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.

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