Sustainable Music


Thursday, July 5, 2012

Musical Being and the Wealth of Nature

Today's news programs noted that an independent Japanese commission, the Fukushima Nuclear Accident Independent Investigation Commission, issued a Report on the incident that occurred at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant on March 11, 2011, just after the earthquake and tsunami. It was the largest nuclear disaster since the 1986 incident at Chernobyl. After reading the Report, it's difficult to continue calling this disaster a nuclear "accident." As Haroko Tabuchi wrote in the New York Times, the commission's chair, Kiyoshi Kurokawa, concluded that "What must be admitted, very painfully, is that this was a disaster ‘Made in Japan.’ Its fundamental causes are to be found in the ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to ‘sticking with the program’; our groupism; and our insularity." 

No doubt; but the Report overlooks even more fundamental causes. Nuclear disasters are not caused by particularities of Japanese culture, though they may be exacerbated by them. They are embedded in the cultures of modernity, of the so-called developed world. The fundamental causes for this catastrophe are to be found in the reasons for the developed world's reliance on nuclear energy in the first place: One, the assumption that humanity could and should control Nature rather than try to live in harmony with Nature's economy. Two, that human happiness increases as material wealth does. And Three, that happiness is chiefly a technical problem, one that will be solved by continuing economic growth, fueled by increasing quantities of energy.

I remain convinced that what I have written about elsewhere (“Knowing Fieldwork,” in Shadows in the Field, ed. Gregory Barz and Timothy Cooley. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 87-100.) as “being in the world musically” is an antidote to this way of thinking. Very briefly, insofar as sound sacralizes space, our space, and time, our time, we live in harmony with Nature's economy; we do not invent our own. But how to realize that permanently? How to turn those moments into the norm? How, in other words, to realize sustainability through musical being-in-the-world? In this research blog I have usually discussed music and sustainability in terms of cultural policies meant to sustain people making music. But now I am writing about music sustaining people. 

Logocentrism is so ingrained that it is unmarked, the default mode: we are in the world in our heads, thinking one word at a time. How, instead, to re-orient consciousness to sonic-centrism? I don't mean to be taken so literally as to be suggesting that if we spent all our time grooving and flowing and dancing to melodies going through our brains and bodies all would be well. Rather, sonic-centrism as a default mode of awareness invokes not only the harmonies of musical melody but also the harmonies Thoreau heard in Nature's economy: in the wind and rain, the birds and frogs, and in the crickets' earth-song. It leads us to appreciate the wealth of Nature, not the wealth of nations.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

"Banjo as Mediator" now on the Web

My keynote address, "Music, Mediation, Sustainability: A Case Study on the Banjo," for the folklore and ethnomusicology conference held at Indiana University in March of 2011, is now freely available for viewing and reading on the Internet, as published in the on-line journal Folklore Forum:

I described this innovative conference, and my participation in it, on this blog in the entry for May 20, 2011. The conference theme was "Mediation," so I took the opportunity to juxtapose two mediation-related topics that I'd been thinking about for several years: one, how a banjo-player learns a tune aurally, on hearing it for the first time, in an old-time music jam, and in so doing mediates between fiddle and guitar; and two, the unwitting documentation of the Black-white vernacular music exchange involving fiddle, banjo, and dancers in the 19th century U.S. Here is the abstract: "The banjo mediates structurally, culturally and historically, and experientially. Structurally, it resists taxonomic classification. Culturally and historically, it is a mediator among African and European American cultures. For that, I interpret evidence of the Black-white vernacular music exchanges in the 19th-century sketches and genre paintings of the American artist, William Sidney Mount. Experientially, the banjo mediates in the old-time string band session as the banjo player creates melody and rhythm interactively with the other musicians. For this, I offer a phenomenological account of what goes through a player's mind/body when learning and performing a previously unfamiliar tune at normal tempo in a jam session. This constructive, creative, and integrative faculty is expressive culture's principal act of resilience, and it may be its main contribution to sustaining life on planet Earth." Internet publication allowed Folklore Forum, a publication of The Folklore Institute, at Indiana University, to show the Mount paintings of musicians in color.