Sustainable Music


Sunday, December 30, 2012

Ecosystem as descriptor

     One of the key concepts in the argument for a sound commons for all living beings is the ecosystem, an ecological paradigm that stresses the interconnectedness of animals, plants, and minerals within a bounded geographical area. Interconnectedness is also one of the four principles I identified in my work on musical and cultural sustainability.[1] Of course, there is much more to an ecosystem than interconnectedness; and fifty years ago when the concept governed ecological science, ecologists worked with mathematical models to determine the flow of energy among the components of ecosystems. Nowadays, the word ecosystem is cropping up all over the place. I began to notice this a while ago, in the phrase “the Apple ecosystem.” Today it’s difficult to find an article about a new Apple or Google product that doesn’t speak metaphorically of their ecosystems. Now that I’m watching for it, I also see the term to describe the financial ecosystem, the urban ecosystem, and the digital ecosystem. Ecosystem hasn’t yet become as ubiquitous as the word sustainable, but it won’t be long before it does.
    What can ecosystem mean outside of its ecological science context? I’ve seen it used, first, as a synonym for system where “eco” appears to add value but doesn’t because “system” will do just as well by itself. Second, it's used as a synonym for an integrated but closed system. Third, it appears as a descriptor for an open, interdependent, co-evolving community, a complex system with a degree of uncertainty--predictions of its behavior cannot be more than probable. It is this last usage that is of particular interest to me. Tellingly, although they imply opposite kinds of systems (closed vs. open), both the second and third usages arose from interpretations of Apple’s business model.
     As a synonym for an integrated but closed system, it comes up in phrases such as “locked into the Apple ecosystem.” Here it refers to how Apple components (hardware, software and media) work with one another but not with non-Apple components.  For example, writing in The Guardian (UK), Benjamin Cohen reviewed the new iPhone 5: “. . . the real reason this device will still be a success and why I upgraded to another iPhone recently, is that all the applications and content I've purchased over the past four years will only work on an Apple product. I'm locked into the Apple ecosystem just like tens of millions of others. That's the true magic of Apple, luring us into using their pieces of technology and then selling us applications, music and video that are locked to their proprietary formats and products. It's a clever tactic and one that looks like it'll keep us hooked for a years to come.” [2]
    Such descriptions of the Apple ecosystem emphasize the pleasure as well as the pain of the tender trap. Here is another: “Every couple of months articles crop up on the Internet calling Apple’s ecosystem a ‘walled garden’ or a ‘golden cage.’ These articles usually try to convince the reader that Apple has lured users into a trap using design/popularity/marketing, shut the door behind them and thrown away the key.” [3]
    The third contemporary usage of “ecosystem” also describes an integrated system, but one that is open rather than closed. Interdependence and evolution are emphasized. A recent book review is a case in point: ”Might DNA be likened to a digital program, and might computer programs themselves evolve within our complex ecosystem of information technology and assume virtual life?” [4] The ideal digital ecosystem is similar: an open, collaborative platform.
    James F. Moore, a systems theorist, applied this open system ecological model to business communities. In a 1993 article, Moore argued that successful contemporary corporations were changing from traditional, vertically integrated, competitive organizations to innovative, collaborative institutions working with partner organizations (suppliers, distributors, accessory-makers) as well as customers in co-evolving communities of common interest and purpose. In his view, successful corporations did not compete with each other so much as build business ecosystems. For an illustration he compared Apple's successful computer community with the older logic of the Tandy organization. Readers born before 1975 might remember the Tandy TRS-80, a popular personal computer from the mid-1980s that ceased manufacture. By contrast, Steve Jobs was said to have built not just computers but the business equivalent of a surviving ecological community. [5]
    Moore’s 1996 book, The Death of Competition, elaborates the business ecosystem analogy explicitly and in great detail. He defines a business ecosystem as follows: “An economic community supported by a foundation of interacting organizations and individuals—the organisms of the business world. This economic community produces goods and services of value to consumers, who are themselves members of the ecosystem. The member organisms also include suppliers, lead producers, competitors [sic] and other stakeholders. Over time, they co-evolve their capabilities and roles . . ." [6].
    As I pointed out earlier in this blog, back in 1984 I published my thoughts on how music cultures were ecosystems, with music in a musical community circulating like energy in an ecological community. [7] But although I made a comparison to a biological ecosystem to describe worlds of musical activity, as Moore used it ten years later to describe worlds of business activity, I did not publish an article and a book elaborating the concept. Ten years later, Moore did, and his remarkable work deserves further attention, which I will reserve for the next blog entry.
     Suffice it to say now that while Moore views business ecosystems as politically revolutionary, progressive and positive, those who think of them as closed systems regard them as dangerous manifestations of late capitalism. For another, as the word ecosystem becomes increasingly ubiquitous in public discourse, its meaning diffuses outside of its original and precise context in ecological science; and this must be taken into account in descriptions of communication among creatures—perhaps “ecological community” rather than ecosystem is a more worthy term, though the word “community” has problems of its own.
     Finally, of course, whereas ecosystem as a concept can fairly be said to have organized the discipline of ecology for most of the 20th century, challenges eventually arose to the idea that nature behaved systematically at all. Ecosystem’s association with the increasingly problematic paradigm of stability, climax, holism and the balance of nature seemed too teleological, lessened its usefulness, and after about 1980 displaced it from the center of ecological science, even as it was gaining ground as a metaphor elsewhere. Yet despite its lowered status, other aspects associated with ecosystem, such as biodiversity and interdependence, retain their central importance in contemporary ecological science.


[1] Jeff Todd Titon, “Music and Sustainability: An Ecological Viewpoint,” The World of Music, Vol. 51, no. 1 (2009), pp. 119-137.
[2] Benjamin Cohen, “Caught in an Apple World,” The Guardian (UK), Sept. 13, 2012, at
[3]  “The state of Apple’s Ecosystem lock-in, and where we’re at today,” Macgasm essay (no author named),  Feb. 9, 2012, at
[4] Michael Saler, review of George Dyson, Turning’s Cathedral, Times Literary Supplement, nos. 5725 & 5726, Dec. 21 and 28, 2012, p. 31.
[5] James F. Moore, “Predators and Prey: A New Ecology of Competition,” Harvard Business Review, May-June, 1993, pp. 76-85.
[6] James F. Moore, The Death of Competition: Leadership and Strategy in the Age of Business Ecosystems, New York, HarperCollins, 1996, p. 26.
[7] Jeff Todd Titon, Worlds of Music, New York, Schirmer Books, 1984, p. 9.

The photo at the beginning of this entry shows new growth of skunk cabbages arising from roots in the fall as the old spring growth decays. The new, green spaeths and decaying, blackened spadices are apparent. Click on the photo to enlarge it for better viewing. Photograph by Jeff Todd Titon, East Penobscot Bay, September, 2012.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Sound Commons for All Living Beings

Martin Johnson Heade (1819-1904): Orchids, Nesting Hummingbirds, and a Butterfly
     Human beings should attempt to manage the soundscape as a sound commons to permit all creatures to communicate with one another in their acoustic niches. That is my thesis, but it requires elaborating and defending. Besides, these questions regarding the sound environment are part of a larger public discourse concerning whether and how to manage the natural environment, a discourse that historically has been bound up with economics in a variety of important ways. Recall that ecology and economics come from the same Greek root, oikos, meaning household.
    Elaborating this argument requires discussion of several concepts and resolution of a number of questions and objections. For example, while the law recognizes that you and I can own and exchange the fruits of our labor, whether goods or ideas, what sense can it possibly make to say that the chickadees that visit your bird feeder own their songs? Yet without song they could not signal one another and without communication they could not live. Commons, animal communication, soundscape, sound-world, acoustic niche, sound interference, biophony, geophony, anthrophony, soundscape ecology, property, cultural, intellectual, and natural property rights, ownership, stewardship, commodification, exchange, biodiversity, deep ecology, exploitation, regulation, management, wilderness, resources, set-asides, non-use—these are only some of the concepts that need to be explored and put into relation. In addition, of course, as the subject of this blog is music and sustainability, it’s important to locate the place of music (humanly organized sound) in soundscapes and sound-worlds.
    Among the questions and objections to a sound commons for all living beings are these: Must a commons be regarded as a resource to be used, propertized, regulated and, eventually, commodified? If “nature” is unknowable to us except through historically changing human constructions of it, is there a verifiably true basis for claiming a relationship between sound, communication, biodiversity, and a resilient planet? And why are all creatures, not just humans, entitled to their acoustic spaces, bats and snakes and locusts as well as you and I? In such a case, what would it mean to model management of the sound commons on nature’s economy? And why have any confidence in human ability to manage at all, when humans have gotten us into this predicament in the first place? I’ve been exploring many of these concepts and questions in this blog since 2008, and now it is time to run a bit of order through them and place them in relation to make the larger argument.
    In my previous entry I suggested that while the acoustic ecology movement’s efforts to eliminate noise pollution from the soundscape were laudable, the human-centeredness of this approach was too narrow. Those of us who exclaim “I can’t hear myself think!” are responding to sound pollution. But noise interference affects all creatures who communicate using sound, whether humans, whales, or spadefoot toads. Communication is basic to life, but like many other aspects of the environment it is under threat, chiefly from human activity. The helicopter noise impacts communication among caribou which in turn impacts the Innu way of life. A more dramatic example of interdependence among all living creatures would be difficult to find. Developing this argument will not be simple, but summary of the argument is clear enough: human beings should do what we can to manage, not damage, the soundscape, and do so to enable all creatures, not just humans, to communicate in their acoustic niches. If we are able to do so, the music of all living beings will flourish, and sound communication will contribute to sustaining a healthy, biodiverse planet.

Monday, December 17, 2012

A Human-Centered Sound Commons?

    In my previous blog entry I suggested that it is helpful to think of the acoustic environment as a sound commons. The usual example of a commons is land that members of an agricultural community use for grazing livestock. New England towns traditionally set aside a plot of land that was called the “town common”; these still exist in some towns, such as Amherst, Massachusetts, very close to my alma mater, Amherst College. Of course, the citizens of Amherst don’t graze their sheep and cattle on the town common anymore; it’s a park, and it’s used for public events. English peasants farmed on commons land until villages were transformed by enclosures (private property), a gradual process that took place mainly in the 1700s. In highland parts of Europe, and also in North America, livestock were let more or less loose to graze and feed on mountain land in season, sometimes with shepherds, sometimes without. Deep water ocean (for fishing) is another example of a commons. In a commons, then, members of a group share a particular resource, and the people who use it assert that they have rights, or entitlements, to do so.
     I raised the idea of a sound commons in the context of an acoustic disturbance, the sounds of helicopters flying, which confuse and upset caribou and cause the herd to change its migration pattern, which in turn impacts Innu people of northern Canada, whose lives traditionally are bound up with hunting caribou. A question immediately arises: is the acoustic environment a commons? And if so, which group am I talking about here in regard to a sound commons: the Innu or the caribou, or both? I think we can assume that the Innu have moral, if not legal, rights in this case, their right as a people to hunt caribou, which is compromised by the helicopter noises that take place in a sound commons shared by all human beings. Of course, the corporations who fly the helicopters and build the roads that make the noise assert opposing rights, to find and extract minerals from the land: that the benefit to humanity realized from mining the minerals outweighs the harm done to the Innu. But does it make sense to say that caribou have any rights in the matter? On what grounds could animals (including non-humans) have rights to a particular kind of acoustic environment or sound-world?
    The concept of commons has been around for a long time in Europe, going back at least to Roman law, which recognized as res communes those things that were incapable of being possessed by individuals and thus were commonly available to all. The usual examples Roman law gave for res communes were water and the atmosphere (the air mantle). The history of the commons has been one of enclosure, or propertization of the commons, whether public property or private. The enclosure of agricultural land in England (and Europe) is the usual example, but in modern history water and air resources have come to be regarded as public property, to be regulated by governing bodies; and some individuals even have claimed water and air rights as private property.
    The Internet has gotten people talking about commons once again: an information commons, with free Internet access (a digital information commons), is a right that is asserted by information managers (librarians) and readers, while there is pushback from authors and publishers. In the same way, digital file sharing (recordings, movies) has resulted in claims (particularly from youth culture) of a media commons, with pushback from artists and the recording industry. In an important book, Common As Air, Lewis Hyde has placed the debate in a larger context, arguing on behalf of a cultural commons of art and ideas, shared by all members of a society. Important ethical questions arise, such as how to mediate between free access to ideas, on one hand, and to protect the rights to their own ideas that individuals, particularly creative artists, assert, called intellectual property rights, on the other.
     One legal solution is the so-called "fair use" doctrine, in which small portions but not entire works are freely accessible. Anyone who has read portions of a copyrighted book on Google Books knows how this compromise works. Hyde supports the original American copyright law, which offers copyright protection for a once-renewable period of 26 years, after which time the property passes into the public domain where it may be used freely by all. These are very lively issues in legal circles today, particularly as global corporations (as “persons”) with enormous financial resources assert rights to movies, recordings, books, and so forth. But although there are many interesting questions involved, such as whether music, for example, ought even to be regarded as property—Thoreau would have thought it preposterous to do so—here, this debate serves mainly as background, at least for the time being.
    The concept of a sound commons is not original with me. Although the idea may be older than the late twentieth century, at that time environmentalists concerned with noise pollution asserted that people have the right to silence, to be free from assaults with noise; and at least two based this assertion on the principle of a sound commons. In 1993 Ursula Franklin gave a lecture at the first international conference on acoustic ecology, in which she said: “I want to come back to the definition of silence and introduce the notion of the commons because the soundscape essentially doesn’t belong to anyone in particular. . . . The notion of the commons is deeply embedded in our social mind as something that all share. . . . Because of the ephemeral nature of sound, silence was not considered part of the commons in the past. Today the technology to preserve and multiply sound and separate it from its source [i.e., what Murray Schafer termed schizophonia] has resulted in our sudden awareness that silence, too, is common good.” (1)
    In a similar vein, in 2000 the acoustic ecologist Henrik Karlsson wrote that “. . . a healthy, unspoiled acoustic environment [must] become something of a common right—a public domain—to which all citizens should have free access, no matter where they live. The acoustic environment will then become something which nobody can sabotage for others or privatise for personal gain. The focus of attention will then be on the individual citizen and his [sic] needs, not on product development or other economic interests, whether individual or transnational. An anthropocentric model of this kind, I am convinced, is the only feasible way of regarding, restoring and preserving the acoustic environment.” (2)
    Both Frankin and Karlsson conceive of a sound commons as “anthropocentric” (human-centered) and would have no argument with Innu asserting rights over their acoustic environment. They do not theorize the sound commons, as I am starting to do here; they simply propose it to be true on the grounds that the acoustic environment belongs to and is shared by all (humans). And although the acoustic ecology movement calls attention to the harm Navy sonar does to whales and dolphins, their main issue is noise pollution and its impact on human beings. The sounds of the natural world are “unspoiled” and must be respected, but their activism is aimed chiefly at the impact of noise pollution on people. In the case of the helicopters, the caribou, and the Innu, the acoustic ecology group would primarily be concerned, as the Living on Earth reporter was, with the Innu, not the caribou. It would be a more radical step to propose that there exists a sound commons for all creatures, but that is what I am suggesting here. In a future blog entry I will argue that the concept of commons leads us to conclude that all creatures, not just humans, have the right to communicate in their acoustic spaces (or niches). An anthropocentric sound commons is too narrow in scope.


(1) Ursula Franklin, "Silence and the Notion of the Commons," Soundscape, Vol. 1, no. 2 (2000), p. 16. Originally a lecture given in Banff, Canada, on Aug. 11, 1993, at the first international conference on acoustic ecology, "The Tuning of the World."
(2) Henrik Karlsson, "The Acoustic Environment as a Public Domain," Soundscape, Vol. 1, no. 2 (2000), p.13.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

The Sound Commons

A new sound has come to the George River in Labrador, northern Canada, where the Innu traditionally relied on hunting caribou for food and clothing. It is the sound of helicopters flying through the air bringing in engineers and prospectors exploring the area for minerals. According to George Rich, an Innu elder, “the sound of the choppers really is a devastating sound because they [the caribou] don’t know where to look, all these choppers are going flying all over the place.” The result is a declining herd and a changed migration route, away from the traditional hunting grounds. “One of the mineral exploration companies is trying to build a road right in the heart of our territory. Right in the heart of [caribou] calving grounds,” Rich said.(1)   
    One thing leads to another as an intrusive new sound threatens what is left of a way of life. Besides their importance for diet and clothing, caribou “is our identity,” Rich said when interviewed recently for a radio broadcast. “It’s our culture, it’s our way of life. It’s also a part of the big spiritual awareness of what’s going on in the animal world. And without the caribou we don’t think the Innu will be able to survive.” The Innu are so isolated in their northern fastness that without as many caribou they are getting food shipped to them in the summer when the waters are open, or flown in to them in winter. “And then that’s created a lot of problems in diet and eating junk food. . . . A diabetes epidemic is one of the things that we are facing right now,” Rich concluded.
Traditional Innu camp
     There are 850 Innu living in a village 150 miles north of Goosebay, Labrador. They were not always villagers. Until about fifty years ago Innu were nomads, living in camps and following the migration routes of the caribou. The caribou herd, then estimated to have numbered as many as 900,000, has declined to less than 28,000. Of course, the sound of helicopters and road construction isn’t the only thing affecting the caribou. Global warming is doing its part. Caribou bear their calves in cool weather, and they forage for food beneath the powdery tundra snow. The warmer weather brings black flies, makes it more difficult to calve, and covers the ground with rain that freezes to ice and prevents browsing. And the Innu way of life underwent profound change when they were forced to settle in villages. But they still hunt caribou, though now subject to Canadian law which forbids them to hunt in certain places and at certain times. When they violate the law--as they sometimes do--they are subject to arrest.
    But for George Rich, it was the noise pollution from the choppers that most clearly--and most recently--affected the herd. We are not used to thinking in terms of sound-worlds when we measure the environmental effects of development. We usually limit our gaze to the visible landscape: forests cleared for timber use, farmland covered with factories and shopping centers. Sound? It seems so ephemeral. The warnings coming from acoustic ecologists about noise pollution in urban environments seem trivial by comparison. But are they? It isn’t just that sirens and jackhammers are deafening; they cause anxiety and confusion in humans as they do in caribou.
    Not unexpectedly, the Innu have music about the caribou, hunting songs that were passed from one generation to the next. What would a hunting song be about? The strength and prowess of the hunter? A boast or a threat to the prey? A triumphant enactment of the kill? None of the above. Instead, they establish relationships with the caribou. George Rich translated one of them: “You are so far away, I cannot reach you. I’ll catch up with you and call my friends.” This is how music evokes, and shapes, the “big spiritual awareness of what’s going on in the animal world,” as Rich put it. The music of the Innu is not only a critical part of the Innu sound-world, but it embodies Innu worldview.
    “I do hope the caribou come back soon,” the radio host said, somewhat lamely, in ending the interview with George Rich. Rich could not help but agree. They were hoping for resiliency. Beyond hope, though, we might try management: get those helicopters out of there, stop building the road, stop exploring for minerals, and understand that the effects of climate change will be felt not only by vulnerable peoples in remote areas but by every creature everywhere on the planet. Music, sound, nature, culture: again, it’s all connected. A sound-world is not simply an acoustic environment, a container for music and noise. Incidents such as this one with the caribou among the Innu show how a sound-world is a common-wealth, a commons shared by all. Managing the sound commons starts with understanding its nature and significance.


(1). George Rich, interviewed by Steve Curwood. “Reindeer Populations in Decline,” Living On Earth, aired during the week of Dec. 7, 2012. Accessed at

Sunday, December 2, 2012

"Original-Ecology Music"

    I first encountered the idea of “original-ecology music” early in October, on my way back to northern New England from Knoxville. The occasion was the conference at Northeastern University in Boston, celebrating the publication (in English) of a book entitled Discourse in Music, edited by Zhang Boyu, director of the world music program in ethnomusicology at the Central Conservatory of Music, in Beijing.(1)  Professor Zhang had invited me to Beijing to lecture on music and sustainability in 2009, so I was looking forward to seeing him again, presenting a paper at the conference, and helping celebrate this milestone, as very little scholarship by Chinese musicologists and ethnomusicologists is currently available in English. Three of the book’s articles were concerned with “original-ecology music” in one way or another.(2) Was it possible that Chinese scholars were thinking about music and sustainability in terms of an ecological model?
    The answer is both no and yet, embedded in the Chinese language, yes. It turns out that “original-ecology music” is a linguistic back-formation from the written Chinese characters for the phrase “original style.” That is, according to the article by Tian Liantao, “The phrase ‘original style’ in Chinese includes the word ‘ecology’. . .” (Discourse, 118). Moreover, “folk song of original style” was “first proposed [around the year 2002] by show business rather than the music society [i.e., music scholars]” in order to distinguish the older folk song performances, felt to be more authentic in melody and performance style, from performances rendered by professional Chinese folksingers, which show modern and Western influences (Ibid., 119).
    The three Chinese musicologists who wrote about original-ecology music in the volume are specialists in the music of Chinese minorities. China, like Europe and North America, has a history of cultivated, semi-professional, and professional folk music. Coupled is the familiar idea that there is, or was, a more authentic, spontaneous, uncontaminated folk music expression. “In my understanding,” Professor Yu Renhao wrote, “‘original-ecology music’ generally refers to folk music formed in the natural economy, which hasn’t been affected too much by foreign culture. . . . Its ‘original flavor’ is reflected not only in the tunes, but reflected even more in the performance form and style. . .” (Ibid, 255). This untutored folk music is said to be characteristic of peasant and minority people in the “natural economy” of remote rural areas. There, it is thought that traditional agricultural life and music was and to a far lesser degree still is relatively unaffected by travel, trade, towns, cities, merchants, money, scholars, government bureaucracy, formal educational institutions, and foreign influence.
    Western ethnomusicologists of my generation were taught that Chinese scholars and bureaucrats, like those in the Soviet Union, collected, edited, transformed, and composed and promoted folksongs to reflect the kind of worker’s consciousness desired by the government after the Communist Revolution in 1949. But as Jonathan Stock pointed out in Worlds of Music, Chinese government officials had for centuries been collecting folk music and putting it to their use.(3) “In ancient China, the emperor sent out officials to gather song texts to help him judge whether the people were happy or not,” while  seventeenth century Chinese scholars collected folksongs but published only those which they felt had literary merit (Worlds, 372). Francis James Child, the Harvard professor who collected and published his famous 5-volume anthology of English and Scottish ballads in the nineteenth century, employed similar criteria. The concept “folk song” is a construction of the educated, literary class, sometimes put to use by various political groups.
    Professor Yu concluded that “In order to avoid misunderstandings, I suggest using the term ‘native folk music art’ in lieu of the so-called music of ‘original ecology’” (Ibid., 58). Still, it intrigues me that the Chinese characters written for “original style” contain the character for “ecology.” This linguistic formation suggests that style does not exist primarily as structure, or even as a combination of structure and performance. Rather, embedded directly within the etymology of the Chinese language is the idea that structure and performance style interact with the surrounding natural and cultural communities. That structure and performance style interact with the surrounding cultural community is constitutive of ethnomusicology, and one of the axioms that in the 1950s established it as a new discipline and separated it from its ancestor, comparative musicology. But that structure and performance style also interact with the surrounding natural community is an idea only now gaining momentum within the West.
    As I have mentioned in numerous blog entries earlier this year, Thoreau was the pioneer in this line of thought concerning nature and sound-worlds, in the mid-nineteenth century. John Cage, Murray Schafer, Steve Feld, Bernie Krause and Ted Levin are among those composers and scholars who have promoted this idea more recently. But a relation between music, sound, and the natural world is not only embedded in the Chinese characters that make up the Chinese language, it has precedent in ancient Chinese writing. Unaware of “original-ecology music” when preparing my presentation to the conference at Northeastern, I nevertheless had tried to find common ground between Thoraeu’s ideas of sound in the natural world and ancient Chinese thought. Here is what I said to them at the conference:
    “Thinking about our Chinese guests today, I was reminded of the ancient Chinese legend of the origins of music in the discovery of bamboo tubes that blew overtones in fifths. Looking a little further in ancient Chinese history, I came upon the Daoist text called Zhuangzi, named after the Chinese author who lived nearly 2,500 years ago. In English translation, the text reads as follows:
     “Zi-Qi said, ‘. . .  You may have heard the notes of Man, but have not heard those of Earth; you may have heard the notes of Earth, but have not heard those of Heaven.'
     Zi-You said, 'I venture to ask from you a description of all these.'
     The reply was, 'When the breath of [Nature] comes strongly, it is called Wind. Sometimes it does not come so; but when it does, then from a myriad openings there issues its excited noise; have you not heard it in a prolonged gale? Take the projecting bluff of a mountain forest - in the great trees, a hundred spans round, the [openings] are like the nostrils, or the mouth, or the ears; now square, now round like a cup or a mortar; here like a wet footprint, and there like a large puddle. (The sounds issuing from them are like) those of angry water, of the arrow’s whizz, of the stern command, of the inhaling of the breath, of the shout, of the gruff note, of the deep wail, of the sad and piping note. The first notes are slight, and those that follow deeper, but in harmony with them. Gentle winds produce a small response; violent winds a great one. When the fierce gusts have passed away, all the openings are empty (and still) - have you not seen this in the bending and quivering of the branches and leaves?'
    Zi-You said, 'The notes of Earth then are simply those which come from its myriad openings; and the notes of Man may just be compared to those which (are brought from the tubes of) bamboo- allow me to ask about the notes of Heaven.'
    Zi-Qi replied, 'Blowing the myriad differences, making them stop [proceed] of themselves, sealing their self-selecting - who is it that stirs it all up?’”

1. Discourse in Music: Collected Essays of the Musicology Department, Central Conservatory of Music, ed. Zhang Boyu. Beijing: Central Conservatory of Music Press, 2012.

2. Tian Liantau, "Original Style: 'Original-State' or 'Original-Ecology'?", pp. 118-124; He Yunfeng, "Some Doubts about 'Protoecological' Music," pp. 153-161; Yu Renhao, "Music of Original Ecology and Original Ecology of Music," pp. 255-258, in Discourse in Music (see n.1).

3. Jonathan Stock, "East Asia," in Worlds of Music, 5th ed., Jeff Todd Titon, gen. ed. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Conservation, environmentalism, ecology

    A review of a new biography of Rachel Carson, one of the pioneers of modern environmentalism, affords an opportunity to compare and contrast three keywords in my work on music and sustainability—all of which are very much involved in contemporary sustainability discourse here and elsewhere. Those keywords are conservation, environmentalism, and ecology.
    Carson’s book, Silent Spring (1962), with its warnings about agricultural pesticides' effects on bird and other animal life, ushered in the modern era of environmentalism in North America. Carson wrote it while living on a remote island in Maine where she witnessed DDT's impact on bald eagles. Tim Flannery, who reviewed the biography in the New York Review of Books for November 22, 2012, writes that the biography's author, William Souder, argues that Silent Spring “‘marks the birth of the "bitterly divisive" concept of environmentalistm. Before it, environmental politics was characterized, he says, by the ‘gentle, optimistic proposition called “conservation,” which concerns the wise use of resources and has broad appeal across the political spectrum. Environmentalism, in contrast, can be politically polarizing because it involves a clash with vested interests'” (1). Of course, Carson was not the first environmentalist; Thoreau was one in the 19th century, and arguably so was the Englishman Gilbert White in the 18th. One might even make a case for John Bartram, a botanist (in the American Colonies) who lived a generation before White.
    But although we can point to earlier 20th-century North American, science-grounded environmentalists such as Aldo Leopold, Carson was the first to change public consciousness. Indeed, Carson’s work was polarizing: while President Kennedy and the general public took her side, the chemical companies who manufactured pesticides tried to discredit Carson, influence the public debate her book ushered in, and lobby Congress to prevent the eventual ban on DDT. Carson prevailed. Since then, of course, many global corporations have done their best to fight environmentalists in similar ways, adding greenwashing and large campaign contributions to their arsenal.
    At issue here is the distinction between conservation and environmentalism. Among early conservationists in the US, such as Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot, and again in the 1930s with the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the guiding principle was so-called wise use, which included public recreation and managed extraction of natural resources; the National Parks are examples. But even in the early period, and especially during the CCC era, more radical voices argued for setting wilderness areas aside: not wise use, but either light use or no use at all. The keyword "conservation" still implies a compromise between strict environmentalists who would severely limit or prohibit use, and “wise use” conservationists. In contemporary sustainability discourse, the wise use faction is represented by those who advocate “sustainable development” which, to use the words Flannery quotes from Souder, is a “gentle, optimistic proposition” and one under which certain developers and environmentalists find common ground.
    Besides wise use, conservation also bears another cross as a movement supported by the wealthy at the expense of the poor. The National Parks (Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountain) that were built in the southern Appalachians, for example, were established by eminent domain; that is, the federal government dispossessed the inhabitants (chiefly subsistence farmers) against their will and resettled them elsewhere “for the good of the Nation.” Such dispossession by the law of eminent domain is not exactly a new thing in the US, and there is a shameful history behind it (consider, for example, the treatment of Native Americans).
Local forest path Creative Commons License
     And if one looks around today at the various conservation heritage trusts, the ones that receive charitable contributions from the wealthy to buy up land and turn it into preserves for nature trails, ocean access, farmland preservation, and the like, the question arises as to who uses these preserves. In my part of the US, as in many others, they're for those with money, leisure and an aesthetic interest in nature--in short, for environmentalists. The heritage trusts do not set aside land for trailer parks and RV campgrounds or for ATV and snowmobile use. Local naturalists in my part of Maine host a series of “walks and talks” through these forest and coastal preserves during the warmer months, for tourists and interested residents; subjects include local bird and animal life, geological formations, and other aspects of natural history. These rural preserves do not host visits from inner city residents who are below the poverty line; not only do the urban poor have no means of getting to them, but nature walks aren't high on their list of priorities.
    When conservation was first coupled with the word “cultural” beginning in the 1970s, the historic preservation model was applied to culture. Managed and wise use was the watchword, as federal and state agencies, historical societies, and NGOs got into the act. Cultural conservationists tried to manage cultural flow so that traditional expressive culture was not crowded out by what were felt to be the fads and fashions of modern, media-driven, popular culture. (I’ve written recently that those of us involved in cultural conservation and cultural sustainability need to be aware not only of cultural threats but also economic and environmental ones; I needn’t repeat that here.) Yet there was, in the early decades of cultural conservation, a kind of top-down, wise-use mentality in operation, one which has gradually and unevenly been giving way to cultural partnerships, participatory action research, and bottom-up management.
    As a keyword, environmentalism is usually distinguished from ecology in that the former is a political movement while the latter is a science. The distinction can be made clearer by saying that the science of ecology, like all science, aims to be objective and apolitical, or politically neutral; whereas environmentalism advocates in the political arena with its agenda to protect and preserve the natural environment. In this sense, it is plain that the conservation land trusts, with an ideology of environmentalism, ought to prohibit snowmobiles and ATVs from their nature trails if these tear up the land and bother the nearby animal inhabitants (human and otherwise) with their noise and fill the air with their carbon exhaust. Sometimes, of course, in popular discourse the word "ecology" is used when "environmentalism" is meant; people sometimes refer to “the ecology movement” as if they were referring to the environmental movement and at other times use the two words interchangeably. Indeed, even the word "ecosystem" is becoming common in public parlance.
    Yet in some instances this distinction between ecology and environmentalism is hard to maintain. For example, the science known as conservation biology (sometimes called conservation ecology) can be regarded as an applied ecology: environmentalism based on ecological principles.
    Just which ecological paradigm should rule, though, is a crucial question. Returning to the new book about Carson, Flannery reveals his own ecology-informed environmentalism. Concluding, he writes, “After recently rereading Silent Spring, I discussed Carson with an Indian friend, who put a question to me: ‘What is more orderly, a jungle or a garden?’ After a moment’s thought the answer became obvious. Of course it is the jungle, where the invisible laws of ecology dictate the relative abundance of plants and animals, and where they occur. The very shape and position of every leaf abides by those eternal rules” (p. 23). When Professor Flannery invokes the “invisible laws” and “eternal rules” of ecology he is thinking of the ecosystem paradigm in which nature in relatively pristine areas such as a jungle achieves a “balance” or equilibrium (the “relative abundance,” “shape and position of every leaf”) that it tends toward elsewhere, except when the balance is upset by human intervention (or as Joni Mitchell sang, “They paved paradise and they put up a parking lot”).
    The only problem with a balance of nature is that most ecologists—that is, the scientific ones—no longer believe in it. Beginning around the same time that cultural conservation arose in the public arena—the 1970s—ecologists began seriously to challenge such concepts as stable ecosystems, climax forests, and the balance of nature, arguing that the evidence indicates the opposite: that left undisturbed by humankind, the natural world does not move inevitably toward balance but is, rather, characterized by frequent perturbation, disturbance, and merely temporary equilibria—indeed, many different equilibrium points, one in which the relative abundance of plants and animals is always changing, as is the shape and position of every leaf.
     It is not accidental that ecologists were abandoning the balance of nature theory at about the same time that scientists were advancing chaos theory, a view of an uncertain universe that aligns with the new ecological paradigm of a natural world consisting not of ecosystems but of “patches” moving, in response to disturbing forces beyond their control, from one state toward another. How conservation biologists and environmentalists, let alone cultural conservationists and sustainability advocates, react today to this changed ecological paradigm depends on their awareness of it and how seriously they take it. Like a number of environmentalists, the reviewer for the New York Review of Books appears unaware of this paradigm shift. But to those who are aware, a concept like “resilience” is one way of responding—and I have blogged about resilience in this space before (please see the entry for July 21, 2011: "Sustainable Music: Resilience"). That is, resilience is the ability to resist or recombine in the face of perturbation or disturbance; management for resilience is one way to think about conservation under the new ecological paradigm.
     But there are other “downers” at work against environmentalism and musical and cultural sustainability. These include some of the obvious, such as the ideology of global corporate capitalism and neoliberalism; but it also includes powerful critiques (from critical theory) of science as privileged truth, and of environmentalists’ concepts of nature. It can even be supposed that environmentalism and sustainability efforts are themselves responses to the changed intellectual climate of the past forty years. In order to understand music and sustainability in its contemporary context, it’s important to view it not simply as a response to the changing natural and sociocultural environments, but also as a response to various currents in contemporary Theory which undermine old ideas of nature and culture. Some of the environmentalist response is, predictably, reactionary; but some of it attempts to think along with critical theory. I will be writing from and about this perspective in the coming months as I try to organize my thoughts on this music and sustainability project.

(1) Tim Flannery, review of William Souder, On a Farther Shore, New York Review of Books, Nov. 22, 2012, p. 21.

Photo "Local Forest Path" by Jeff Todd Titon, East Penobscot Bay, Maine, December 2005. 

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Sam Bayard

     In another context tonight I was reminded of Samuel Preston Bayard, a scholar who did his best to sustain music in one of the oldest ways of doing so: collecting melodies from oral tradition, transcribing them accurately in musical notation, annotating them, comparing them, tracing their origins over time and place, and publishing them. Bayard (1908-1997) wrote the annotations for the hymn-tune collections of George Pullen Jackson, the leading scholar of vernacular North American hymnody in the first half of the 20th century; he identified a number of folk tune families (that is, melodies that were similar to one another and presumably descended from a single ancestor) and named them in these annotations, in his numerous essays, and in his collections of Pennsylvania fiddle tunes (Hill Country Tunes, 1944; and Dance to the Fiddle, March to the Fife, 1982). Bayard taught at Pennsylvania State University from 1945 to 1973 but continued actively researching and writing about melodies and melodic origins after retirement, and became the most highly respected scholar of English, Scottish, Irish, and North American folk song and instrumental melodies of his era.

     I met Professor Bayard only once, in 1992, after he gave a lecture at Harvard University (about which more below). I was teaching at Brown at the time, having driven from Providence to Cambridge for the occasion of his lecture; and when we were introduced he asked me what I was working on. I told him I'd been visiting with Old Regular Baptists, singing along with them, and was starting to look for the origins of their melodies. He didn't waste any time. "What's your favorite tune among them?" he asked. I thought for a few seconds; I didn't have one--I had many. "Well, maybe it's one they sing for 'Guide me o thou great Jehovah,' I said. "Sing it for me." I did, knowing that there were several tunes that went to the 'Guide me' text, and he needed to know which one I meant. "Oh," he said, "that one. Very nice. That's 'Adieu Dundee.' A Scottish tune. 1600s." I wrote the name down and later looked it up. Sure enough, that was it.

     A few years earlier, I had given the problem of melodic resemblance to our computer scientists at Brown. They had sent out a bulletin looking for interesting problems that computers might solve. I thought I had one, and they did, too. At first they were confident that they could come up with an effective algorithm. Six months had gone by after I gave them some melodies that I thought resembled each other, and yet I had not heard from them. Finally I called the lead scientist. He told me that they had lost interest and were about to give up. Things that are identical are not difficult for a computer to discern, he said; but similarity--family resemblance--is a puzzle that baffles even the smartest computer. It takes a human being to know melodic differences--and similarities. Samuel Bayard had been at it for more than fifty years.

Professor Samuel P. Bayard
There weren't many music scholars researching in Professor Bayard's specific area, but every historian of American music knew what he had been up to and how much it would mean to know the origins, histories, pathways and resemblances over time and place of all those folk melodies. The lecture announcement promised that at last he would let us in on his final conclusions about the tune families. Many of the southern New England environs music scholars--professionals and amateurs--were inside that packed lecture hall waiting for him to to pass along his holy grail, or at least give us a glimpse of it. Were there really only three tune families, or were there seven major families, or was it eleven, as he had claimed at various times? How did Bayard judge similarities and on what basis did he assign melodies to particular families? No one had ever before accumulated such insight into the origins and development of folksong melodies. This was an esoteric subject, to be sure, yet to those interested in the field it was an essential area but one that few had dared explore in such great depth over so long a period. Now in his mid-80s, and long retired from teaching, the great man at last ascended the steps to the stage of the lecture hall, with the help of a cane. After initial applause that must have lasted for twenty seconds, the hall grew very quiet. And then instead of doing what we expected--that is, leading us through musical notations and detailed analysis and comparison--he sang the tune families. All of them, so we could hear them.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Does mountaintop removal cause earthquakes?

   Three days ago at 12:08 p.m. an earthquake centered in the town of Blackey that measured 4.3 on the Richter Scale “rattled southeastern Kentucky” -- this from an AP report published in the Huffington Post on Nov. 10, 2012. The Post reported that according to the U.S. Geological Survey, the quake was a “shallow” one, at a depth of only seven-tenths of a mile, or 3700 feet below the surface. Blackey, in Letcher County, may have gotten its name from nearby Black Mountain, or possibly from the blackness of the coal seams in its mountains. The Wikipedia reports that it was named after Blackey Brown, one of its early inhabitants, but the locals think the name comes from the coal that has been mined all around for nearly a century, first underground, then with strip mining, and lately by means of mountaintop removal (MTR). With its blasting and earth removal, coal mining obviously disturbs the earth. Could mining have caused this earthquake?

   On hearing that the earthquake was centered in Blackey, I immediately got in touch with Elwood and Kathy Cornett, friends of mine who live only a couple of miles from the center of Blackey, to see if they were all right. Elwood told me that they had survived just fine, and that it didn’t seem like their house had any damage, even though the exact center of the quake was one mile from their home. Theirs is a home that I have visited many times. I have been “kept overnight” there, as they say. And Elwood and Kathy have visited me twice where I live in Maine. Elwood is the elected moderator, or head, of the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptists. I first got to know Elwood and Kathy (his wife) when visiting with the Old Regulars every weekend in 1990 when teaching as a visiting professor of Appalachian studies, at Berea College in Kentucky. Since then I’ve been back to visit many times and collaborated with them on several projects to help them sustain their music, some of which I’ve mentioned in passing in this blog.

   Ironically, on October 25 at a conference in New Orleans I presented a paper whose main point was that when we think about helping communities to sustain their traditional arts, we need to bear in mind economic and environmental threats as well as cultural ones. In that presentation I mentioned the threat presented by MTR, which levels the mountaintops, extracts the coal, and dumps the toxic waste into the stream beds and hollows below, where it poisons the water and sickens the people. Not only does MTR endanger the people but it engineers an ecological catastrophe in the natural world of the Appalachian mountains. If anyone had asked me how those catastrophic threats to the nature of Appalachia were made manifest, the first thing I’d have mentioned was flooding resulting from deforestation. If they had asked further, I would have talked about ecosystem disturbance and the extinction of species. I did not have earthquakes in mind then. I do now.

   Ironically, or perhaps prophetically, my blog entry from one week ago was all about this--how cultural sustainability must take into account economic and environmental threats. Take a look, if you will. I would like to think that four days later it was as if the earth trembled in response. (I speak metaphorically, of course: “as if.”) In a sense, it doesn’t matter whether the quake was caused by mining, or something else: the quake shows that the Old Regular Baptists, the community that keeps alive the oldest English-language religious singing tradition in the United States, are vulnerable not only to cultural threats but to catastrophic environmental ones.

   But was MTR the cause? I hesitate to bring MTR up again with Elwood and Kathy and the others, but I will do so. Several years ago, when MTR first came into their region,  I had asked them how they felt about MTR. Elwood, who is a very kind, wise and effective leader in his community, understood that as an outsider, a university professor, and someone who acted on his beliefs in cultural equity and in the Environmental Movement, I would have been mightily opposed to MTR—I did not have to tell him so. In fact, just before mentioning MTR I had asked Elwood about the nearby Lilley Cornett Woods, the largest remaining old-growth forest in Kentucky, and whether he was related to the man after whom it was named, a World War I veteran who kept his land intact by refusing to sell the property rights to the timber and mining companies. He was related, distantly--all the Cornetts in the area, after all, are related somehow. Anticipating my opinion, when I finally got around to asking how he and Kathy felt about MTR, he said something like this to me: “You know, you have to bear in mind that our people have depended for their living on coal mining in this area for nearly 100 years.” That told me a lot. But I want to talk with them about it further now.

   The Blackey earthquake was widely reported in the Press, mostly from various AP bulletins. Here is one: the Alpena (Michigan) News reported on Nov. 12 that nearby residents were shaken up: “Blackey Public Library . . . worker Bonnie Asher said she was coming downstairs when she heard a big boom. Asher said the entire building shook and the lights flickered off and on, and at first she thought maybe a plane had crashed nearby. 'It was very scary,’ she said. ‘It knocked about 14 books off one shelf.’” I would like to know which ones they were.

  Was MTR the cause? It is generally accepted that underground coal mining has caused some earthquakes. Common sense would suggest it does cause them, as mining undermines (to speak in a 'dead metaphor') the structural integrity of the earth. What about the earthquake in Blackey? And does MTR have the same effect as underground mining? The Associated Press reported the following on Nov. 12 (this is from the Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader):

Zhenming Wang
“Geologists say the 4.3 magnitude earthquake that shook eastern Kentucky over the weekend was too deep to be induced by the region's underground mining activity. The epicenter was . . . in the heart of Kentucky's coal country, where underground mining and surface blasting are common. The head of the University of Kentucky's Geologic Hazards Section, though, says Saturday's quake occurred about 12 miles below the surface, far too deep for underground mining to have been a factor. Zhenming Wang says it came near the Eastern Tennessee Seismic Zone. That area receives a 4-magnitude quake every five to 10 years. [Wang] says mining and hydraulic fracturing used by the natural gas industry can possibly be a contributor to earthquakes but not in this case.”

   Twelve miles below the surface? That is what Adjunct Professor of Geology Wang said, but the U.S. Geological Survey concluded that the quake was only 0.7 miles below the surface. Who is right? Both conclusions were separately and widely reported but I've seen no report in which they were put in contrast with each other. And how far below the top of the mountains in Letcher County is seven-tenths of a mile? If we ask how high is the highest mountain near Blackey, the highest in the county is Black Mountain, with an elevation of 3,700 feet. Blackey itself is at an elevation of 1,000 feet, five-tenths or half a mile below that peak. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, then, the quake itself must have occurred at sea level.

   The mountaintop removals at Oven Fork, about 15 miles as the crow flies from Blackey, are pictured below. The evidence is circumstantial, to be sure. But common sense tells me that when mountaintops are dynamited and otherwise blasted to smithereens, the earth below is going to be “some disturbed,” as my friends in the state of Maine would say. Look at the picture and ask yourself if it’s related to the earthquake. Talking about music, ethnomusicologist Dave McAllester, then the last living founder of the Society for Ethnomusicology, repeated as a refrain in his last public speech, in 2005, “It’s all connected.” Indeed.
Mountaintop Removal, Oven Fork, KY, 15 miles from Blackey

Sunday, November 11, 2012

2011 I.U. Keynote now on YouTube

As of Oct. 1, 2012, a video of the keynote address that I gave at Indiana University in March, 2011 (please see my blog entry "A Hoosier Mediation," May 20, 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:

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Cultural Sustainability, Economics and the Environment

   Efforts at musical and cultural sustainability must not fall victim to tunnel vision. Even in those areas where musical loss appears to have been reversed, entire social groups remain at risk. Economic and environmental threats to cultural sustainability may be even more significant than media pressures. Public folklorists and applied ethnomusicologists, concentrating on short-term victories in cultural sustainability, have short memories. Only twenty years ago, folklife specialists understood the interdependence of culture and the environment. Bent on community partnerships for the arts, culture workers today seem to overlook the fact that cultural sustainability faces potentially catastrophic economic and environmental forces. That is the essence of what follows here.

A sea of mown hay  Creative Commons License

Not long ago folklorists were theorizing cultural conservation; today the operative term is cultural sustainability. Both refer to partnerships between culture workers such as public folklorists, applied anthropologists, and applied ethnomusicologists, on the one hand, and communities of people who are rich in  expressive culture, with the goal of preserving, conserving, encouraging, and sustaining both the arts and the communities. These culture workers almost always work both with community artists and community leaders. These include community historians, scholars, arts promoters and political leaders. But whereas cultural conservation emphasizes preservation, cultural sustainability encourages development.
    In the cultural sustainability discourse, culture is used in three ways: one, as the whole way of life of a group of people; two, as a synonym for art; and three, in the phrase “expressive culture,” which refers to art as lived experience.
    Late last month, at the annual American Folklore Society conference, I heard dozens of public folklorists describe their cultural sustainability work. Most of these descriptions fell into a pattern. The folklorists described instances of successful partnerships that helped sustain the community’s traditional arts, usually through the tried and true methods of festivals, parades, artists coming into the public schools to demonstrate their arts, arts apprenticeships, museum exhibits, and media projects including recordings, videos, books, and Internet sites. These activities are intended to validate the artists and their traditional arts, to make them feel more secure in what they are doing, to help them support themselves by generating more of a market for their arts products, and to give a larger public stamp of approval (usually from a government agency such as an arts council) to community artists and their activities.
    The argument also is made—although it was not made so strongly at this past AFS conference—that these artistic activities constitute a “creative economy” which can help make up for financial losses in communities that have been hurt by the loss of manufacturing or other jobs, particularly if the traditional arts are branded as cultural heritage and attract tourist dollars. What I’ve just described is the general model, and although in some cases it’s worked better than others, at the AFS conference almost all the reports were positive. One success story followed another and another, at least in terms of encouraging the traditional artists and raising their profiles within the various communities (usually urban and ethnic), if not in terms of a creative economy whose impact was measured in dollars and cents.
    I, too, have written about cultural partnerships with the goals of conservation and development, describing my work in southeastern Kentucky in the 1990s with Old Regular Baptists to help the community maintain its music culture. This involved obtaining a self-documentation grant for them, teaching them how to use recording equipment, and their making recordings of endangered music among their own people and creating a library and a stock of teaching tapes to help maintain the tradition. In addition, we recorded two CDs for Smithsonian Folkways, some of them appeared at the Smithsonian Folk Festival, and then in the new century they participated in two conferences on lined-out hymnody at Yale University, organized by Professor Willie Ruff, where they demonstrated their singing—the oldest English-language religious folksong tradition in the United States (1).
    Cultural sustainability, in short, appears to be a growth industry. About four years ago Goucher College began offering the M.A. in Cultural Sustainability, to educate culture workers. Other graduate programs that emphasize, or at least include, public folklore or public humanities in their curricula, similarly are emphasizing community partnerships and cultural sustainability. Of course, many of the public folklorists who advocated for cultural conservation ten, twenty, and even thirty years ago were saying some of the same things about community partnerships and the traditional arts (2).
No train horn Creative Commons License
     Nevertheless, I worry that overlooked in the celebrations of community expressive culture are economic and environmental threats to those communities themselves. Why? For one thing, partnering with community leaders is far more difficult when the subject is economics or the environment than when the talk is about encouraging the arts. Everyone likes the arts and the only argument is over whether and how to pay for them. But bring up problems involving industry, transportation and fossil fuels, community relations, poverty, unemployment coupled with crime and drugs, or schools, land use, the location of medical services and the cost of their delivery, energy sources, noise pollution, natural disasters, relations between natives and newcomers, discrimination based on gender, age, and race, global warming and climate change, the effect of floods and rising sea levels, income inequality, gentrification, public transportation, water rights, and the like, and communities show themselves to be in serious disagreement. When community partnerships are viewed as feel-good, kumbaya opportunities, and the "culture" in "cultural sustainability" is centered on the arts, then a focus on community arts and cultural sustainability has worked effectively, though this is not to say it has been easy. But when intractable problems and deep community divisions surface, and the "culture" in "cultural sustainability" is taken instead to mean the whole way of life of a people, then united action is far more difficult, if not impossible; and success stories will be fewer and farther between. Yet cultural sustainability is ultimately dependent on solving those environmental and economic problems, for the arts depend on it even as community sustainability does. 
    Mary Hufford was one folklorist who probed the connection between cultural and environmental conservation. Unlike most of her colleagues who were concerned then (as now) with the conservation of the traditional arts in communities, Hufford in the 1980s explored community expressive culture which related to conservation in the world of Nature, whether in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey or in the forests of West Virginia. Working for the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, she helped initiate the Pinelands Folklife Project in the Pine Barrens of southern New Jersey, thus linking cultural with government natural conservation management efforts and moving the field of folklife in this direction. After completing this project she turned her attention to links between folklife and the forest ecology of the southern Appalachian mountains while editing a volume of essays, Conserving Culture (3).
    Indeed, the Folklife Center had considered the links between cultural conservation, land-use planning, and the natural environment in the early 1980s in conjunction with the Tennessee-Tombigbee River Waterway project, already under construction, when they were asked by the National Parks Service to take part in so-called “mitigation efforts” to counteract adverse effects of the Waterway on the affected areas’ populations and surrounding resources. After initial enthusiasm for the project, the Center withdrew, citing ethical issues (4). Further attempts to partner with the Parks Service during the next fifteen years also produced uneven results, due to differences over politics, bureaucratic problems, and arguments among stakeholders over goals and methods. In 1999 a new Folklife Center director was hired, in 2002 Hufford left the Center to direct a newly formed folklife and ethnography center at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center moved away from team projects involving ethnography, culture and nature (5). Meanwhile, intangible cultural heritage gained currency as both a term and strategy among public folklorists, particularly when UNESCO intensified its international efforts in this area in the new century.
    Hufford had approached me in the 1980s to discuss mutual interests because I too had been exploring the relations between culture and nature in my research for the Powerhouse for God projects (6). In the Powerhouse book I proposed an ecological model for farming, family, and belief using the metaphor of husbandry to unite the realms. Back in the 1970s when I started this research I was not thinking in terms of cultural conservation; rather, I was interested in how traditional ways of thought nurtured in that ecosystem had persisted into the twentieth century, particularly in a religious worldview, despite the loss of the farm economy and the transition to an industrial and service economy (7).
    And so despite the early efforts of folklorists like Hufford, the environment is not playing an important role in contemporary cultural sustainability discourse. I plead guilty myself. Although I’ve been talking and writing about conservation biology and environmentalism and their contributions to the sustainability discourse, until fairly recently I’ve been concerned chiefly with music, sustainability, and cultural policy. But as I continued to explore Nature’s economy and acoustic ecology, conservation biology became not only a resource for my cultural policy work but also a bridge to environmental sound-worlds themselves. My recent work in Thoreau and sound in the natural world instantiates this shift.
Yellow warbler Creative Commons License
    Burt Feintuch, another folklorist who was an early leader in theorizing cultural conservation, asked me some years ago what role economics played in the Old Regular Baptist community that I had been working with in the 1990s (8). He had, himself, been researching music and cultural tourism and the creative economy in Cape Breton, where much of the industrial and fishing industry has departed, while the major economic activity of the island has become a tourist trade which depends, in significant part, on the traditional music and dance of the region. I did not have a good answer for him at the time, but I’ve thought about the question ever since. Economics also has been largely absent from the cultural sustainability discourse, except insofar as people were talking and writing about cultural heritage, tourist dollars and the creative economy. (Of course, the Old Regular Baptists would not care to become actors demonstrating their cultural heritage for tourists, except very occasionally, at festivals, conferences, and so forth.)
    Here, then, are some excerpts from what I said on the cultural sustainability panel, when I spoke about the perils of overlooking economic and environmental threats when considering work in cultural sustainability.
    “When thinking about culture, it would not be wise to overlook nature and the traditional economy as it relates to the community that culture workers partner with.. . . 
    “In other words, if the natural ecosystem that sustains traditional expressive cultures is damaged, drastically altered, or collapses, the effects on cultural sustainability are catastrophic. This is not an entirely new idea for folklorists, of course, but it is a principle that is liable to be forgotten when discussing cultural sustainability, for those discussions most naturally turn to cultural threats.
    “In those areas where traditional expressive culture is dependent on ecosystem maintenance or, in some cases, ecosystem restoration, the idea that culture is dependent on the natural environment is unavoidable. Examples include Native American basketmaking in northern New England, where a beetle, the emerald ash borer, threatens to destroy the ash trees from which baskets are made. Examples abound among traditional indigenous cultures in Africa, Asia, the circumpolar regions, and Latin America whose lifeways are threatened or have been unalterably changed by destruction of the environment, usually done under the banner of modernization and economic growth. But in other areas the link between culture and nature is not always perceived as directly. I would like to suggest that this is a failure of imagination which folklorists and other humanists are in a position to understand and act upon, because we can understand these interconnections in terms of what humanistic geographer Yi-fu Tuan four decades ago called topophilia, or love of place (8).
    “. . . as folklorists are well aware, wholesale changes in local and regional economies, such as the drying up of fisheries or, in the case of central Appalachia, automation in the coal mines, threatens local cultures and causes out-migration. But threats to the natural environment rise to yet another level, because economies are themselves dependent on the natural ecosystem. The economic human does not exist apart from the natural world. An entire field, ecological economics, is devoted to that principle.
    “Thus in Appalachia an even greater threat to cultural sustainability, greater than cultural threats from newfangled music or trendy religion, and greater than from economic displacement, is the threat to the nature of Appalachia caused by the impact of modern mining methods on the mountain ecosystem: first strip mining, and now the horror of mountaintop removal. Topophilia is strong in Appalachia, as elsewhere; and it results in and from the intimate connection between culture and nature. But with wholesale alterations to the mountain ecosystem, and the resulting natural disasters—some obvious, like flooding, and others less obvious, such as microclimate change, unchecked predation in agriculture and elsewhere in the natural world because the ecosystem has been disturbed, and so forth—cultural sustainability is threatened as never before. Folklorists, in short, would do well to understand where and how cultural sustainability interacts with environmental sustainability, and build that into their cultural policies.”


(1) Jeff Todd Titon, “The Real Thing: Tourism, Authenticity, and Pilgrimage among Old Regular Baptists at the 1997 Smithsonian Folklife Festival,” The World of Music 41 (3), 1999, pp. 115-139. Also, Jeff Todd Titon, “Tuned Up with the Grace of God: Music and Experience among Old Regular Baptists,” in Music in American Religious Experience, ed. Philip Bohlman and Elizabeth Blumhofer, New York, Oxford University Press, 2005.

(2) Ormond Loomis, ed., Cultural Conservation: The Protection of Cultural Heritage in the United States. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, 1983.

(3) Mary Hufford, One Space, Many Places: Folklife and Land Use in New Jersey’s Pine Barrens. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, American Folklife Center, 1986. Also, Mary Hufford, ed., Conserving Culture: A New Discourse on Heritage. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1994.

(4). See Alan Jabbour, The American Folklife Center: A Twenty-Year Retrospective. Washington, DC: American Folklife Center, 1996.

(5) The University of Pennsylvania’s Administration decided about 2000 to put an end to its Folklore Department and distinguished Ph.D. program, and to put in its place a new Center for Folklife and Ethnography, hiring Hufford as its director. Tenured folklore professors were permitted to stay in the university.

(6) Jeff Todd Titon, Powerhouse for God (2 LP recordings, booklet), Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1983. Also, Jeff Todd Titon, Powerhouse for God: Speech, Chant and Song in an Appalachian Baptist Church, Austin, University of Texas Press, 1988. Also, Barry Dornfeld, Tom Rankin, and Jeff Todd Titon, Powerhouse for God (16mm film), 1989. Distributed by Documentary Educational Resources, Watertown, MA; also may be streamed and viewed in its entirety at

(7) My thoughts had turned in this direction partly because of my participation in the environmental movement of the 1970s, and partly because of my participation as a faculty member in a team-taught course in the American Studies program at Tufts University. The course was entitled “History and Ecology in America,” and it was in that context that I began linking my interests in ecology with my academic work.

(8) Burt Feintuch, ed., The Conservation of Culture. Lexington, University of Kentucky Press, 1988. See, e.g., Jeff Todd Titon, Elwood, Cornett, and John Wallhausser, eds., Songs of the Old Regular Baptists of Southeastern Kentucky, Washington, DC: Smithsonian Folkways CD, 1997. See also, Jeff Todd Titon, “Old Regular Baptists of Southeastern Kentucky: A Community of Sacred Song,” Smithsonian Institution, 1997, at

(9) Yi-fu Tuan, Topophilia. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1974.

Photographs above: 1: "A sea of mown hay," East Penobscot Bay, Maine, summer 2012. Photo 2: "No Train Horn," Pittsfield, Maine, summer, 2009. 3: "Yellow warbler," East Penobscot Bay, Maine, summer 2010.All photos by Jeff Todd Titon, © under a Creative Commons license. You may freely share them, but you must not alter them and they must not be used for commercial purposes.

Friday, October 26, 2012

A Barbecue in Sweetwater

Some readers of this blog have asked whether I'd be willing to say something about the places I've visited in lecturing publicly about music and sustainability. Travel writing isn't my purpose but I can't pass up the chance to write about Bradley's Barbecue, formerly Wilson's Barbecue, in Sweetwater, Tennessee, just south of Knoxville, where I lectured on October 3 (please see the previous blog entry).

In the spring of 1990 Loyal Jones had taken me to Wilson's on the way to the Appalachian Studies Conference, in north Georgia, and the barbecue was so delicious, and I must have been so effusive about it, that Loyal called the owner over to the table—he knew him—and I repeated my praise, whereupon the owner, Mr. Wilson himself, wrote down the recipe to his barbecue sauce on one of those green-colored guest checks printed on cheap paper. Of course, most of the taste was in the pit barbecuing, not the sauce; but the sauce was excellent, and I was struck by the secret ingredient, which I won't reveal here. Upon returning to Berea College, where I was teaching as a visiting professor at the time, I copied and then carefully handed over this guest check with the recipe to Shannon Wilson (no relation to barbecue Wilson), the special collections librarian and archivist at the Berea College Hutchins Library, for safekeeping; and he put it into an acid-free manila folder. I vowed that if I ever returned to the Knoxville area, I would seek out Wilson’s Barbecue and have another meal.

Interior, Bradley's BBQ

In September of this year, a few weeks prior to my flight to Knoxville, Leslie Gay, my host at the University of Tennessee, emailed asking if there was anything special I wanted to do during my stay there. He may have been surprised to hear that I wanted to go to Wilson’s once again, but he was game to give it a try, although he said he couldn’t locate a Wilson’s in Sweetwater and wondered if the place had disappeared. Fearing the worst—it had been 22 years, after all—I emailed Loyal and asked if he knew what happened to the restaurant. He confirmed my fears, saying that the place had changed hands since then, and he couldn’t remember the new name of it; but he and Nancy had stopped in some years ago and had not been impressed by the change. 

Meanwhile, Les discovered that there was a place in Sweetwater called Bradley’s Barbecue, and wondered if that was the same place. I told him about Loyal’s warning, but he thought we should give it a try anyway; and I’m glad he did.

 Wilson’s Barbecue had gone, but Bradley’s was in the exact same place, with the exact same barbecue pit, and the exact same sauce. The barbecue was as good as I’d remembered it. Maybe Loyal had gone on a bad night.

Fireplace, Bradley's BBQ
The interior of the place had been gussied up a bit, but it was not made to look, as a barbecue joint in New England would have been, like a replica or representation of a southern barbecue joint: it was such a joint, in effect a diner with a barbecue pit. Decor such as the fireplace objects would never be seen in a New England barbecue restaurant, but I have seen similar in places like Duffy’s, in Orland, Maine, a neighborhood joint which has traditional Maine home cooking, though it never calls attention to its cuisine as such.

 Les and two musicologists (one was his wife, Rachel Golden; the other was their colleague Jacqueline Avila) and I all enjoyed a wonderful meal there, all the better because it exceeded expectations.
Pulled pork barbecue plate, Bradley's BBQ

An Echo in Knoxville

     “Thoreau’s Pastoral Symphony” was the title of the public lecture I gave at the University of Tennessee on October 3. It was sponsored by the university’s Humanities Institute and their School of Music. As at the University of New Hampshire last March, I spoke about Thoreau’s remarkable attention to sounds in the natural world and what we might, for music and sustainability today, learn from them. (To stream a video of this lecture, go to “Music,” Thoreau wrote, “is the sound of circulation in Nature’s veins.” In this University of Tennessee lecture I was able to concentrate on Thoreau’s fascination with echo, with the way echo orients creatures in space and also alters our sense of time. Here is an excerpt from the lecture:

    “With an echo we have a doubling, as if time is stopping and running backwards on itself as the echo returns to the listener. Listening to the echo of a distant drum, Thoreau writes, personifying time, ‘Suddenly old Time winked at me, -- Ah, you know me, you rogue. . .’  Here Time addresses Thoreau as a ‘rogue’ for having found Time out, having known Time by the echo. At this point—it is in the Monday section of A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers—Thoreau breaks into a visionary poetry very like that of Emily Dickinson:

          'Then idle Time ran gadding by
           And left me with Eternity alone;
           I hear beyond the range of sound,
           I see beyond the verge of sight, --'

     The encounter with the echo sharpens the writer’s senses, alters his sense of time and space, and enables him to peer into the workings of universe. In the same book he quotes Iamblichus in Taylor's translation, on sphere music thus: ‘Pythagoras . . . extended his ears and fixed his intellect in the sublime symphonies of the world, he alone hearing and understanding, as it appears, the universal harmony and consonance of the spheres, and the stars that are moved through them, and which produce a fuller and more intense melody than anything effected by mortal sounds.’ Thoreau did believe in a version of the theory attributed to Pythagoras which we refer to as the music of the spheres, whose harmonies were based on the mathematical ratios believed to exist between their astronomical intervals; and this was an instance in which Thoreau’s ecstatic experience with the echo confirmed it. Except for Pythagoras himself, humans were supposedly unable to hear this music; but Thoreau felt that he heard it all around him in the sounds emerging from the silences of the natural world. Therefore he pursued it on his daily walks, attended to what he heard, and seldom failed to make note of it in his journals. Thoreau never wrote a pastoral symphony. He never needed to: it was all around him.”

     I also spoke some about Thoreau’s belief in the echo as a signal of co-presence; on one occasion he likens the echo of his voice to the sound of a friend reading his verse back to him. And I spoke about Thoreau’s comparison of echo and reflection, referencing Hudson River School paintings (see the entry for Aug. 30, 2012 in this blog for some of them). I contextualized it within the music and sustainability discussion by suggesting that “this discourse proceeds along two fronts: one, how people can sustain music; and two, how music san sustain people. How people can sustain music gets us into issues involving best practices for the sustenance of music cultures. How music can sustain people gets us into issues of the role of music in the sustenance of life on planet earth. Both of these ways of thinking about music lead us to policy: the first primarily to cultural policy affecting the future of music cultures; and the second to a variety of cultural, economic, and regulatory policies affecting musical activities and their relation to the future of life on the planet.” The Thoreau lecture was an exploration along the second of those two fronts. 

     The audience of students and faculty filled the concert hall auditorium. The thought occurred to me that Thoreau himself had given many public lectures, although he was quite ambivalent about doing so. Several faculty—from the English department, from American Studies, from Religious Studies, and of course from from the School of Music—attended, along with many students and some from the university community in Knoxville at large. After the lecture, there were many thought-provoking comments and questions, and the discussion went on for about a half hour. I can’t recall when I’ve ever given a lecture to so many people that resulted in such a long discussion afterwards. Many people had a stake in different aspects of the talk: cultural policy, sustainability, music psychology, ecocriticism, cultural criticism, and Thoreau himself.

     The chair of Religious Studies spoke at some length in response to my point about co-presence and the way sound sacralizes space (see this blog, April 18, 2011). She had been thinking along the same lines for some time, but was unable to get her colleagues in comparative religion to pay much attention to sound-worlds. After the talk I was taken to dinner by a dozen or so faculty members, she among them; and she asked me why I thought that was. I said that in some ways this is the fault of those in music who have unwittingly erected a barrier with our special language (musical notation and music theory) to describe sound structures. The result is that many academic professionals outside of music feel ill-equipped to discuss it because they don’t know the language. What we in music don’t realize is that this wall not only shuts others out but it also shuts us in. I will pursue this with her after I return from the conferences in New Orleans.