Sustainable Music


Saturday, February 26, 2011

Systems and sustainability at the EPA

The federal Environmental Protection Agency “is undertaking what some call a ‘seismic shift in the way it works: making ‘sustainability’ its central goal,” said Bruce Gellerman on this morning’s public radio broadcast of Living on Earth. Jeff Young interviewed the new head of the EPA, Paul Anastas, who explained that instead of targeting for specific interventions, he “wants his scientists to think more broadly about systems and sustainability.” Anastas explained using climate change as an example: “Climate is inextricably linked to energy, energy inextricably linked to water, water to agriculture, agriculture to health, and we could go on and on. If we start saying that the entirety of our approach to sustainability is simply to reduce our carbon footprint or to look at any one aspect, then we will not be getting the power and potential of the synergies of looking from a systems approach.”

Anastas’ adoption of the systems approach indeed represents that shift from conservation thinking, in which particular problems such as endangered species are addressed by specific interventions, to ecological thinking, in which the principle of interconnectedness guides policy makers to look at the consequences of specific interventions in the context of the interdependence of the whole system or ecosystem. This is precisely the shift in thinking that I have been proposing for cultural interventions, based on the principle of interconnectedness, one of the four principles I’ve been speaking and writing about. I explain it most thoroughly in my essay, "Music and Sustainability: An Ecological Viewpoint," in The World of Music, Vol. 51, No. 1 (2009), pp. 119-138.

 This kind of thinking underlies my proposals to feed the cultural soil, so to speak, rather than the particular arts or genres; in other words, to concentrate efforts in musical and cultural sustainability on improving the conditions that give a life to traditional music and expressive culture, rather than simply targeting endangered musical cultures for support, as UNESCO (the major institution involved in cultural sustainability throughout the world) has been doing in its efforts to safeguard intangible cultural heritage. I would hope that the same kind of shift in strategy that the new EPA head is espousing would translate to the institutions that are making cultural policy—not only UNESCO, but national agencies as well, such as arts councils, museums, historical societies, and traffickers in cultural and musical heritage.

But I’d add a word of caution. This kind of holistic thinking, which Anastas is adopting at the EPA, envisions a paradigmatic environmental system, one that claims that large ecosystems move through a succession of stages towards a balanced state in dynamic equilibrium. The climax forest concept is the usual example. But some contemporary ecologists have discarded this model of a balance of Nature in favor of one based in evolutionary biology, with blind chance and mutation as the driving factors over the (very) long term. This newer paradigm challenges Nature's economy (a concept that, incidentally, Darwin himself believed) and posits disturbance and disequilibrium as the new normal. Climate change on Earth, as it has occurred over hundreds of millions of years, is taken as the usual example. Because my thinking here is informed by ecology, it would be irresponsible not to consider this newer paradigm—welcomed in some quarters, damned in others—and its consequences, for music, cultural policy, and sustainability. I intend to do so in a number of future posts, particularly as I examine the role of music and sound in evolution. Evolution, as I wrote here many months ago, was once a forbidden topic among ethnomusicologists, but climate change effects ideas as well as temperature.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Save the National Heritage Fellowships

In its unwisdom the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) has decided to eliminate the National Heritage Fellowships for folk and traditional artists, folding them into a general category of arts fellowships called Artists of the Year. Folk and traditional artists would have to compete against fine artists for these fellowships, and given the composition of the NEA and its panels, they wouldn’t fare well. The end result would be fewer, or no, fellowships for folk and traditional artists. These fellowships were designed to help save the traditional arts in the United States and now they themselves are endangered.

In 1978 the NEA established a separate division for the folk arts. I had the pleasure of serving on their folk arts panels from 1980-83 and again in the late 1980s, and I was involved in the creation of these fellowships. The idea, initiated and championed by the division's director, Bess Lomax Hawes, was to model them on Japan's awards to individual artists whom they deemed national treasures. NEA—Folk Arts formally established the National Heritage Fellowships in 1981; the first awards were given out in 1982. Every year, a dozen or so exemplary folk and traditional artists were selected—singers, musicians, poets, painters, weavers, blacksmiths, saddle makers, and so forth, representing all regions and ethnic groups in the United States and its territories. They came to Washington to receive their awards. In the first decade or so, CBS newsman Charles Kuralt presented them in a ceremony at the Ford Theater.

 These awards were part of a the division’s strategy of targeting endangered folk arts for cultural survival, by honoring exemplary practitioners. It was hoped that the fellowship money would help the artists continue to practice their arts, and that the fellowship’s aura would uplift the status of the artist and the art within the community where it was practiced. They have been given out each year now for nearly thirty years; many had the desired effect of raising the profile of the artist and the traditional art, with the result that others in the communities recognized its worth and some determined to carry it on. This was one aspect of the NEA—Folk Arts division’s forays into cultural sustainability, based on the idea of cultural conservation through the arts. And these are the awards that a short-sighted NEA has determined to get rid of. Even though I believe, now, that there are better means of sustaining musical cultures than targeting endangered ones and singling out exemplary artists for special awards, I find myself upset about the consequences of losing these fellowships.

If Congress had threatened to eliminate these awards, opposing the cuts would be a straightforward act for culture workers to engage in through lobbying. But the NEA itself has offered up these cuts, and so those of us who would mount a lobbying campaign in Congress need to oppose NEA policy and ask Congress to restore the National Heritage Fellowships. Specifically, we are asking that Congress reject the edits proposed in the NEA 2012 Appropriations Request (p. 11) to the General Provisions within the Department of Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriation Act, SEC 419 (1), and restore the words “National Heritage Fellowships.” This would not mean increasing the NEA budget.

Readers of this blog who agree with me may act now and bring this matter to their representatives in the Senate. The paragraph just above has sufficient information to identify what needs to be done. The budget hearing for NEA funding will take place on April 6th. Several public folklorists, applied ethnomusicologists, anthropologists, oral historians, and others interested in cultural sustainability are engaged in this lobbying effort. Please join us. Now is the time to get in touch with your Senator and staff in Washington and urge that the National Heritage Fellowships be saved.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

The creative economy and the gift of music

As readers of this blog know well, I’ve been speaking and writing about an ecological approach to musical sustainability, suggesting that the idea of Nature’s economy and that four principles borrowed from conservation ecology (interdependence, diversity, limits to growth, and stewardship) will help us move towards better best practices in cultural policy. But in my lecture at the University of Texas at Austin, on February 11, I wanted to explore another aspect of cultural policy, the economics of music in terms of the classic distinctions between gift and commodity exchanges. I devoted my lecture to formulating the following question: how can civil society sustain the gift of music when cultural policy is becoming an arm of economic policy?

Music, bought and sold in the marketplace, is usually regarded as a commodity. As a product, such as a recording, music has a commodity value and a market price. As a created object, as intellectual property, music can also be copyrighted and owned; not merely the creation but also the performance—and they may be owned separately, as indicated by the different copyright symbols © and ℗. As an aside, the notion that a person can own a recording, such as a CD or an mp3 file downloaded from the Internet, but not the right to copy and sell that recording, is peculiar. I will have more to say about that in later posts.

Music is also regarded as a gift. That is, music is sometimes experienced as a gift, and one cannot put a price on such an experience. Composers say that sometimes they experience moments when pure inspiration produces music effortlessly and it is as if they are merely the vessels bringing music into the world from another source. Musicians say that sometimes their playing is equally a gift. In many cultures, musical talent is regarded as a gift, innate, and although it can be developed, it cannot be bought or sold. Listeners sometimes say that they experience music as an invaluable gift that enhances their appreciation and understanding.

My friend Lewis Hyde—we first met when he was an undergraduate and I was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota—has written about experiencing art as a gift. In his widely-read and deservedly influential book, The Gift, he recalls that “I went to see a landscape painter’s works, and that evening, walking among pine trees near my home, I could see the shapes and colors I had not seen the day before. The spirit of an artist’s gift can wake our own. The work appeals, as Joseph Conrad says, to a part of our being which is itself a gift and not an acquisition. . . We may not have the power to profess our gifts as the artist does, and yet we come to recognize, and in a sense to receive, the endowments of our being through the agency of his creation” (Lewis Hyde, The Gift [Vintage Books, 1983, p. xii]).

It was the French anthropologist Marcel Mauss who, nearly 100 years ago, drawing on Bronislaw Malinowski’s fieldwork among Trobriand Islanders, posited a difference between societies where economic exchange took place chiefly in the form of gifts, and those societies such as our own where commodity exchange was the norm. His original insight was that in commodity exchanges, the legal contract between buyer and seller obviates the need for any ongoing personal relationship among them; whereas in gift exchanges, the receiver is personally obligated to the giver, ethically if not legally. That is, the receiver feels obliged to give something back, in exchange, to the original giver; or to circulate the gift further.

But cultural policy is quickly and willingly becoming an arm of economic policy. As David Throsby writes in his book The Economics of Cultural Policy, until a decade or so ago, cultural policy among the Western nations was devoted chiefly to subsidizing the arts with direct financial support, whether from corporations, government, or philanthropic individuals. These subsidies were given chiefly to arts organizations such as symphony orchestras, museums, dance companies, and so forth; some monies came to artists directly in the form of fellowships. But in the past decade, according to Throsby, cultural policy has increasingly been positioned as part and parcel of economic policy, and a new term has entered policy discourse to describe this meetingplace: the “creative economy.”

Cultural policy-makers argue that art grows the commodity economy. It does so in three ways. First, cultural tourism which takes in the arts brings tourist money to local economies where heritage spaces, museums, concert halls, and other presentational venues attract an audience. Second, the cultural industries themselves, those involved in the production of mass market art—particularly music—have a large and growing impact on the economy. Third, education in the arts nourishes creativity, and creativity leads to innovation in technology and business, which leads to a competitive edge and economic growth. Cultural tourism, the culture industries, and the way the arts nourish the qualities needed for creativity in the marketplace constitute the creative economy.

Thus my question: how can civil society sustain the gift culture surrounding art in general and music in particular, when music is increasingly viewed as a commodity and when cultural policy, which is the way civil society encourages music, is increasingly becoming an arm of economic policy?

Monday, February 7, 2011

A visit to Portland, Oregon

    I'm just back from an exciting trip to Portland, Oregon, one of the most environmentally conscious areas of the U.S. Professor Darrell Grant, of the music department at Portland State University, invited me to speak on how music might take a seat at the table where sustainability was under discussion. He'd told me that sustainability was an important topic of conversation in his city, and that much good work was being done; but people were puzzled about how music fit into the civic dialogue. Darrell Grant is an active member of the university and the Portland community, a graduate of the Eastman School of Music, a highly regarded teacher and jazz pianist, and a citizen concerned with the health of the music community and the Portland soundscape. Last fall, out of the blue, he invited me to kick off a series of lectures on music and sustainability sponsored by the music department as part of the university's sustainability initiative. He'd run into this blog, read it, and hoped I'd be willing to share some of my thoughts with the Portland community.

    In addition to the lecture, Darrell arranged a 90-minute morning round table to which he'd invited not only members of the music department and the university at large who were interested in the topic, professors from sociology and English, for example, but also several people involved with the city's soundscape, including urban planners, acoustic ecologists, arts administrators, architects, and the president of the local musicians' union, all for a dialogue around music's place in the city's ongoing efforts at sustainability.

    On Friday morning while eating breakfast I read the city paper, The Oregonian, and found an entire section devoted to "How We Live: Sustainability." The lead article was on Oregon State University's new green energy center; other articles discussed an exhibit of Whale Island petroglyphs from the Wampanum tribe, a documentary film entitled The Economics of Happiness, sponsored by Portland's Center for Earth Leadership, a public symposium on policy planning for the Williamette River watershed, a tree plantation repair work project, meant to improve stream health and restore wildlife habitat, and seeking volunteers; a film about the vanishing bees; and more. Writer Carrie Sturrock's column, "PDX Green" (PDX is the abbreviation for Portland), quoted Dick Roy, of the Center for Earth Leadership: "If everyone became a naturalist and understood the geology of the region and the history of the region and had a commitment to place, then the place we are isn't just a commodity. Then you have a foundation of people living in place who accept deep responsibility for it." Sturrock concluded that "Consequently, it becomes more easy and natural to support local businesses and farmers rooted in place." I felt grateful to be in such an environmentally-conscious place as Portland, with like-minded people.

    The music department representatives spoke about the mission statement they'd drafted concerning music and sustainability, in the process discovering many different interests and voices. I likened this, and the additional voices at the table, to the acoustic ecology of the tropical rain forest, where the voices of birds, reptiles, insects (yes, they make sounds by rubbing parts of their bodies together), and other animals all can be heard, not in a cacophony but each species with their particular acoustic niche, and where they can communicate with one another. A sociology professor picked up on this idea, saying that in her work she's very much concerned with the role of music in the health and solidarity of human communities.

    One of the Portland city community members spoke about music's quality of resilience, both in preference to the term sustainability, and as a supplement to it. He was speaking about the resilience of musical cultures and musicians as well, and instanced resilience as a quality that enabled music to survive in the face of change. This stimulated me to suggest to the group that resilience was one of the more important ecological concepts. A few of the people at the round table were aware that in the last  forty years or so the idea that ecosystems tend toward a state of dynamic equilibrium, exemplified in the climax forest, has been severely challenged by an opposite hypothesis, namely that disturbance rather than equilibrium is the natural tendency, that the ecosystem is no system at all, and that entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics characterize the natural world. Against this movement toward disorder, randomness, and chaos, however, I said that the natural world does exhibit resilience; and certainly the resilience of musical cultures is analogous.

    After everyone had a chance to speak and introduce themselves and their concerns, I noted that their concerns fell broadly into two topics: (1) the sustainability of music into the future, and (2) the role of music in the sustainability of life on planet Earth. These concerns, I said, lead us to formulate cultural policy in regard to music. Sustainability is a new word, but cultural policy has been concerned with the sustainability of music for a very long time. For example, music education has been going on for centuries; its goal is the sustainability of music and musical cultures. Beginning in the nineteenth century, efforts were under way to preserve musical artifacts in museums; before that, in private collections. Conservation was another form of cultural policy, ancient in regard to patronage, such as music supported by courts and governments throughout the world; but in the last part of the 20th century, cultural policy involving conservation began to target endangered musics for support, just as conservation efforts in the natural world were targeting endangered species.

    After critiquing targeted interventions, I pointed out that in the last decade or two, cultural policy has moved from conservation efforts in support of music to a view of music as an arm of economic policy, and I mentioned the ways in which cultural policymakers were bringing music and the arts into what was being termed the creative economy, as a spur to technological innovation and economic growth. It was interesting to see some resistance at the round table to the creative economy argument, as if there were something crass about it. Instead, as one of the community members put it, cultural policy should view music as an important component of happiness and well-being. I told them that music, art, gift, commodity, and the creative economy is an area I will be exploring in invited lectures later this winter and spring.

    Toward the end of the long and productive discussion, the talk turned toward the influence of the Internet on the future of music. Professional musicians, indeed the profession of music itself, was going to have to change, said the president of the musicians' union. How would it be possible for professional composers and musicians to continue earning a living, if society was moving away from the idea that musical product and performance is intellectual property that should be protected by copyright? Some felt that it would be difficult for older musicians to adapt, and that the future would see more musicians making less money. Some of the younger people at the table pointed out that while the Internet was moving toward free delivery of recordings, the circulation possibilities for music and access for musicians were increasing enormously, to the point that more musicians would be making more money in the future, not from music available on the Internet, but from concerts and recordings sold at concerts (which were not available on the Internet). Afterward many of the participants mentioned that they had been reading this blog with pleasure and were glad to meet the author; some had been reading it for more than a year or two.

    Friday evening’s lecture concentrated on the implications of the Four Principles from conservation biology (diversity, interdependence, limits to growth, and stewardship) for cultural policy regarding music. I spoke about these, thinking that in such an ecologically-conscious community, this aspect of the topic would be of more interest than others. I spoke about stewardship and partnership, had them sing an Old Regular Baptist lined hymn with me, and then talked at length about how the Old Regular Baptists had been able to conserve and revitalize their 425-year-old singing tradition.

    I was going to conclude by talking about the Lilley Cornett Woods, the only old-growth forest left in eastern Kentucky, but I ran out of time. The Lilley Cornett Woods is located in the same southeastern part of the state as the Old Regular Baptists. In fact, the hymn we listened to, and then sang, was one that I recorded in a church not more than a few miles away from the Lilley Cornett Woods. So I will leave for another time the story of Lilley Cornett and the 500 acres of original growth forest he bought after World War I on his miner’s wages, and preserved because he wouldn’t sell out to the timber cutters and the coal companies. Nor would the Old Regular Baptists sell out to the musical reformers, whether the purveyors of music literacy, shaped notes and gospel music in the 19th century, or the dominance of gospel music (what some of them call "radio songs") in the 20th. It’s not a coincidence that the Old Regular Baptists and the Lilley Cornett Woods inhabit the same geographical and cultural space.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Asking good questions

This research blog has been a great help in getting some ideas on music and sustainability out there, and in getting some feedback. The seminar I taught last year at Brown in Music and Cultural Policy was also very helpful. At the moment what I'm thinking is this: what are the best, that is, the most fruitful, questions to ask about music and sustainability? As usual, in doing the kind of exploratory research a humanities scholar does, I've been following my interests and inclinations, rather than going along a predetermined route. This is new work; there is no predetermined route, and I believe it would have been premature to try to plan one when I started on this road years ago. As Theodore Roethke wrote, "I learn by going / where I have to go."

Of course, this blog is filled with questions, some asked, many implicit. What are the first ones, the ones that lead down the most promising paths, roads, highways? What are the ones that will help to run patterns and orders that will help us best theorize sustainability and music? This is another way of saying I want to start organizing this research in a systematic way.  I've been speaking out and writing about various aspects of the research for six years, and it's getting to be time to put it together in a book before books (or I) become obsolete. This semester is both busy and fortunate in that regard--busy because of my full load of classes and several invited lectures at other universities, and fortunate in that these invitations are to speak about music and sustainability. I look forward to learning a great deal from these interactions, all the while trying to settle on an order and patterned relationship in the questions to ask--and there are many. I'm hoping, through these invited lectures on music and sustainability, all during the next three months at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Portland State University, the University of Michigan, and Indiana University, to organize the questions that will best theorize the topic in an understandable and helpful way. And, of course, I'm hoping we can move further in developing some answers.