Sustainable Music


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Managing for Musical and Cultural Resilience?

     By now, faithful readers of this blog won’t need to be reminded of the “four principles” (diversity, interdependence, limits to growth, stewardship) that I’ve been advocating for cultural policy. At the ABET workshop on music and sustainability, I proposed those four for discussion. Indeed, some of the speakers at the ABET conference were acquainted with them from my essays in The World of Music.[1]  As these principles were developed by conservation ecologists, not cultural policymakers, one might ask what are the grounds for guiding cultural policy by principles derived from attempts to manage the natural world. What does it mean, in other words, to apply an ecological or environmental (they are not the same) way of thinking to cultural policy? And what would such a way of reasoning be? If conservation ecology applies ecological thinking to managing the environment, how would this translate into the world of cultural policy? What is an ecological cultural policy that would enable musical sustainability? It’s important to try to frame these questions carefully, because the nuances in the way they are framed will suggest alternative routes for answering them.

    And so it’s important to ask, first, whether cultural engineering is likely to do more good than harm. Why not let culture take its course, as one would manage nature by letting it alone, to be as wild and “natural” as possible? After all, if plants and animals have natural cycles of birth, growth, decline, death and decay; if species rise and fall, adapt and sometimes become extinct; if ecological communities themselves change beyond recognition, why not simply let nature (and culture) be? Why manage nature, or culture, at all? Isn’t it, perhaps, un-natural to try to intervene? And why presume to manage for sustainability using ecological thinking, when the components of ecosystems die natural deaths? Why shouldn’t musics, languages, and other aspects of culture also die natural deaths? Isn’t that ecological?

    To which we may ask, what is a natural death, if it is caused by human interventions that wreak havoc on individuals, populations, communities, and ecosystems? How many species have gone extinct within the past two hundred years—roughly, since the start of the Industrial Revolution—as a result of human impact on ecosystems, compared to the number that would have gone extinct anyway? The answer to why conservation ecologists should attempt to manage nature at all, of course, is that nature is already being managed, badly. Letting nature alone would mean abandoning nature to the land developers, the oil companies, the timber cutters, the mining companies, agribusiness, and so forth. Does the same analogy work for culture? Those who say no to applied ethnomusicology tend to do so on the grounds that music is best left alone to take its natural course. But what is its natural (cultural) course?

    When I was participating in a meeting of the folk arts panel for the National Endowment for the Arts about 30 years ago, one of the panelists urged this hands-off approach. We were trying to decide whether to recommend for approval a grant proposal that would give money to an organization that was attempting to manage the flow of music in its city by encouraging musicians in underserved communities to set up a music school. One of the panelists objected, saying that it seemed to him like the organization was interfering in the natural (cultural) flow of music in that city. “We shouldn’t be meddling in their affairs,” the panelist concluded, with a flourish. Bess Hawes, director of the Folk Arts Program, seldom spoke at these meetings; she felt she should not try to influence the panelists. But here was a fundamental challenge, and if the answer was no meddling, no attempts to manage, then her organization might as well cease to exist. And so when the panelist said we shouldn’t be meddling, she responded by saying something like this: “Of course we should meddle! Everyone else is meddling with culture and the arts. Some institutions think only fine art is worthy of support, and that’s where they put their money because fine arts aren't self-supporting. Other people think that the only worthwhile art is art that makes money, so they want to get rid of all support. Some people think that the arts are the finest expressions of human life. Others think the arts are useless. Everyone is meddling; why shouldn’t we? We want to encourage the folk and traditional arts. Not many others do. Why shouldn’t we act on our beliefs, if we truly believe in them? Why shouldn’t we meddle? Supporting folk arts is meddling. Not supporting folk arts is another way of meddling. We are all meddlers no matter what. Why shouldn’t we try to meddle for good?”

    Needless to say, her argument carried the day. But the position that one should stay out of the way and let nature or culture take its course might be supported on other grounds. Neoliberal economists rely on their interpretation of Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand: that each party acting out of economic self-interest results in a market that is guided (by an invisible hand) for the common good, and so that economy is best which is managed (regulated) least. The same would be true, by analogy, in the realm of culture and the arts: an invisible hand would ensure the best outcome.

    Now, Adam Smith did write that an invisible hand guided self-interested actors to work for the public good. Here is the relevant excerpt from The Wealth of Nations: ““Every individual necessarily labors to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it ... He intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for society that it was no part of his intention. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good."

    But although Smith thought that an invisible hand guided self-interest toward public good, he did not go on to derive the neoliberal principle that market regulation was largely unnecessary. In fact, he believed that markets should be managed and regulated. Therefore, the neoliberal argument for laissez-faire rests on a misunderstanding of Adam Smith’s “invisible hand,” and so it would be wrong to rely on Smith’s authority here. Of course, that does not prevent neoliberals from deriving laissez-faire and less government regulation from the so-called invisible hand. But this is wishful thinking. If the hand is invisible there is no way of knowing whether, or how, it works—or if it works at all. Experience suggests the contrary: that self-interested actors guide their own hands toward wealth, and without regulation the result is income inequality and cycles of boom and bust, not to mention social injustice and ecosystem exploitation.

    Given that conservation ecologists do attempt to intervene to prevent the extinction of species by managing ecosystems in the environment, and allowing that their “meddling” is meant for the benefit of all, we return to the question of how conservation ecology transfers over into the realm of cultural sustainability, particularly for music but also for other aspects of expressive culture. And that is where the “four principles” come in. Why these four principles and not others? Why not, for example, manage for a “balance of culture” or cultural equilibrium? Isn’t that ecological?

    Here it’s helpful to understand that ecological thinking has undergone a sea change regarding how nature “naturally” behaves. Until the latter part of the twentieth century, most scientific ecologists agreed that, left to its own devices, an ecosystem moved towards a balanced equilibrium, a dynamic, but stable, state. Of course, ecosystems were subject to disturbance (fire, drought, etc.) but they tended to restore themselves to a stable “climax” condition, or at least move in that direction until the next disturbance.

    But a paradigm shift occurred during the last 40 years or so, and now most ecologists no longer believe that nature “naturally” moves toward a dynamic, balanced equilibrium. The “balance of nature” paradigm was replaced by a new one that emphasizes change and disturbance. The new paradigm admits that nature may achieve equilibria, but these are temporary and, for a given ecosystem, they occur at different points of balance, with the result that there is no longer any “climax” state towards which nature moves, but rather a series or scale of different possible equilibrium points, some advantaging certain species, some others. Ecosystems are not self-restorative. Instead of sustainability, with a view toward achieving it through encouraging the balance of nature, the new paradigm centers on the concept of resilience, or the degree to which an ecosystem resists disturbance. Ecosystems are managed, now, to increase resilience to damaging changes. Of course, a resilient ecosystem does manage to achieve a degree of sustainability, if only temporarily; but not in the same way as a stable, balanced one.

    Will managing for cultural (and musical) sustainability be replaced, then, by resilience? So far, it does not appear that “cultural resilience” has caught hold. Possibly it will, and perhaps it should; so let’s anticipate a little bit what it would mean. Cultural policymakers managing for sustainability, such as those involved with UNESCO, or the “big three in DC” (the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Folklife and Cultural Studies, and the Folk and Traditional Arts division of the National Endowment for the Arts), have also been managing for resilience as a means toward sustainability, chiefly by encouraging activities involving the traditional arts and their continuation, strengthening institutions and attempting to add value to those arts, particularly among the younger generations who must be the ones to continue them. “Resiliance management” might not come as news to these culture workers, or to those who have been partnering with musical and other traditional arts communities through participatory action research. Alan Lomax’s 1972 call for action against what he termed “cultural grey-out” was a resiliency response to a perceived disturbance.

    But there would, I think, be some subtle differences in managing for resilience rather than for sustainability. For one thing, resilience would suggest that managers (whether for culture or nature) adopt a defensive posture and be vigilant against disturbance, which means anticipating possible changes to the natural (or cultural) ecosystem and planning for them. Again, the obvious example is global warming, and the need to plan for this major change and the disturbances that it is bringing, such as an increase in violent weather that damages the natural and built environment, or the need to transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable sources of energy. In a way, of course, this is common sense. In the cultural arena, resilience planning would involve such things as responses to new communications models, such as the Internet: how can expressive culture be encouraged in an environment where so many musical exchanges, so to speak, take place virtually, over the Internet. Not that virtual music is new; it’s been around ever since recordings, and arguably is embedded in musical notation. But the Internet fosters new models for virtual communication, new opportunities for co-presence (whereas recordings were not traditionally interactive in this way).

    The downside of resilience is that the defensive posture puts managers in a response mode in which cultures are regarded as reactive rather than dynamic or innovative. That is one problem. Another is this: if change is the rule in nature, why not also in science? If nature does not progress to a climax, why should science? What grounds have we for believing in resilience? Is it just that it seems to fit today’s world better than balance? And if so, is that good enough—for now, until another paradigm comes along?  In future blog entries I will have more to say about my reservations about managing for resilience.

[1] "Economy, Ecology and Music: An Introduction," and "Music and Sustainability: An Ecological Viewpoint," The World of Music, Vol. 59, no. 1, 2009, pp. 5-16 and 119-138.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Fieldwork and Applied Ethnomusicology

    One of the topics I presented for discussion in the ABET workshop was fieldwork and musical sustainability. The turn to applied ethnomusicology and advocacy for music communities grew out of the “new fieldwork” that began in the 1960s. The new fieldworkers did not think of themselves as scientific investigators only. Gradually, through repeated visits and residencies in those communities they became partners and formed friendships with those whom the old fieldworkers had regarded chiefly as informants.[1]
     In the first half of the 20th century, most ethnomusicologists (then called comparative musicologists), anthropologists and folklorists thought that modernization would inevitably doom the variety of musical expression on the planet, and the best a scholar could do was survey, collect, and preserve it in archives where it could be examined, classified, analyzed, and compared in order to shed light on origins, transmission, and the functions of music in human society. The new fieldworkers began to realize that musical expression was dynamic and more resilient than that, and that in some communities it could instead be successfully encouraged within its cultural setting—that is, it might be conserved and renewed. Later, as the conservation discourse turned to sustainability, the new fieldworkers engaged in partnerships and participatory action research within those musical communities. The goal was musical and cultural resilience in the face of—indeed, while undergoing—outward modernization.[2]
    In the workshop, Tony Seeger suggested we also discuss a third model, the ethnomusicologist doing fieldwork in his or her native musical community; and so we did. One questioner asked what were the advantages and disadvantages of doing fieldwork in one’s own musical community. This is a perennial question, with a perennial answer: the outsider brings a fresh perspective and is apt to notice things that the insider takes for granted, while the insider has better access and cultural knowledge (some of which an outsider will never quite get right). I said that the moment insiders take on the role of researchers, people in their musical community perceive them differently. They may become more guarded; they may also become more open. Besides, there are degrees of “inside” within a musical community, based on age, knowledge, ability, social and musical capital, and so forth. Although insider/outsider may be useful as a starting point, the dichotomy does not hold, and as a result fieldworkers researching music in their own communities must nonetheless negotiate their subject positions depending on the situation, the people they’re working with, the music and the knowledge associated with it, and other things.
     Academically-trained ethnomusicologists doing field research in their own musical communities inevitably take on the role, stance, and identity of researchers who have been educated in the culutral ways of the universities. They may be contrasted with the indigenous scholar, one who—even though he or she may have undergone academic training elsewhere—is perceived primarily as a member of that musical community, belonging to this family, that lineage, etc. Inevitably, the community scholar was born, raised, and will continue to live in that community, whereas the ethnomusicologist (native to the community or not) often is resident elsewhere, teaching at a university or working in a cultural organization outside the native community. Again, this dichotomy isn’t always useful, but when ethnomusicologists form partnerships with community scholars to encourage cultural and musical sustainability, the combination is more effective than either working alone.
    Many (but not all) of the Brazilian academics at the ABET conference had formed partnerships with community members and scholars in indigenous communities in the rural areas, and among the urban working-class communities. In the latter, internationally-known Brazilian ethnomusicologist Samuel Araujo has applied the liberation insights of the Brazilian radical educator Paolo Freire, who wrote that education was inevitably a political act and that State educational institutions served to perpetuate inequality and oppression. Among the former, the work of ethnomusicologist Angela Luehning caught my attention. The paper she presented at the meeting was entitled “Sustainability, Musical Heritage and Public Policy,” and was based experientially in a variety of Brazilian neighborhood soundscapes. As it was being presented, and as Ralph Waddey was translating the gist of it to me, I realized that I wanted a copy of the paper to read and study. Prof. Luehning was kind enough to send one to me (in Portuguese, of course) and I put it through Google’s translation program, for a first approximation. Busy since my return, I look forward to reading it next week. Clearly these academics, and their students, were committed to the new fieldwork.
    Although we did not discuss this in the workshop, a few of the other Brazilian ethnomusicologists had come to the conference with indigenous community members, some of whom were community scholars. I saw a very interesting presentation of ethnographic video documentaries resulting from partnerships among Brazilian ethnomusicologists and community scholars. One was a joint presentation by ethnomusicologist Marilia Stein and her field partner, Vherá Poty. In the film, Mr. Poty spoke at length about conserving his indigenous culture’s musical and ritual traditions. He is a charismatic young man, a traditionalist in his community much in the same way that Wayne Newell has been among the Passamaquoddy. Indeed, I’ve presented at conferences with Wayne. At the ABET presentation, Mr. Poty chose to sit among the audience rather than on the platform with the other presenters. When he was asked to come to the front with the others, he joked that he was an old man and needed to sit in the back! He came away from the conference refreshed, Professor Stein told me, and with a new interest--in ethnomusicology.
    The video documentary that most arrested my attention was shot and edited by a young indigenous film maker whose name I am still trying to find out. It was a vérite video of a group from his village performing an all-night musical ritual in which two lines (men and women) formed half circles and danced in a circle, the women encircling the men. The video began with a few shots of people walking in the village to establish the location, but then for what must have been fifteen minutes the video concentrated relentlessly on this ritual, in which the half circles continued to dance and sing around each other, first in an enclosed structure, and then later (near dawn) outside. The force of the repeated music and dance drew me into the experience and, like some (but not all) of the others who were watching, I was receptive and grateful for it.
    After the films were shown, a professor who taught ethnographic documentary filmmaking critiqued the films. He found fault with some of the very things I thought were innovative, particularly in the video showing the all-night music and dance ritual. He questioned whether it was necessary to show the singing and dancing continuously for so long. The indigenous filmmaker began his response by apologizing for his “small voice.” But, he said, “it is the only voice I have.” He went on to say that in fact the singing and dancing went on like that for nearly ten hours and he had showed only a small portion of it. It was what it was. A few of the ethnomusicologists in the audience commented that by concentrating continuously on it, he had conveyed the intensity of the experience. Others felt that it could have been shorter, and contextualized as documentaries often are—by narration and explanation. I was moved to ask who the audience was for this video, and to suggest that it would be unwise to impose a Western filmmaking grammar on indigenous viewpoints. In this case, the indigenous vision produced something innovative and valuable that foregrounded experiential aspects of the ritual. I mentioned Sol Tax’s experiment in giving super-8mm cameras to Navajo back in the early 1970s, with the resulting films showing long shots of sacred spaces where not much appeared to move in the visual frame. I concluded that films like these are the results of fieldwork that is committed to advocacy and applied ethnomusicology beyond mere scientific investigation, and was good to see it at the ABET conference.
    Although we did not discuss it in the workshop, it’s worth mentioning that the new fieldwork, applied ethnomusicology and advocacy has not been embraced by the entire ethnomusicological profession. Some are uneasy with the advocacy role, fearing that interference does more harm than good, and that one should not, as an ethnomusicologist, meddle in the “natural” processes of musical change.
     On the contrary, these processes are no more “natural” in music than, say, forests. Modernization is no more a natural process than clear-cutting forests. There are other reasons not to do applied ethnomusicology, of course; one can contribute as an ethnomusicologist in other ways. But to write histories of ethnomusicology and neglect or belittle applied work and to maintain that ethnomusicologists ought not to take political stands, that they ought not to advocate on behalf of the musical cultures to which they have made commitments of all sorts—time, intellect, emotion, career, and so forth—seems, to me at least, to require some thought and examination. Just as applied workers should be—and are—reflexive concerning motivation, so should the historian be. Perhaps I will pursue this in a later entry, but at this point I will continue with the other ABET workshop topics that I mentioned in my previous entry: the four principles (diversity, interdependence, limits to growth, and stewardship); heritage tourism and the creative economy contra sustainability; and the difficulties of sustaining unofficial music through official cultural policy.
     Additional note as of June 22, 2013: A reader has kindly supplied the name of the indigenous film maker--Marilton Maxikali--and the name of his film, Putoxop's Songs: The Parrot-Men. Further information on the indigenous group and location is in the comment attached to this post. Thank you, Jorgette Lago!

    [1]Jeff Todd Titon, “Music, the Public Interest, and the Practice of Ethnomusicology,” Ethnomusicology, Vol. 36, no. 3, 1992. Special issue on music and the public interest, pp. 315-322. See also my essay “Knowing Fieldwork,” in Gregory Barz and Timothy Cooley, ed., Shadows in the Field, 2nd ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 25-41. Of course, this is not to say that some of the "old" fieldworkers did not practice the new fieldwork; notably there were some, like the anthropologist A. L. Kroeber, who did.
    [2] Both kinds of fieldwork aid sustainability, of course; archives of scholarly data are useful to communities wanting to know about the music of their past. Wayne Newell, for example, found that the J. Walter Fewkes recordings of Passamaquoddy songs made more than 130 years ago opened a window on his indigenous group’s music-making that had been shut. Advocacy, applied ethnomusicology, and the new fieldwork offer ongoing opportunities for partnerships in sustainability efforts, ultimately social and political.