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.

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