking at it is that the university-educated world was offered a gift from a group of people who represented something that the former world was unaware of, did not have, and might possibly learn something from. That both Greil Marcus and Dave Marsh put the recording on their Ten Best Albums of the Year list suggests that they thought the general public might learn something too.

For Jones, what might be learned were Appalachian values and virtues, a subject he spoke on often. Modesty was one of them. He recalled that when Halley's Comet reappeared in 1986, a reporter from Washington looking to interview someone who'd remember the last time the comet passed by, in 1910, came to the mountains of western North Carolina, where she thought she might find a suitable nonagenarian. By happenstance she turned up at Jones's homeplace, where his aged grandmother still lived. After announcing the subject, she asked Jones's grandmother if she remembered Halley's Comet from 1910. "Well, yes," Mrs. Jones replied, slowly. "And did you see it?" the reporter excitedly asked. "Well, yes, but only from a distance." Modesty, or humility, is one of the virtues that university humanists might learn from a people who were educated in their homes and communities to know and respect tradition, even if they did not always follow its example.

Recognition of this reversal is, perhaps, the origin of one impulse toward cultural anthropology. Why study the "other" otherwise? But giving back to the other, reciprocity, does not and did not necessarily follow. Experience suggests that it usually originates through personal encounters, personal relationships and friendships. Here is a little-known example. In 1881 Alice Cunningham Fletcher made a trip to the Sioux reservation as a representative of the Peabody Museum, to live there and study them. While living there she befriended Francis LaFlesche, an Omaha who became not only her principal consultant and co-author but, later, her adopted son. Folklorists, anthroplogists and ethnomusicologists know that she was the first woman president of the American Folklore Society, and a pioneer among the 19th century ethnographers collecting and interpreting Native American music. But her work in "giving back" is not well known. In fact, she developed an institution for making small loans to Native Americans to help them buy their own land and houses. One of those loans helped put the first Native American woman through medical school.

This is largely a lost history, the history of "giving back," though why that is so is not clear to me. It would be wise to recover it if we can. Fletcher, it turns out, stands as a relatively early example of a group of women researchers with a social conscience and a sense of social responsibility, whose reputations suffered greatly in the hands of later academic historians. Fletcher's efforts at aiding Native Americans are characterized today as attempts to Americanize them, a "grievous error in the administration of Native American lands and peoples" (according to a Smithsonian Institution author, at Ethnomusicologists consider it unfortunate that the Omaha songs she collected were published with Western harmonization, added to them by the musician John Comfort Fillmore, who convinced Fletcher that these harmonies were implicit in the Omaha melodies. With hindsight, today's historians fault Fletcher for failing to respect the integrity of Native cultures. But Fletcher was a person of her times and is best understood, I believe, in light of the prevailing climate of opinion regarding treatment of Native Americans. The alternative to Americanization, after all, had for nearly three centuries been to exterminate them and confiscate their lands. And prominent American composers such as Edward MacDowell were quoting, transforming, and harmonizing Native American melodies in their musical compositions.

Ironically, Fletcher's impulse to give back by helping Natives assimilate into American culture has something in common with humanities councils' initiatives to bring high culture to the general public; yet an arm of official culture today considers the one a "grievous error," while the other remains federal and state public policy.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Friendship, "Giving Back," and the Price of a Creative Economy

    About ten years ago John Fenn, interviewing me on the subject of applied ethnomusicology, asked why I thought so many graduate students in his generation were interested in it. I told him I thought they weren’t satisfied with the traditional circulation of knowledge inside the intellectual communities of the colleges, universities, museums, and archives; and that they felt, after getting to know the people whose music they were researching, a desire to “give back” something to those people and the music cultures they were not only learning about but learning from. (For that interview, see John Fenn, "A Conversation with Jeff Todd Titon," Folklore Forum, Vol. 34, nos. 1 and 2 [2003], pp. 119-131. A free download is available at:
    “Giving back” is the way they phrase it now, and it’s also the way those of us in my generation did when engaging in the kinds of reciprocity that distinguished us from previous academic generations. As I said in that interview, I was “giving back” to the blues musicians I hung out with long before I even knew what fieldwork research or ethnomusicology was, for reciprocity is the way friends normally behave with one another. The gift exchange of giving back isn’t noblesse oblige, the way humanities institutions typically think about their public mission, to bring culture to the uncultured. It is reciprocity, a gift quid pro quo. The bluesmen I hung around with in the 1960s—Lazy Bill Lucas primarily, but also JoJo Williams, Baby Doo Caston, Lee Rogers, and Mojo Buford—were freely giving me their music, their thoughts, their time, their soul food. I’d learned to play blues guitar in high school and played it in college but I don’t think I really learned it until I started making music with these musicians, first jamming with them in their apartments and then eventually joining Lazy Bill’s band. And I was learning about the blues music culture, too: how to be in the world as a blues musician like them. These were priceless gifts to me, and I wanted to give something back if I could.
    But what? Maybe, I thought, I could help their careers by generating some publicity for them. I interviewed each of them about their lives in music and got these published in blues fan magazines, notably Blues Unlimited. This led to three record contracts for Bill, and many more gigs, including an appearance at the 1970 Ann Arbor Blues Festival, for which Bill earned more money than he ever had been paid for any job in his life, before or since. 
    Although this could be regarded as “pay back,” because we each did help each other's careers, and that brought money in, I preferred to think of it as an example of a gift exchange. Making music as we did is a social activity in which musicians give to each other; these gifts enforce the gift-giving nature of friendship among musicians. They’d have given me these things whether I tried to help their careers or not. I’d have tried to give back in other ways if I could—and I did, in bringing food, transporting them around town on occasion, and so forth, the kinds of things friends do for each other anyway.
    But looking back on it, I now understand it as both a gift exchange and a commodity exchange; some of each, and both can be seen as investments in the future. It is difficult to talk about exchanges, even gift exchanges without talking in economic terms; but I trust that there is more to economics than commodity exchanges.
    In the so-called creative economy (see the blog entry for Feb. 19, 2011), when cultural policy increasingly becomes an arm of economic policy, where is the place for the unmerited gift, given and received, that is music (or any art, for that matter)? Economist David Throsby argues that art has a cultural value which transcends its price. Yet Throsby's arguments in favor of the creative economy all are use arguments which assign commodity value to music. And so while the music in the creative economy may be viewed as partaking of both gift and commodity exchanges, the price of emphasizing the latter is to risk atrophy to the former.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Gift exchanges and "giving back"

    Ethics is a major concern today in the fieldwork research-based disciplines of cultural anthropology, folklore, and ethnomusicology. Each discipline’s professional society—the Society for Ethnomusicology, the American Folklore Society, and the American Anthropological Association—has, on its website, one page or several devoted to a statement of ethical principles by which its members abide (or ought to). The major feature of these ethics statements is a respect for the rights of our subjects—those people we work with and learn from. Beyond respecting their rights, many of us want to “give back” something to these people and their cultures, musical and otherwise, who have given so much to us. It’s helpful to think of this giving, and giving back, as gift exchanges.
      I’ve written and spoken a good deal about gift exchanges, about art as a gift, and about the difficulties that arise when cultural policies treat such gifts as commodities. It’s time to consider this giving and giving back as part of a gift economy, one which lies alongside our economy of commodity-based exchanges. I want to think about this in the context, also, of Veit Erlmann’s response to my public lecture at the University of Texas at Austin last February, when he took exception to my thinking about gifts and gift economies, citing the work of Jacques Derrida on the meaning of gifts in defense of his position.
      Marcel Mauss was the cultural anthropologist who opened the topic of gift exchanges, taking certain indigenous societies and various rituals of giving such as potlatch as examples. Mauss’s point, often forgotten, was not that in these societies gifts are freely given with no expectation of anything in return. Rather, as in the potlatch, receipt of a gift puts the recipient in a position of deep obligation to the donor: a gift comparable or greater must be returned. Karl Polanyi, in The Great Transformation, extended the topic to gift exchanges in pre-capitalist, pre-industrial (but not pre-market) Europe, in the medieval period. As in classic Marxian analysis, the important aspect of economic exchanges has to do with the kind of relationship that obtains between the people doing the exchange. In the commodity exchange, a legal contract binds the participants, but there is no personal relationship and no expectation of an exchange in return (unless the contract is violated). In the gift exchange, on the other hand, while there is no legal contract, there is a moral obligation that binds donor and receiver in a personal relationship that continues after the exchange. Derrida, characteristically eccentric, proclaimed that a gift was not truly a gift unless the donor remained anonymous to the recipient. Of course, with that kind of gift any relationship between donor and receiver is severed because the donor is unknown.
      Derrida’s proclamation calls attention to one kind of gift, and to the idea that distinguishing gift from commodity exchanges is, after all, a Western idea. In my experience the central notion of a true gift is that it is unmerited, not that it is anonymous. The donor gives without the expectation of receiving anything in return. This is the gift of music, or the gift of any art: the composer, the musician, the artisan does not deserve the gift, does not expect it. They are prepared for it and are open to receiving it but do not demand it, do not require it, do not think it is owed to them. Once received, however, it carries with it a sense of obligation. As Lew Hyde writes, in his book The Gift, the relationship now requires that the gift be used, not squandered; that it be returned, usually in a larger form, or that it be passed along. Above all, a gift may not be sold or discarded.
      Derrida's insistence on the anonymity of the donor in a true gift may apply to the gift of artistic creation, when the donor's presence is felt but not known, as when a musician feels that artistic creation is effortless, something that is being received as a gift while the artist is not actively forming it as the artist brings it into the world. As I wrote in the Introduction to my book, Old-Time Kentucky Fiddle Tunes, there are times when playing music that one feels as if the instrument is playing itself, or playing the musician, rather than the reverse. One's usual sense of agency is absent.
     On the other hand, many artists have identified the donor of this kind of gift with God. This is why Derrida's analysis can take us only so far, for in this case the donor is known. And, of course, it would be hard to overestimate Protestant Christianity’s influence on the idea of the gift in Western culture: the idea that Jesus’ death was God’s gift to an undeserving humankind. God’s grace, in other words, stands as an important model of, and for, the gift in Western culture. The idea that the Creation was God’s gift, in the sense that God’s hand was manifest throughout in its orderly pattern, constructed the Western idea of Nature from medieval Europe well into the nineteenth century. God stood behind Nature’s economy, gradually receding as the centuries wore on; yet even Darwin saw God’s trace, if not grace, within the natural world.
      Today it would be unusual to find a cultural anthropologist, folklorist or ethnomusicologist who would say that their desire to “give back” arises from Christian doctrine and ethics. Pressed for principles, they would defend it on the grounds of human dignity, inherent individual and cultural rights, updated principles of European and American cultural democracies rooted in Enlightenment philosophies. Alan Lomax’s phrase was “cultural equity.” Equity means fairness and impartiality; interestingly, like so many other terms that connote values, it also has meaning in economics, the world of commodity exchanges. One builds equity in a house; and a company’s total value of issued stock shares constitutes its equity, hence the phrase “equities” for stocks. Time and again the attempt to separate the world of the gift, and gift exchanges, from the world of commodities, and commodity exchanges, runs afoul of the way we habitually think of value. It is the same with “giving back,” as much of what the applied ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, and public folklorists give back has commodity value—indeed, most of it. That will be the next topic.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Musical Cultures, Climate, and other Complex Systems

    In the last post, I mentioned that one contemporary application of ecology is to the management of complex systems. A complex ecological system is characterized by changes that are predictable in a general way—that is, as a trend or tendency—but where prediction is difficult or even impossible in single specific cases. Under such conditions, where general disturbances and perturbations are highly probable, but just when and where is difficult to predict, managing for resiliency appears to be the best sustainability strategy. These ideas must seem very abstract to the general reader. A chance encounter with an interview on National Public Radio a few days ago (July 25, 2011) gives me an opportunity to try to make these ideas more concrete.
    The subject of the interview was climate change. Now climate (and weather) is a good example of just such a complex system that I’m writing about. So, by implication, is the ecological system that is a music culture, but for now let’s confine ourselves to something that “everyone talks about but nobody can do anything about” — climate and weather. In fact, of course, we must do something to manage it if we are going to lessen the horrific consequences of climate change in the coming centuries. We have a chance to decrease the amount of climate change due to carbon emissions and greenhouse gases; and we have a chance to manage our adaptations to whatever climate change occurs, instead of just submitting to it.
    Weather, as everyone knows, is an example where predictions are “probable” and “likely” rather than certain; and where accuracy varies according to how soon the event is to occur (the sooner, the more accurate) and how local the observations are. You look up at the sky and see a storm approach; soon you hear thunder. Rain is very likely within the next five or ten minutes and you’d best close your windows (unless you live an air-conditioned life). You consult the daily weather report that says a thunderstorm will occur; nowadays the forecasters use mathematical models to predict the storm accurately, in a given location, to the hour, but this proves less accurate than direct and immediate observation. And yet it has value for planning. Forecasters predict even more generally that there is so much percentage chance of precipitation during a given day. And most people are aware that the longer range forecasts are less accurate than the short range.
    What was interesting to me about this interview was how and why the interviewer and the expert talked past each other. The interviewer was Terry Gross, an experienced interviewer who has spoken with scientists, social scientists, writers and artists on her NPR show “Fresh Air” for decades. The scientist was climatologist Heidi Cullen, a writer and lecturer on climate change, a professor at Princeton and author of the book, The Weather of the Future. The questions Gross asked were, I think, questions that most people are asking about climate change and specific weather events. Gross asked the expert whether climate change was responsible for this summer’s unusually hot weather, or for last spring’s bad floods and tornadoes. She asked whether there might be an upside to climate change for people in places like Philadelphia, her home town, for if it got warmer then there could be less snowfall and because she didn’t care very much for snow, that would be a good thing.
    Cullen’s replies seemed evasive. Yes, she said, human beings’ activities in the past couple of centuries, notably their release of fossil fuels into the atmosphere, have certainly caused climate change, and with this climate change certainly comes more extremes in weather—more hurricanes, more severe rainstorms, hotter heat, colder cold, more flooding, and we had better be prepared for it. But Gross wanted to know with certainty, or at least a reasonable amount of it, if this year’s unusual floods in the midwest, and tornadoes in the southwest, and the extreme heat that settled in the midwest and east this past month, breaking all kinds of records, were the result of climate change—or were they just instances of the “normal” kinds of weather extremes, the notable ones that have occurred throughout human history? And Cullen could not answer to her satisfaction.
    Why not? Again, because climate and weather are complex systems, in which predictions are probabilities, not simply cause and effect. Geologists predict that there will be a big earthquake in California in the next fifty years, but they can’t say just where although they predict probabilities based on fault lines. Nor can they predict just when. The same with climate change. Scientists know that human beings have changed the climate by burning fossil fuels with gases released into the atmosphere that have caused global warming and trapped more moisture. Scientists know that as a result, on average, severe weather events will increase in number: there will be stronger storms, more severe floods, hotter heat waves, colder cold waves, more damaging tornados, heavier snowfalls. Weather extremes will be greater. What they can’t say is that this one particular extreme weather event certainly was caused by climate change and that without climate change it would not have occurred.
    Gross found Cullen’s answers frustrating. Yes, Cullen said, in the changing climate Philadelphia was going to get warmer; but Gross’s hope for less snow would not necessarily be realized, for climate change was circulating more moisture in the atmosphere, with stronger storms as a result. After all, as long as the temperature was below freezing, this moisture would come to earth in Philadelphia as snow, and there might be more of it. Gross was not happy to hear her hopes for less snowy winters in Philadelphia dashed, and less happy still to live in the uncertainty that they might even be snowier. She turned to another subject: early spring. Surely there was an upside to the fact that spring seems to be coming earlier these days; she hates winter. Now the flowers are blooming sooner, and the grass is green sooner, and she can put away her winter clothing sooner and be more comfortable. Well, Cullen replied, the early warming is also responsible for more rapid ice melt in the mountains; the ground cannot absorb it so quickly and it results in floods like the ones that have occurred in the past decade. The implication was that early bloom and sooner put-away winter clothing was a trivial gain compared to the losses from catastrophic floods.
    What was interesting to me in this dialogue was not so much Gross’s inexperience with the kind of climate thinking Cullen engaged in on a daily basis, as her inability to put her mind into Cullen’s framework of complex systems. It is easy to say that in Philadelphia Gross experiences the natural world as someone who lives and works in a city, probably indoors most of the time, where climate is controlled, and that is why there was such a disconnect. But I think there is more to it than that. Gross is used to thinking about weather and climate—and many other things—in terms of direct causes and effects. In fact, of course, that is how we experience the world from one moment to the next. We type on a key and expect to see the letter appear on the screen. We turn on the gas on the stove and expect to see the flame and feel the heat. We turn the key in the ignition and expect the car to start, even though we know that many things have to be set in operation, whether in the computer, the stove, or the automobile.
    Complex systems thinking is something we engage in, if we do so at all, when our normal understanding of cause and effect breaks down. The appliance doesn’t operate as it should—why not? It could be this, it could be that; we “troubleshoot” and suddenly become aware of the many things that could be causing the problem, some individual and some in combination; and we imagine that there might be other causes that we don’t know. This is not an easy way to think. I know some people who are good at it, and some for whom it is as foreign a country as Mars. But it is the kind of thinking that is involved in managing for sustainability, whether we are working out strategies for resiliency, or diversity, or anything else; and whether we are attempting to manage the natural world, social organizations, household or national economies, or music cultures.

Thursday, July 21, 2011


    When I was in Portland, Oregon last February at the round table with various musicians, musicologists, acoustic planners and city arts managers I was struck by something one of them, Tim DuRoche, said when he introduced the term “resiliency” and suggested it might be a better way of thinking than “sustainability.” Tim spoke about resiliency in ecological terms, saying that while sustainability implied preservation, he wanted to manage the arts for growth and change. He spoke about improvisation in music (he is a jazz musician as well as an arts administrator) as adaptation, with resiliency a key component. I embraced that idea, commenting that “resiliency” is a term that has emerged in contemporary ecological thought, to describe management strategies for complex systems where mathematical modeling and predictability is difficult if not impossible. I added, though, that in ecological thinking today, sustainability is allied more with adaptation and resiliency than with preservation.

    Resiliency planning is a strategy for protection against unpredictable disturbances in (and to) nature and against the law of unintended consequences. It arose from a critique of the ecosystem paradigm, a way of thinking about natural worlds that stood at the center of ecological thought from 1935 when Arthur Tansley coined the term "ecosystem" until about 1970 when the critique gained traction. In my 2009 essay “Music and Sustainability: An Ecological Approach” I had noted the part of this critique that is directed at equilibrium theory in ecosystems, but I maintained that four principles from conservation biology/ecology, the principles of limits to growth, diversity, interconnectedness, and stewardship, should guide cultural policy planning for music cultures. After all, conservation biology/ecology developed beginning in the 1970s, just as the critique was making its force felt. What I had not done was explore the extent to which that critique affects those principles, nor why that critique made me think of a kind of sustainability that tilts away from preservation of cultural heritage and towards adaptation and change, the same conception that Tim DuRoche alluded to when he spoke about resiliency. And since that conversation with Tim and the others in Oregon it nagged at me that I had not done so, and that perhaps I had not yet gotten it quite right, either. I resolved to take up this line of research again this summer after the teaching semester was over. As I did so, a number of questions resurfaced, ones that I want to explore further in blog entries during the next several months.

    First, the critique. Two of the linchpins of twentieth-century ecological theory were challenged beginning in the 1970s and are largely discredited by ecologists today. One is the idea, associated with Frederick Clements in the first decades of the 20th century, that forests and other natural units, when left alone as “wild nature,” pass through successive stages toward a diverse, stable, mature, and final or “climax” stage. The second is the idea, implied by Clements’s notion of succession and climax, and associated with the influential mid-twentieth century work of ecological scientists Howard and Eugene Odum, that mature ecosystems are those in which organisms, populations, and communities exist in a dynamic equilibrium characterized by energy flows and cycles (modeled mathematically) governing birth, growth, decay, and regeneration. These two ideas not only constituted the scientific discipline of ecology but also guided conservation efforts and environmental management in the last half of the twentieth century, and provided scientific grounding for what those who write for the general public sometimes term “nature’s way” or, more often, “the balance of (wild) nature.” But today's ecological scientists no longer believe in climax theory, nor in ecosystems whose normal state is dynamic equilibrium, nor in a balance of nature.

   I make a distinction between ecological science and environmentalism. The latter is an outgrowth of the conservation movement, and it involves many stakeholders besides ecological scientists: naturalists, conservationists, eco-tourists, policy makers, organic farmers, ecocritics, landowners, and those within the extractive industries such as mining, forestry, and agriculture that wish to use and renew natural resources, not use them up. Indeed, ecological scientists are not necessarily part of the environmental movement and many have strong reservations about it. Conservation biology is a branch of ecology that is very much a part of the environmental movement, but most ecological scientists are not conservation biologists. Most lay environmentalists today still believe that nature “naturally” moves towards balance; but ecologists no longer share that belief, while their research also questions the basis for correspondence between diversity and stability in ecosystems. Indeed, the ecosystem concept itself, which once ruled ecology, is no longer at the center of the discipline. How did this happen, why did it happen, and what does it mean, for ecology, environmentalism, and sustainability? Where do conservation biologists stand on the matter? Where has ecological science moved in response to this critique, what is the center of the discipline today, and what are the implications of this change for musical and cultural sustainability? Have the four sustainability principles from conservation biology/ecology been undermined or strengthened by this paradigm shift, and how might they be modified to suit the brave new ecological world?

    A number of other questions relate to the changing nature of ecological science. How, for example, has the post-structuralist, postmodern critique of science impacted contemporary ecological thought? Is a post-normal science of ecology possible? Is it desirable? What might it be like, and is it worth doing and worth wanting? And how, for example, has the new type of literary criticism, called ecocriticism, impacted literary theory? What is the relation between ecocriticism and deconstruction, and what are their implications for ecological science, environmentalism, and musical and cultural sustainability? What is the relation between the “balance of nature” and “nature’s economy?” What is the history of these ideas and how old are they—how did they develop and when did they take their present form? Does the pastoral tradition (in literature, art, and the humanities), a genre of nature writing and representation, involve a “balance of (i.e., in) wild nature” or is it, rather, directed more toward a harmonious relationship between nature and humankind? What are the implications of chaos theory and complex systems analysis for ecology, ecosystem management and, by extension, for cultural management and sustainability? How has the “evolutionary turn,” the return to Darwin and his principle of natural selection, impacted contemporary ecological thought; is there a place for evolution in ecosystem thinking today? And what is the place of ecosystem ecology in contemporary ecology? Finally, what can we learn from developments in soundscape theory about acoustic ecology? What does contemporary research in the sounds made by insects, birds, and whales, for example, tell us about all of these things, about sustainability and nature’s economy, balance, evolution, music, language, ecocriticism, antirealism, the natural world, and the human? These are some of the questions I’m anxious to explore in the near future.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Southern Soundscapes

        Tom Rankin, an old friend and colleague who is director of the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University, invited me to lead a class in the seminar he was giving last semester, on sacred space in the South. After I accepted, Patricia Sawin, the director of the curriculum in folklore at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, asked me to piggy-back onto the trip a lecture for the folklorists and American Studies group there. And so the latter week of April found me in North Carolina for three very pleasant days of conversation with old friends and new, and a guest seminar and lecture. A college campus is never lovelier than in the spring when the carefully landscaped pathways are a-bloom with pinks and whites and golds, the scents of fresh flowers enter through every pore, and the birds cavort and sing out their love of place. Everyone alive to the seasonal transformation walks around with a spring to their step. Conversations with Dan and Bev Patterson, Tom Rankin and his wife the fiction writer Jill McCorkle (Marta and I stayed at their wonderful farmhouse), and with Bob Cantwell at supper after the folklore lecture were especially stimulating; Tom and Patricia were splendid hosts, and I could see how, under Patricia’s perceptive leadership, and with help from some of those in American studies (including Bill Ferris, the former head of the NEH, whom I was glad to see again) the folklore program at Chapel Hill will be in good hands for he foreseeable future. For that lecture, I gave an overview of the music and sustainability project as it now stands. There are many rooms in this music and sustainability house, and I tried to lead them into each one of them and show them around, probably going too fast in some spots and lingering too long over others. By now readers of this blog will know something of the rooms and their furnishings.
        For Tom’s seminar, I presented on the topic “sound sacralizes space.” An entry to this blog on with that very title, a few days ahead of the seminar, summarizes what I spoke about. The topic is sound, a topic that encompasses music, at once shifting the subject from music to all sounds and soundscapes, and simultaneously emphasizing the “sound” aspects of music-making that are not usually given as much attention in musical description and analysis as the structural ones such as form, melody, rhythm, and harmony, or the cultural aspects that we ethnomusicologists pursue so vigorously. That is, the subject shifts to emphasize performance, reception, and aspects of sound such as timbre or tone quality; to the relationships between speech, chant, and song and the apparent boundaries between them; to the way sound is presented to consciousness; and to the way sound is in and affects life on the planet.
        I have written in earlier blog entries about acoustic ecology and the work of Bernie Krause, and his evidence for acoustic niches in the natural world. Recently on SEM-L, the listserver discussion group sponsored by the Society for Ethnomusicology but open to the general public, there’ve been several posts from people dissatisfied with the name “ethnomusicology.” Some proposed “sound studies” instead and, predictably, this was endorsed by a few who were interested in the subject, and dismissed by several who felt that with its history and the institutional gains made by ethnomusicology in the past fifty years, it should not be abandoned in favor of a new name that would be unfamiliar to most, while it did not even describe the subject that they were most interested in.
        Count me among those interested in sound studies, of course. I don’t think we have to give up the name ethnomusicology to situate some of our studies in the worlds of sound. Ethnomusicologists can study people making music, and we can also study it within the larger compass of sound studies, along with the acoustic ecology of the natural world, which humans are a part of.
        Recently I was reading in Thoreau, a naturalist who was especially alive to the soundscape. In later editions of Worlds of Music I’ve dwelt on the term (soundscape) in the first chapter, in presenting music within the compass of sound; and I quoted Thoreau’s description of a farm soundscape in Walden. Indeed, chapter 4 of this book is titled “Sounds” and is devoted to a description of sounds heard around the environs of Walden Pond. I also pointed out the justly famous passage from that book where Thoreau remarks on the daily intrusion of the train into the tranquil Walden scene, and pays attention to the soundscape as well as the landscape, describing the iron horse with its snort like thunder, and the smoke billowing from the engine “stretching far behind and rising higher and higher, going to heaven while the cars are going to Boston…” In all of his writings Thoreau is remarkably observant of the natural soundscape; his ears were open as well as his eyes, and he counted on sound for knowledge as much as sight.
        By Thoreau’s time, the (white) man of the woods belonged to history, celebrated by James Fenimore Cooper in the person of Natty Bumppo, or the legends of Daniel Boone, reduced in the twentieth century to unintentional parody in Disney's Davy Crockett. But in Thoreau’s soundscape, the old idea that truth comes by hearing was given new voice and new form. There was a time in the pre-postmodern critical era when orality was a subject of much interest, the writings of Walter Ong especially, on the transition in Renaissance Europe from a predominantly oral (speech, song, hearing) culture to a written (sight, readling, writing) one. The manuscript and then the book, of course, figures mightily in this history. This topic was of considerable interest to folklorists, who trafficked then primarily in oral literature (song, myth, folktale), and to those cultural anthropologists such as Dennis Tedlock and Dell Hymes, who were fascinated by the performance of oral literature, which was inseparable from sound and gesture.
        And so the topic of sacred space is very Thoreauvian, but I see it also in the context of sound studies. It was in this intellectual atmosphere in the 1970s that I became interested in such things as the chanted and sung sermon, and sought to document and interpret these, and their sound effects, so to speak. For Tom Rankin, who is a visual documentarian and photographer, sacred space may be primarily a visual space; but he is not tone-deaf—in fact, he is a very perceptive listener and his documentation and interpretation projects have involved music as well as images.
        One question I thought about for that seminar was what, if anything, was special about sacred space in the southern US, in the South as a region. Southerners, of course, have for at least 150 years felt that the South was special; and I have experienced that heightened sense of place-awareness among some in that region. But I’ve also experienced it elsewhere—in the upper Midwest, and in Rhode Island, and as intensely in down east Maine as in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. The cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan termed it “topophilia,” or love of (one’s) place, and wrote a book with that title.
        And so the South is not unusual in having place-awareness; but what is it about its place-awareness, the way it constructs its place, its sacred space, that is unusual? Here, I think sound plays an important part. The sound of the preacher’s voice, the sound of lined-out hymnody, the sound of the old gospel music, the way sound sacralizes space, even in secular contexts, is not found in the same intensity elsewhere in the US. The number of fiddle tunes, for example, from the upper South, named to evoke specific places (and people) and their aura; the stories that memorialize those people and places when traditional musicians play those tunes—this is not the same in other parts of the US, where fiddle tunes today are a means to a different end, contest prize money rather than memory and evocation of the spirit of person and place, the “genius” of the place as it was termed in the England of Milton’s time, a practice that continues in the traditional music of Scotland and Ireland, and one that doubtless took root in the American South with those who migrated from there and spread that musical mind-set to the New World. Did it exist in the same way in France and French America? Among Asian Americans? Evocation and memory of the spirit of place does not seem to be present in quite the same way in traditional African American music. Such comparative analysis is a topic for an ethnomusicologist, but for another time.

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Hoosier Mediation

Update: as of Oct. 1, 2012, a video of the keynote address that I gave at Indiana University (see below) in 2011 was posted in three parts on YouTube by Michael Goecke. I didn't know that a video was being shot of my presentation, but I don't mind its being on YouTube. It can be found and viewed here:
          Part One:
          Part Two:
          Part Three:

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

      Last fall I was invited by the graduate students in folklore and ethnomusicology at Indiana University to give the keynote address at their 4th annual graduate student conference, on March 25, 2011, a conference in which they combine with graduate students in folklore and ethnomusicology from the Ohio State University, to present papers discussing aspects of their current research, usually either completed research based on Master’s theses, or ongoing research that is forming their PhD dissertations. In so doing they are getting professional training in research presentation, while they also have an opportunity to focus their research and get feedback from an audience of their peers and the various professors at the two universities. Indiana University has the largest and oldest folklore doctoral program in North America; with the demise of the folklore doctoral program at the University of Pennsylvania, Indiana's is also clearly the most distinguished. Their ethnomusicology graduate program, one of many distinguished programs in North America, was also one of the earliest, having begun when comparative musicologist George Herzog and anthropologist Alan Merriam joined forces on the faculty there in the early 1950s.
       When I asked why they chose me, I was told that my own research and publications had combined the disciplines of ethnomusicology and folklore for four decades; that in addition to having taught those subjects to graduate students at two universities, I had directed the doctoral program in ethnomusicology at Brown for 25 years and had been elected as a Fellow of the American Folklore Society 13 years ago. I could also have told them that I taught, briefly, at Indiana University’s Folklore Institute in the summer of 1977, just prior to undertaking the documentary research that would form the basis of the Powerhouse for God projects (book, LP recording, and documentary film) although at that time I did not have anything more than a documentation project in mind.
       I could have told them that in 1977 I had the pleasure of a brief meeting with George List, then blind, but still the director of the ethnomusicology program at the Folklore Institute, and heir to the legacy of George Herzog, a student of Erich von Hornbostel, the father of ethnomusicology, and himself the most influential ethnomusicologist in the US between roughly 1930-1950. I could also have told them that I was invited to the home of Richard Dorson, the long-time director of the Folklore Institute. There, Dorson pointed to a line of books above his lengthy mantelpiece—a yard and a half long--written or edited by Dorson himself. 

       When I saw it, I was reminded of Thoreau’s sardonic remark that he owned a thousand books in his library, 900 of which he had written himself. That was because his books scarcely sold during his lifetime, and his publishers had sent the remaining copies back to the author. Of course, he is much read today. Dick Dorson was much read then by “professional folklorists,” a term that he insisted in using to distinguish those with the doctorate in folklore (or, I suppose, a reputation among academic folklorists for professional research, as his own doctoral degree was in American studies—the same as mine). Dorson also wrote and edited popular books of folktales for a general audience, lengthening the line of books on his mantelpiece more quickly than if he had limited himself to research monographs. These popular books were always well annotated, to distinguish them from those written and edited by amateurs. Dorson's ambitious plans for the Institute, partly realized, were cut short only a few years later when he died of a heart attack on the tennis court. 
        As a booster of graduate education and the professionalization of folklore as a discipline, Dorson had no equal. At the time of his death, strong doctoral programs in folklore could be found at the University of Texas, the University of Pennsylvania, and UCLA as well as at Indiana. Today only the doctoral program at Indiana survives, and folklore as a discipline is much more diffuse than it was in Dorson's era. Folklorists have gone from a concentration in verbal forms such as the folktale, and an emphasis on folklore as text, to a variety of interests and methodologies, with verbal forms, material culture, aesthetics and the ethnography of everyday life among the most popular. An emphasis on folklore as process and performance, rather than as text, unites the academic discipline to some extent.
        Meanwhile, beginning in the 1980s, with fewer and fewer academic jobs available, professional folklorists began entering the public sector and non-profit worlds as arts administrators. Today more than half of the members of the American Folklore Society who hold full-time jobs (that is, excepting students) are employed outside of the academic world. When I joined both the American Folklore Society (AFS) and the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) in the 1970s, there were about half again as many members of the former society as the latter. That percentage stayed roughly the same until about 1990 when the number in AFS began gradually to decline while membership in SEM gradually increased. Doctoral programs in ethnomusicology, based in music departments or schools of music, can be found today in many fine US universities, including Columbia, Harvard, UCLA, Indiana, Illinois, Washington, Ohio State, Wesleyan, Berkeley, and my own university, Brown, where one was started in 1967.
       Today the membership in AFS and SEM is the reverse of what it was about 37 years ago: SEM has about half again as many members as AFS, chiefly academics although an increasing number combine academic and applied work and some applied ethnomusicologists are employed outside the academic world. Nonetheless, folklorists continue to obtain academic jobs at various colleges and universities, in departments as various as history, anthropology, English, sociology, women's, cultural and American studies; whereas in my generation and earlier folklorists were housed chiefly in English departments. In addition, folklorists are enjoying distinguished academic careers, if not building doctoral programs in folklore, at various universities. In some places, folklore has colonized American studies programs; in others, folklore has gained sub-concentrations in traditional disciplines such as English; and in others, such as Western Kentucky and North Carolina, fine graduate programs have continued at the MA level. Of course, the economic downturn that began in 2008 has hurt the academic job market in folklore, ethnomusicology, and other disciplines in the humanities.
        It was good in 2011 to see the folklore and ethnomusicology graduate students at Indiana and Ohio State enjoying each other’s company and appreciating one another’s work. That was not the case at Indiana in 1977; and there was scarcely any ethnomusicology at Ohio State then. I had assumed, back in 1977 when I went to Indiana to teach in their summer session, that because the ethnomusicology doctoral program was housed within the Folklore Institute, that ethnomusicologists and folklorists would have had much to share in the study of music, which at that time was a more important part of folklore studies than it is today. I knew that several students of American folk music were there at the Institute pursuing a doctoral degree in folklore, and I assumed that they would benefit from a context where they could pursue their work in both folklore and ethnomusicology, as I had done in my own graduate studies a decade earlier at the University of Minnesota where I had studied ethnomusicology with Alan Kagan and folklore with Art Geffen and Marty (he never went by Martin) Roth.
        But a happy marriage between folklore and ethnomusicology was not what I found within the Folklore Institute in 1977. The folklore graduate students I spoke with who had wanted to do doctoral work in music had been diverted (and in some cases prevented) from doing so if they did not already have the equivalent of an undergraduate music major, including advanced training in music theory. If they had had it—and none of them did—they would have been welcomed into ethnomusicology courses; without it, they were not only prevented from those courses but also told by Richard Dorson that they did not have the professional qualifications to do research in music. Besides, Dorson distrusted these “folkies” interested in American folk music; to him they appeared too much like amateurs and indeed many of them actually sang and played this music—horror of horrors, as if in one’s heart one could be only either a musician or a scholar but not both. Never mind if they had serious research interests in the music they were singing and playing; in Dorson's view (and List's) they did not have the requisite distance from their subject to attain the necessary objectivity needed for professional research.
        In addition to the oral histories and tragic life stories that I was hearing from my new acquaintances among the graduate students—one of them, Neil Rosenberg, later wrote movingly about his frustrations (“Picking Myself Apart: A Hoosier Memoir,” Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 108 (1995): 277-286)—I heard an opposite point of view from the ethnomusicology graduate students. I recall a meeting with them in which they expressed to me their opinion that this requirement (a strong background in Western music history and theory) for folklorists (and others) studying American folk music (or any other music, for that matter) at the graduate level was both necessary and appropriate; and did I, as someone who had had that background and was teaching both folklore and ethnomusicology at Tufts University then, not agree with them?
        Indeed, I told them, I did not. I told them I thought music could be studied “professionally” from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. I told them I thought there was a distinguished history of literary critics’ studies of lyrics, insights which people like themselves, without an education in literature, probably would not have. I told them I thought there was a growing and fine sociologically-based study of music in the field of what was then called “popular culture studies,” later to become cultural studies. In the next few decades cultural studies, of course, produced many more studies of American popular music than ethnomusicology did. I told them that many folklorists had, in the past, made important scholarly contributions to the study of folk music, without having had the equivalent of an undergraduate degree in music. I asked them if they thought that Albert Lord, or for that matter Francis James Child, had undergone such music training? They had not. Finally, I told them it was arrogant to erect and maintain such barriers, and that they were wrong in thinking that in doing so they were shutting others out. In truth, I said, what they were really doing was shutting themselves out, out of what I saw as a growing interdisciplinary conversation about music that was taking place not only in folklore but also in sociology, popular culture, literary criticism, history, philosophy (aesthetics), and anthropology. 

       Ordinarily I would not have been so oppositional as a guest, or as bold and forthcoming as a young, visiting assistant professor. But I felt strongly that this policy, one that I understood was determined by George List (Dorson, who it was said didn't much like music anyway, simply enforced it), not only was hurtful to the folklore students interested in music, and of course to their career hopes; but it would also prevent a lot of good research from being done, and set back for years the study of American folk music. No other educational institution was so well positioned as the Folklore Institute to create a strong curriculum that would enable the most interested scholars, those most seriously committed, to research American folk music and obtain the doctorate with that specialty. (I should add that very few ethnomusicologists were interested in studying American folk music at the time; most were interested in exotic music and wished to travel to far countries.) Besides, things had happened fast to me while I was out there in Bloomington, in May and June of 1977. I could now speak to them from a position of security that was not simply intellectual, for my scholarship and teaching had just been independently validated. I suddenly had a research fellowship and, for as long as I wanted it, a guaranteed academic job. I had learned from the National Endowment for the Humanities that I'd won a year-long fellowship, and Tufts had just let me know that I was among the ten percent of their faculty that year who had been awarded tenure.
        I could have devoted the keynote address to this bit of history and personal drama--the topic was up to me--but because relations among folklore and ethnomusicology graduate students had greatly improved at the Folklore Institute during the past three decades, and this conference was proof of that, it would have been ancient history, sleeping dogs that should not be stirred, relevant only to those asking why it was that two generations of folklorists (my generation and the next) had not done as much research in United States folk music as one might have hoped, given the interest in the subject among the general public in the last half of the 20th century; or why it was that folklorists in the United States were so far behind their European counterparts in the study of their own folk music. And so I left these subjects, even though they have been on my mind for many years, for another time and place.
        But instead of exploring another facet of my argument concerning music and sustainability--authenticity--I decided to relate my interests in music and sustainability to the conference theme, which was “mediation,” broadly considered. One kind of media-ation relates to the information revolution and how people all over the world are increasingly surrounded by media representations of “the real thing,” or simulacra as Baudrillard put it. Besides, the folklorist and the ethnomusicologist are mediators in many ways. We mediate between our academic cultures and their people, on the one hand, and our subject cultures and their people when we do fieldwork. So, for example, I wrote an essay about mediation back in the early 1980s, discussing the navigation of roles, stances, and identities that the researcher (myself) assumes in doing fieldwork with religious groups, particularly when these groups were absolutist in their beliefs about the world. In my world, academics are relativists who “bracket” or suspend both belief and disbelief about such things as, for instance, whether God exists and whether one religious doctrine is true and another is false, while doing their research. Meanwhile we concentrate on ethnographic work: that is, trying to document and report accurately what it is that the people they are studying believe, the "native's point of view" as Malinowski famously put it nearly a hundred years ago. I added that it was ironic that one felt forced into this kind of objectivity when one does this kind of research without being a cultural insider or believer in the religious doctrine under study. On the other hand, many ethnomusicologists believe that participant-observation is usually a better path toward understanding than mere observation itself; except in cases like this where participation may be impossible. ("Role, Stance, and Identity in Fieldwork Among Folk Baptists and Pentecostals in the United States." American Music, Vol. 3 [1985]: 16-24.)
        I chose to speak about a different kind of mediation: a musical instrument as a mediator, in three different ways; and the instrument I chose was one of several which I have played for more than thirty years: the banjo. I spoke about the banjo as a social and cultural mediator; as a taxonomic mediator; and as a performance mediator in terms of its role in the old-time string band. Particularly in its role in the old-time string band, the banjo encourages the kind of creative improvisation that both sustains the the people who make music (makes it continually challenging and interesting) and also in so doing sustains (conserves) the music, gives it a future as well as a present.
        As a taxonomic mediator, the banjo troubles the most fundamental boundary level in the famous Sachs-Hornbostel musical instrument classification, between membranophone (the banjo’s skin head is a membrane and a sound producer) and chordophone (sound produced from vibrating strings). In terms of its physical construction it is both a membranophone and a chordophone. In one sense it is a mediator between the two classes; in another sense it is unclassifiable.
        As a sociocultural mediator, the banjo was brought to the New World by Africans. In the 19th century it was played by African-Americans and by the European-Americans who learned it from them. The banjo was crucial in the ongoing Black-white musical interchange, one that already, prior to the Civil War, had resulted in the first distinctively American music. This was long before ragtime and jazz, the musical genres that are usually (and incorrectly) pointed to in that regard. In this fusion the banjo and fiddle (an instrument that many Black Americans learned, as they furnished much of the dance music in the Colonies and the new Republic) were key. They altered the 19th century American musical soundscape, and set it in a direction—swing, flow, drive, pulse, participatory discrepancies, whatever one wants to call this rhythmic feel—that would integrate itself into popular dance music of all kinds in the 20th century. As Alan Jabbour has persuasively argued, Black ways of bowing the fiddle “spoke” syncopation and became a sine qua non of dance fiddling in the South. The same could be said of the banjo, whose drone string when played in the stroke or minstrel style gave the music an offbeat emphasis and a new rhythmic feel: swing.
    To illustrate the Black-white musical interchange I showed some of the paintings that William Sidney Mount rendered from the 1830s through the 1860s. Mount was the first and one of the few 19th century artists in the United States to paint vernacular musicians accurately and frequently. Usually regarded as a mere "genre painter," he was nevertheless a serious and fine artist whose work is unusually valuable to the music historian. The only other painter of comparable--actually greater--stature who painted fiddlers and banjo players was Eastman Johnson, and he was both a generation later and not as realistic or as detailed in his representations of instruments, playing postures, and the like. I myself became aware of the Mount paintings and sketches in the 1960s while a graduate student, and I reproduced one in my doctoral dissertation (1971) and my book that came of it (Early Downhome Blues [University of Illinois Press, 1977]). The Mount painting of a Black banjo player ("The Banjo Player," [1856]) has graced museum greeting cards and is well known to anyone with an interest in the history of the banjo; but here just below is one, "Dance of the Haymakers" (1845), that shows a young Black lad playing percussion and patting his foot (outside the barn) in a rhythm that very likely "swings" and encourages the white fiddler playing the tune, and the two young men dancing. Up in the loft a little white girl and her black companion (standing), possibly a "nurse," look on:

Of course, as would be appropriate at that time and place, he is outside the barn, not quite a part of the instrumental ensemble socially; but he is part of it musically. Mount painted music in his community on Long Island, New York. He was, himself, a fiddler and a tune collector and transcriber as well as a painter. He invented a cornerless fiddle that he called "The Cradle of Harmony," but he made his living as a painter, chiefly from portraits that were commissioned by patrons who could afford them. Among his genre paintings were about a dozen non-commissioned canvases depicting fiddlers, banjo players, and dance music. Most found buyers. His brother Robert was a fiddler and dancing master who traveled and instructed dance classes in the South. 
       While it is appropriate to give any artist license to paint from an inner vision, and not to take quite literally the representations that they make, however realistic they seem, in the case of Mount's music paintings there seems little reason not to take them as accurate renderings of the music in his community, though to be sure they are overlaid with sentimentality. It is hard to believe, for instance, that the little dog in the foreground would not be tearing into the carcass of the bird on the plate at the edge of the barn. But the musicians seem to have been real. In fact, the names of most of the musicians depicted in Mount's paintings are coming to light. They were local musicians that Mount saw and heard frequently. Some, like the fiddler depicted in Mount's painting "Just in Tune," he knew intimately: the model was his brother Robert. I told the audience that my musicologist colleague Chris Smith has been researching this and other aspects of Mount's work and is preparing a book discussing Mount and the evidence that these paintings and sketches provide for this musical interchange, and its sociocultural implications; and that it will surely be an eye-opening work of scholarship. Interestingly, because the Mount paintings of Black and white fiddlers and banjo players have been familiar to me for so many years, I had neglected to anticipate that they might be unfamiliar to this conference audience, even though many were doing research in American music. Indeed, they were unfamiliar; but the group of graduate students and professors were quite taken with them. If that is any indication of the potential audience for Chris Smith’s book, it will be even more appealing and important.
        Finally, I spoke about the banjo as a mediating instrument in the performance of old-time string band music, and I took up a subject that I’ve been fussing with for many years: how an old-time string band musician (in this case, a banjo player) learns to play a tune by ear as it’s being played, over and over again, a tune that he or she has never heard before. I am particularly interested in how the tune appears in the mind and in the fingers, how it is presented to the musician’s consciousness successively, each time it flies by, so to speak. To use a technical term, this is a phenomenological inquiry. As I’ve been trying to write an essay on this subject (and trying to use evidence not only from introspection based on my own playing, but also from others’ testimony as how the tunes appear to their consciousness—and not everyone reports this to be the same) for a number of years, I’m going to have to leave it at that, here. 
        I concluded the keynote address on the banjo as a mediator by emphasizing the creative aspects of learning to “set” a tune (either on banjo or fiddle)
by ear, a tune that one has not heard before, in real time; and I tried to indicate that the pleasure and the craft satisfaction found in doing it well (or reasonably so) is sufficient to make this way of making music fill a large part one’s musical life, sustaining both oneself as a musician and in the process sustaining a musical tradition. It is not an easy skill to learn, by the way; it may take several years, and it is particularly difficult on the banjo, because it is not possible to render the fiddler’s melody exactly as the fiddler plays it, at least not without sacrificing the rhythmic drive and swing that is the making of this old Southern sound; and so the banjo player must create a melodic setting that is complementary to that of the fiddle. These skills are not the same as those that improvising jazz musicians develop, by the way, although they are related; but that is yet another story which must be left for another time.
        After this keynote the audience engaged me in conversation about it for more than an hour. They were chiefly interested in the Mount paintings and what they might mean. I was happy to discuss that, and reminded them of Chris Smith's forthcoming book. I tried to steer the conversation back to music and sustainability when I could, emphasizing the Black-white interchange as an instance of the ways innovation gives life and sustains music while transforming sound and enhancing its bodily experience. We adjourned to a delicious and appropriate pot-luck dinner at folklorist and professor John McDowell's home in Bloomington, where the conversation continued for a few more hours before, exhausted from my flight from Providence that morning and my endeavors that afternoon, I left the gathering for the motel and a sound sleep.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Curry Lecture: Applied Ethnomusicology

(Note as of June 29, 2015: The Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, edited by Svanibor Pettan and Jeff Todd Titon, has just been published by Oxford University Press. My section of the Introduction to that book is an updated and far more extensive review of applied ethnomusicology and its history than what I wrote below. The Handbook itself contains essays by more than 20  international contributors.)

Having just now returned (in late April 2011) from a stimulating trip to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and now finished with the last of my guest lectures this semester on music and sustainability, I’d like to catch the blog up on them here, beginning with the Curry Lecture which I delivered at the University of Michigan last March 18. Soon I will post about my talk at Indiana University a week later, and then about the ones at Chapel Hill. The Ethel V. Curry Distinguished Lecture in Musicology is an endowed lecture series created for the University of Michigan by H. Robert Reynolds in honor of his mother. Now retired and living in California, he was for many years a professor in the School of Music at the University of Michigan; he returned to Ann Arbor for this lecture. I had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Reynolds at the lecture and thanking him as we spoke for some minutes before the lecture.

My lecture had been advertised at as follows, in the generic descriptive paragraph that I gave them last fall when I wasn’t yet sure which aspect of the project I would emphasize: “While sustainability is in vogue today, musical and cultural sustainability have yet to be fully theorized. If ethnomusicology is the study of people making music, and applied ethnomusicology is the application of that study in the public interest, Professor Jeff Todd Titon asks how cultural policy regarding music may be informed by the most powerful contemporary discourses in sustainability, those coming from ecology and economics.” The advertisement concludes with a link to this blog.

As usual with descriptions like this given well in advance, they represent the project as it then exists; predictably, it turned out that during my fall presentations at the conferences of the Society for Ethnomusicology and the American Folklore Society I continued exploring the sustainability discourses in ecology and economics, seeking complementarity between them in the concept of “Nature’s economy.” I’ve already written about those presentations on this blog, and also offered the papers themselves. In my lecture at the University of Texas I concentrated on the cultural policy aspects of the project, working with (and against) David Throsby's ideas concerning the economics of cultural policy. And so in the Curry Lecture I turned to a different aspect of the project, in response to requests from professors and students there who wanted to know more about applied ethnomusicology. That is, in addition to offering an overview of the project, I spent the first third of the talk on a definition and explanation of applied ethnomusicology, along with some illustrations. For when an ethnomusicologist gets involved with a project like this, which involves theorizing towards a public policy implementation, it falls under the heading of applied ethnomusicology. And so that will be the subject of this blog entry, expanded somewhat from what I said in Ann Arbor.

In 1992, when I was editor of Ethnomusicology, the Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology, I solicited articles for a special issue on applied ethnomusicology. At that time there was no single word for this field: it was either called public sector ethnomusicology (after public sector folklore), or applied ethnomusicology (after applied anthropology). Other terms in use were practice ethnomusicology, action ethnomusicology, and active ethnomusicology. In recognition that the name had not yet been settled, I called the special issue “ethnomusicology in the public interest,” a working definition of applied ethnomusicology that appealed to me because it suggested a recognition of civic responsibility in all that we are about, a view that our work ought to engage with public discourse beyond university walls. “This work,” I wrote, “involves and empowers music-makers and music-cultures in collaborative projects that present, represent, and affect the cultural flow of music throughout the world” (“Music, the Public Interest, and the Practice of Ethnomusicology,” Ethnomusicology, Vol. 36, no. 3 [1992], p. 315).

In my introductory essay for that special issue, I emphasized the differences between practice and theory, and between the ivory tower of the university and the world of practice outside of it, far more than I do today, and more than I did in 2003 in an article that appeared in a special issue of Folklore Forum devoted to applied ethnomusicology. This article, "A Conversation with Jeff Todd Titon," was an interview that John Fenn conducted with me, in which he asked me to define applied ethnomusicology, offer some instances of it, discuss my involvement with it going back to the nineteen-sixties, and say where I thought applied ethnomusicology was headed and why so many graduate students were interested in it at that time. This article may be downloaded for free at

But in the period from 1950-1990 there was a good deal of opposition, chiefly among senior ethnomusicologists (I was not quite so senior at the time), to applied ethnomusicology. Some agreed with Alan Merriam that ethnomusicology ought to be a pure science, not an applied one; for in the early 1950s the founders of the Society for Ethnomusicology had, after all, rejected overtures from the International Folk Music Council to ally their work with theirs, on account of a perceived bias at the IFMC towards “salvage” work—a romantic preoccupation with dead and dying musics and musical cultures. According to the founders, ethnomusicologists were meant to study all music as objectively and scientifically as possible; romantic bias had no place in the discipline. Merriam had, also, publicly ridiculed applied ethnomusicology in K-12 education as “sandbox ethnomusicology,” taking a swipe at the direction Society for Ethnomusicology co-founder David McAllester had gone since about 1970. Other prominent ethnomusicologists put it more mildly: applied ethnomusicology surely was a good thing for society, but was the practice of music in the public interest really ethnomusicology?

In the 1980s another model (besides applied anthropology) for applied ethnomusicology became available in the US: public sector folklore. Three federal institutions--the Smithsonian Institution's Folklife Office, the Library of Congress's American Folklife Center, and the Folk Arts Division of the National Endowment for the Arts became involved in various applied folklore projects whose aim was what was called cultural conservation. The Smithsonian's major project was their annual folklife festival; the American Folklife Center, which housed the Archive of Folk Song, began to do folk cultural surveys in various parts of the US, resulting in exhibits and other interventions in the public sector; and the Folk Arts Division distributed some $3 million annually to organizations who were identifying, documenting, and presenting folk artists to the general public. Further, Folk Arts established the position of "state folklorist" on state arts councils and other state and local organizations, to the point that by the end of the decade a network of public sector folklorists was operating in nearly every state of the union. As traditional music was considered a folk art, a few ethnomusicologists were hired by the Smithsonian and the American Folklife Center both for particular projects and as permanent staff; meanwhile, two or three ethnomusicologists could usually be found on the Folk Arts panels. (I served from 1980 to 1984 and again in 1989 and 1993). Folklorists attended the Society for Ethnomusicology conferences and led workshops that helped ethnomusicologists see how they might get involved in public folklore. Many were attracted by the possibility that they could obtain grants for their organizations.

Applied ethnomusicology topics and projects appeared increasingly on the SEM conference programs in the 1990s, and eventually a special interest group (committee) on applied ethnomusicology was founded, by myself and twenty-six others, in 1997. In 2002 two of the leaders of that group, Doris Dyen and Martha Ellen Davis, turned it into a “section,” a more permanent designation. Today the section, of which I am currently a co-chair, has more than 100 members and is the largest section in the Society. The first conference devoted to applied ethnomusicology, held at Brown in 2003 and organized by two of our doctoral candidates, Erica Haskell and Maureen Loughran, was called "Invested in Community." In addition to the kinds of scholarly exchange that take place at conferences, it was an attempt to show that applied ethnomusicology is both an international effort (a number of invited presenters were from Europe) and also that applied ethnomusicologists worked both inside and outside the university world. All the conference presentations are on line at

Most ethnomusicologists, today, have adopted a live and let live attitude; applied ethnomusicology is fine for those who want to do it, and not required for those ethnomusicologists who do not. Some applied ethnomusicologists, though, carry forward out of habit the incorrect assumption that applied ethnomusicology is something that exists apart from universities, while others express animosities toward academics. And, to be sure, some academics remain suspicious of applied work. These divisions are not helpful. To think of applied ethnomusicology as an "alternative career" immediately marginalizes it as "alternative" and erects barriers between academic and applied ethnomusicology. One can just as easily imagine the academic career as an alternative to a career in the public sphere; indeed, some non-academics think of universities as ivory towers that are out of touch with the mainstream. Most important, it is a false dichotomy because many ethnomusicologists employed by colleges and universities do applied work, while many applied workers employed outside of universities do academic research.

In the Curry Lecture, I defined applied ethnomusicology as the process of putting ethnomusicological research to practical use. It is not the same as putting music to use; many people put music to use without the benefit of ethnomusicological research. Nonetheless, this definition that I favor now is, like my earlier notion of ethnomusicology in the public interest, more inclusive than some other current definitions, emanating particularly from my European colleagues, which ally applied ethnomusicology to a desire to intervene with music on behalf of peace and social justice. While it’s true that many applied ethnomusicologists do this work for that reason, one with which my own history with activism aligns, this is too narrow a definition to accommodate much that goes on in this field, such as medical ethnomusicology, which includes music therapy as well as education for HIV/AIDS. Other examples of applied ethnomusicology include public programming involving documentation and presentation of under-represented music at museums and festivals; participatory action research, involving partnerships with community scholars to work toward mutual community music goals such as encouraging conditions under which music will flourish; music, peace studies, and conflict resolution, particularly with regard to ethnic rivalries in the Balkans and Middle East; education, enabling multicultural initiatives such as a diversity of music in the curriculum; and cultural policy regarding music, including sustainability initiatives.

None of these examples is out of harmony with pluralism and social justice goals and most are, in fact, very much in the same spirit; and yet one can imagine ethnomusicological research put to use in the service of other ideologies. For example, some Christian missionaries do engage in what they call applied ethnomusicology, the application of ethnomusicological knowledge to fieldwork and musical partnerships with various groups, with conversion and education a principal goal. One group, led by Brian Schrag, who received his PhD in ethnomusicology from UCLA, has worked out a methodology and has presented examples of their work in Africa at the annual conferences of the Society for Ethnomusicology. Brian and his group do seek social justice for the Africans they work with, but within an explicit Christian framework. And unlike some other missionaries, they are respectful of the Africans' traditional ways. The argument could continue: one might say that in introducing the Christian framework they are elevating a particular world view. Against that, it could be pointed out that the ideology of cultural equity that underpins applied ethnomusicology (and public folklore) also elevates a particular world view that values diversity and pluralism. And so on. Still, that missionary work is different from the work of ethnomusicologist Rabbi Jeffrey Summit with a group of Ugandan Jews. Rabbi Summit’s goal is not conversion; it is musical and cultural conservation. These Africans are already Jewish. My own work with various religious musical cultures (all Christian) is the same: the goals have been documentation and conservation, as well as interpretation.

One could say that the musical relativism on which ethnomusicology was founded (in response to the perceived absolutism of older musicologists whose subject was the tradition of Western art music aka classical music, and who considered it to be the best, the most rewarding, most stimulating, most complex, most civilizing musical achievement of humankind) should not, to be consistent in principle, exclude applied ethnomusicologies with varying ideological agendas. On the other hand, one might argue that there is a difference between musical relativism and ideological relativism.

It is an old argument. Should the definition include, for example, ethnomusicological research put to use in torturing political prisoners? The United States bombards Muslim “detainees” with loud music, in their efforts to break their resistance and obtain information. Evidently hip-hop is especially loathed, especially Eminem. The Society for Ethnomusicology’s Executive Board, on the recommendation from the Society’s Ethics Committee, put out a statement on the SEM website publicly condemning the use of music for torture. (Go to:

It so happens that I was the one who brought the matter before the Ethics Committee in the first place, and I found nothing but strong support for my position all the way through to the publication of the statement—the first time that SEM has taken such a public political stand, be it said. But can I find an ethical principle that will exclude this appalling use of ethnomusicological research (I don’t know that any ethnomusicologists were directly involved in the government’s decision to use hip-hop to torture political prisoners, of course; my guess is that they consulted the literature of music psychology primarily) and not exclude ideologies that embrace social justice? This is more than a technical question. For the moment applied ethnomusicology can afford, in my view, to be inclusive and expansive. I can imagine a time when it may not be so easy for me to take this view.

Having worked through a definition of applied ethnomusicology, though not with all of this background, I went on to give examples of it, such as the ones above, and to speak at length about my longitudinal study and partnership with the Old Regular Baptists, in southeastern Kentucky, who were and are keen to conserve their traditional sound, embodied in their lined-out hymnody. Neither proselytizing nor conversion was at stake here; it was a matter of improving the musical and cultural conditions under which this group could conserve their musical tradition, the oldest continuous English-language sacred song tradition in the United States. This is, for example, the way that the Massachusetts Bay Puritans sang; the first book published in Colonial America was theirs, the Bay Psalm Book. I have written extensively about this work elsewhere, but the effects of the project were summarized by Elwood Cornett, the moderator (elected head) of the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptists, in the program "Radio-Gram: Religion" thus:

In the Curry Lecture I also discussed the dichotomy between “pure” and “applied” with ethnomusicology in mind. My view is that they are two sides of the same coin, and that the distinction is not helpful. The pure versus applied distinction is borrowed from the natural sciences, where “pure” science means research aimed primarily at offering analysis, explanation, and understanding and at increasing knowledge about the natural world. So-called “applied” science means research aimed primarily at finding practical uses for pure research in order to meet human goals. In other words, applied science involves applying theoretical knowledge gained in pure research to make interventions in the natural world that meet human needs and desires.

The classic distinction is often made between the pure science of mathematics and the applied science of engineering. How might this distinction work in the discipline of ethnomusicology? Not very well, I believe. For not only are the pure and applied interdependent, as are the theoretical and practical; but academic and public ethnomusicology are interconnected as well. Most pure ethnomusicologists do applied work. We think, perhaps, of the pure ethnomusicologist in the university doing research. But even the most six-ply, steel-belted, fully tenured ethnomusicologists do applied work when they teach, and when they do fieldwork. They may also theorize applied ethnomusicology from within the academic world, as I am doing now. And they may engage in applied projects from their secure base in the university.

At the same time, applied ethnomusicologists, even when working outside the universities, not only employ ethnomusicology theory but advance our knowledge of people making music through the practice of ethnomusicology. In doing fieldwork aimed at presenting music in various settings such as artists in the schools, museums, concerts, and ethnic festivals, they identify, document, and interpret the music they are becoming acquainted with and add to the storehouse of pure ethnomusicological knowledge. The same could be said about ethnomusicologists involved in medical ethnomusicology, for example, insofar as they contribute to our knowledge about the physiology and psychology of music; and about ethnomusicologists doing participatory action research, insofar as they learn ethnographic information which contributes to our knowledge of particular music cultures. And so forth, but you get the drift: applied contributes to pure, pure to applied, and the categories spin and merge in what is called practice theory, or theory grounded in practice: the finest kind of each.

For the rest of the Curry Lecture, I gave the assembled group—perhaps 200 of them—an overview of the music and sustainability project. I’ve worked out some Keynote (the Apple version of Microsoft’s Powerpoint) slides that help me present it, and I found them useful at the University of Texas and again just recently at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. After the lecture, there was a question-answer session for about an hour, and then we broke up. I went to supper with a group of professors, ethnomusicologists and musicologists, and we talked well into the night, past 11 p.m. One of the wonderful things about giving these invited lectures this semester has been the chance to listen to questions and critique, some of which carry on in email, as I try to work these ideas into a book manuscript. At the same time, I hope that something I say at these talks will affect each of the listeners, for I want to leave them with an idea or two that may prove useful and helpful in their own work, for ultimately it is not my work or theirs but it is our work after all.