Sustainable Music


Monday, September 23, 2013

Music, sustainability, and public radio

    Although we had little down-time at the cultural sustainability conference, early in the mornings before breakfast I listened to Vermont Public Radio, broadcasting NPR’s ubiquitous news program, Morning Edition. One of the flashpoints for music’s sustainability is its future on US public radio--what used to be called noncommercial radio, and now should be called brief commercial radio based on those 3-sentence announcements naming corporate underwriters, what they do, and how to contact them. Whereas music programming, particularly classical music, once dominated public radio, in the new millennium it’s gradually lost its hold, to the point that today most public radio stations broadcast news and talk shows over the air, having moved classical music to the Internet or to broadcast channels that conventional radios cannot receive. I've blogged here before about classical music's future, on radio and elsewhere. Meanwhile, music of many kinds still can be heard on several low-power, local community radio stations.
    In New England, I date the public radio all-talk trend from the 1990s, the decade when Boston-area WBUR-FM gradually removed music from prime time to its peripheral schedule, late at night and on weekends. In 1997, despite much protest, WBUR dropped music programming entirely, in favor of news and talk shows. WBUR’s award-winning and highly popular late night jazz show, hosted by Tony Cennamo, was among the programs eliminated. Boston’s WGBH-FM still provided much music programming, including the paradigmatic Morning Pro Musica, hosted by Robert J. Lurtsema, aired also by many other stations in New England, including Maine Public Radio. But in the new millennium, after the charismatic Lurtsema died in 2000, WGBH-FM also pushed music gradually to the side, and today it too is all-talk, all the time. What of Vermont?
    I didn’t hear enough public radio in Vermont to get an impression, but after returning to Maine I looked up its programming schedule. Not to my surprise, I found that Vermont had followed the trend, and was programming news and information almost exclusively. What did surprise me was that in some of the on-line articles I read about how Vermont made that transition, the man behind the trend was identified as Vermont Public Radio’s Mark Vogelsang. In 2012, Vogelsang left Vermont to become head of Maine Public Radio. Would Maine now follow Vermont? Most likely.
    Since Vogelsang took over, peripheral blocks once reserved for music have been replaced by talk shows. The 11 p.m. hour, once a haven for soothing music (“Echoes,” with John DiLiberto), is now punctuated by the noisy drumming that introduces segments of On Point, produced, incidentally, by WBUR, but on air there in the mornings when the drum-banging is a little less annoying. Maine weekend early mornings, once given over to classical music, now feature information shows: On Being, Living on Earth, Only a Game, and Bob Edwards Weekend. These shows do have their merits, but to music listeners, airing them on early weekend mornings is especially galling, as the classical music host, Jennifer Mitchell, used to start with Robert J. Lurtsema’s signature show-opener, a dawn-chorus of bird sounds, appropriate at that early hour—although not as rewarding as the real thing one could hear through an open window.
    Another ominous sign was the departure, last month, of Maine Public Radio’s morning classical music host, Suzanne Nance, for a position at a commercial, all-classical music station in Chicago. Morning classical music remains from 9 to noon on Maine Public Radio, but now with rotating local hosts while the station says it’s undertaking a national search for a replacement. Maine is the New England morning classical music holdout. If and when it goes, it will join Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island, none of whose public radio networks broadcast classical music in the morning (or, for the most part, anytime else day or night).
    A word about Suzanne Nance is in order. For several years she not only hosted the morning program but also was a strong, public voice for classical music live performance in Maine. Herself a singer, she could be heard in concerts in Portland and elsewhere in the state; importantly, she hosted on her program visiting composers, conductors, soloists and chamber groups for a half hour, on average one day a week; and besides talking about their upcoming concerts in the state they sometimes played live music on her show. Not everyone liked her enthusiastic, up-front personality; and some thought she didn’t program enough music from before 1800; but no one doubted that her presence boosted classical music in Maine. Thus, her departure as radio host is an even greater loss for classical music in the state.
    By chance, a little after returning to Maine from Vermont, I met someone who until earlier this year had worked for the Maine Public Broadcasting Network. I asked about Suzanne Nance’s departure. “Well,” the answer came, “I shouldn’t talk out of school. But since I am out of school, I will.” Having left the job at MPBN, the person (who will remain nameless here) told me that Suzanne “read the tea leaves and decided that she ought to move on. She’d been looking for another position, and when this came along, she decided to go.” I asked if this was a career move up for her. “More of a lateral move,” was the reply. “What did she see in the tea leaves?” I asked. “The new head, Vogelsang, wants to make it all news and talk radio. That’s what he did in Vermont. You can see he’s gradually doing it already.” “Yes,” I said, “I’ve noticed.”
    What prompts this blog entry is that Vogelsang himself spoke for nearly an hour today, on MPBN, in response to listeners’ questions. He confirmed that his plan for Maine Public Radio was to move towards two separate stations, one for news and information, and the other for classical music. Of course, this means no jazz, no folk music, no popular music; it means the end on Maine radio for shows like A Prairie Home Companion, for years arguably the largest fund-raiser for public radio; it means the end for other staples that the Maine audience likes, such as alternative music and singer-songwriters; and it’s already the end for shows like American Routes, hosted by folklorist Nick Spitzer out of New Orleans, which went off the MPBN air last spring.
    These programming changes are cause for a measured lament, and the lament goes beyond music programming on public radio: it is a lament for a generation and a way of life that included listening to music on radio, particularly classical music; it is a recognition of the passing of a segment of a generation for whom classical music on radio represented more than merely music, but also a set of values, values increasingly out of step in a contemporary, diverse global society. Vogelsang dropped the statistic that most people under 30 don’t even own radios, and don’t listen to them except perhaps in their automobiles; and we are hearing that this young generation doesn’t own nearly as many cars as past generations did. The automobile, once the symbol of freedom, is being replaced by the smartphone, the symbol of connectedness. Culture is rapidly changing; those who wish to address questions of musical sustainability will need to look elsewhere besides public radio.
    Radio executives like Vogelsang are consumed with other survival issues, not least the survival of public radio itself, as it moves in the digital direction and its Internet presence becomes more important than over-the-air. All programs need to be available on the Internet, he said; that will become our primary means of delivery. When news breaks, should it go immediately on the public radio website, or do we wait until it’s broadcast and only then put it on the website? This is the kind of nuts and bolts question that radio and television executives think about, not what they will do with their music programming. They already know the answer to that one. And when pressed on it, as he was by at least one listener this afternoon, Vogelsang said it wasn't going away: classical music would be available 24/7 on another MPBN station, as it is on the Internet right now. (MPBN streams it from its website.) And after all, music of all kinds is available elsewhere on the Internet. Indeed, with Internet services like Pandora and Spotify and now Apple’s iRadio along with iTunes, the under-30 generation is able to hear the artists and individual music tracks they want there. Most won't realize what they are missing: voices like Suzanne Nance’s, which helped sustain the live classical music performance community in the state of Maine, for example; or the history and biography and other context that once came in the liner or brochure notes that accompanied a record album or CD, now replaced by "album art."
    Measured lament behind us, the transition to news and talk on Maine Public Radio offers the chance for MPBN to become a conduit for civic dialogue in the state. Vogelsang understands this, and has initiated programs like Maine Calling, now expanded in prime time, the noon hour, to four days a week. People are invited to call in from all areas of the state to discuss issues of local, regional, and national importance. This was the show he appeared on today, and I was one of the callers. Rather than prolong the lament, I decided to focus on the possibility of a future in which MPBN became more of what local community radio in this area already is, on WERU-FM, a “voice of many voices.” I suggested they make an effort to get out of their regional news focus on Portland, Augusta, and Bangor (the three major Maine cities) and get their news and information teams out across the state to find out what is going on in the Maine forests, the blueberry lands, the fisheries, and rural life all over Maine. I suggested that there be more working-class voices heard on air (and Internet), adding that it could increase their contributor base enormously. (Vogelsang asked me, “How do you do that?” One answer: get those news teams out into the whole state, talk to the people, and record their voices.)
    The future of classical music on public radio—let alone the future of music on radio—let alone the future of radio itself—is debated within a larger context that involves globalization, unprecedented connectedness and decreasing privacy, changes in media and transformations in daily life and experience. In this discussion, sustainability cannot simply mean preservation of an older set of experiences--that is impossible--but, rather, reassessment, continuity, and possibilities previously unrealizeable.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Syrup and sustainability

    Maple syrup and milk, closely associated with Vermont in the public imaginary, add value to the region, just as Maine benefits more than economically from lobsters and blueberries. As Michael Lange, presenting at the cultural sustainability symposium in Craftsbury Common, Vermont, pointed out, sugaring from the sap of the sugar maple trees is paradigmatically associated with the state, both as product and symbol. As a natural resource-based product, maple syrup is an important part of the Vermont economy; and Vermont accounts for nearly 40% of the US maple syrup production. But its economic value goes well beyond the product itself, for sugaring conjures up images of old-fashioned, wholesome rural lifestyles that attract tourists to the state, images that over the years also have attracted in-migrants. In this way, the tourist dollar value of a heritage symbol is enmeshed in cultural as well as natural resource sustainability.
    Although most sugaring operations sell to the wholesale trade, some also offer a portion of their product to the general public in small shops attached to the sugarhouses. In the state of Maine, which accounts for 20% of the total amount of US maple syrup production, it’s not uncommon to see homemade signs along the road during late winter sugaring season, advertising a local sugar-maker’s product, which is sold out of the home. But Maine does not have the large sugar-making operations that not only serve the wholesale trade but market under their own name and at the same time create tourist stops where visitors to Vermont may see demonstrations of sugar making and taste the product, year round. A few of these are quite large, rivaling living history museums in size and attractiveness; they also are competitive, and each has its partisans. In fact, when Lange named a few of them, Vermonters in the room immediately spoke up in favor of this one or that one; and if Lange hadn’t stepped back in, a lively debate on whose syrup was best would have interrupted the presentation.
    Lange placed these large sugar making tourist attractions squarely within the cultural heritage industry, and with it the ongoing debate among culture workers over the hells and benefits of heritage tourism. Although he didn’t elaborate on it, sugaring (like lobstering) is dependent on an ongoing natural resource, which brings in sustainability issues, international trade and competition (for maple syrup, the competition is with Canada, which subsidizes its sugar makers), state and federal regulation, and so forth, often putting sugar makers at odds with regulators over best practices. The ongoing health of the sugar maples in the forests, just like the health of lobsters in the oceans, will depend in part on the effects of climate change. We don’t expect the Vermont forests to look like those south of the Mason-Dixon line anytime soon; rather, the warming climate brings changes to the ecosystem in the form of pests and predators that the sugar maples have not previously had to combat.
    Vermont prides itself on the quality of its syrup and, indeed, offers it in four grades: fancy, grade A medium amber, dark amber, and grade B. No other state makes such fine distinctions. But ironically, this grading system works against Vermont syrup outside of the state. Grade B is considered inferior because of the labeling, whereas outside the state much ungraded Canadian syrup that would be labeled grade B in Vermont doesn’t carry the same negative connotation. A further irony is that the fancy syrup, being the purest and most delicate-flavored, has the least amount of maple taste; those wanting a stronger taste of maple use the darker syrups. The state legislature this year debated whether to endorse grade inflation: all Vermont syrup would henceforth be labelled grade A, and the distinctions would be made on the basis of color and the degree of maple taste. A Boston Globe article concluded by quoting an eighth-generation sugar maker, Doug Bragg: “Most of our customers are asking, why do we have to do this [change in the grading system]? There’s a logic to it, no question about it. It’s still annoying, though.” (
    As heritage tourism is a frequently-discussed topic on this blog, there’s no need to review it fully here. But maple sugar tourism differs from that revolving around much traditional music in the US in that sugaring is a viable industry and would remain one without heritage tourism, whereas heritage tourism often gives traditional music a second life, one that would not be viable without it. Like lobsters and blueberries, maple sugar tourism offers not just an education but a food reward at the end of the lecture. Forestry tourism doesn’t do that, which may be why in Maine, for example, it’s not as attractive as lobsters and blueberries. Nor has Maine capitalized on sugaring tourism anywhere to the extent that Vermont has done.
    Lange concluded his presentation by discussing a different kind of educational involvement with sugar making, a program at an elementary school in Fairfield, Vermont, where youngsters participate hands-on in sugar-making, presumably giving them a deeper involvement than the tourists get, and also a deeper understanding of what this symbolic state industry involves at the ground level. Such innovative programs could also involve field trips and nature-study, a curriculum that has gradually been disappearing from the schools in favor of the abstractions of modern science.
    In our own field trip, to a former dairy farm, we grappled with economic and cultural sustainability issues surrounding the other picture-book Vermont industry: dairy farming. I will have more to say about that shortly.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Seed saving and cultural sustainability

    An educational and cultural project involving home garden seed saving was the centerpiece of Rosann Kent’s presentation at the cultural sustainability symposium last month at Sterling College. Hers was one of the talks that engaged with my own work, for I’ve been an organic gardener and seed saver myself now for some thirty-plus years. After all, a university’s academic year calendar permits faculty time in the summer to do research, write, and in my case, also to tend an organic garden and orchard. Hand-work is complementary to head-work, and the easy pace of gardening frees me for creative daydreaming. If I had to make a living as a farmer, I’m sure that my mind would be full of worry about the year’s crops, the weather, and market prices; but growing for home use (with surplus for friends) involves a different kind of accounting.
    Rosann Kent’s school, re-named the University of North Georgia earlier this year, resulted from the merger of the North Georgia College & University, and Gainesville State College. Its website proclaims it “The Military College of Georgia,” and Kent was quick to state that one would not normally associate seed saving with a military college. Nonetheless, the university’s Georgia Appalachian Studies Center, where Kent serves as a faculty member and the director, recently completed a project entitled “Saving Appalachian Gardens and Stories,” which not only gained a good deal of local attention in this fastest-growing region of the state, but also was featured in a forum on local food systems and sustainable agriculture last year, sponsored by the Appalachian Regional Commission.
    Seed saving brings together culture and agriculture, a unity famously inscribed into the back-to-the-land movement of the 1970s by Wendell Berry, whose words were prophetic then and whose voice remains essential today. Kent’s project was designed not just to inventory varieties of home garden seeds that had for years been saved and shared by local families, but also to collect and then present the stories that went along with the seeds. Stories connected with seeds may seem a little strange to anyone who either hasn’t either grown up in a family that keeps heirloom seeds, or hasn’t encountered the practice of storytelling surrounding the intersection of generations on the land through such things as names of places. Even the name of an old fiddle tune, when played in a circle of friends, if it names a place or person (or even if it doesn’t), often will draw forth a short story, or a reference to a known story, of the place or person named, or the fiddler from whom the player learned it, or an occasion on which it was played and something unusual occurred.
    In 1990 when I taught for the spring semester as Goode Visiting Professor of Appalachian Studies at Berea College, in Kentucky, I spent most weekends in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky; and one of the things I did was ask the people I got to know, the ones who had home gardens, whether they saved seed. Among other things, as a seed saver myself, I was interested in trying new-to-me varieties of heirloom non-hybrid seeds, and swapping some I’d saved with theirs.
My garden bean field, 2013. Photo by Jeff Todd Titon
This is one of the things seed-savers do; we swap seeds. Every seed variety has a name; they are not just “bean seeds.” Otherwise we couldn’t keep track of their differences very well. When I asked them what they called these bean seeds, or those tomato seeds, the answer often was something like, “Oh, those are Joe beans.” “Joe beans?” I would reply. “No, I mean what variety of beans are they?” “Well,” the answer would come, “these are greasy beans, if that’s what you’re getting at. Lots of folks around here grow greasy beans. These are ones that go back to old Joe Caudill, whose home place used to be up here (points up higher on the creek bed) where he grew them, must have been one hundred years ago.” And then the lady would go on to tell a little story that revealed old Joe’s character, or maybe something about one of his descendants, or she might say she went to school with so-and-so who was old Joe’s nephew’s cousin’s niece, or something like that. In this way, the seeds, the land, and the families all were put into meaningful relation. Their “use-value,” so to speak, was cultural as well as agricultural. Saving seeds also meant saving culture.
    Kent’s presentation added another cultural layer. This part of north Georgia was being inundated by people “from away,” as we would say in Maine, contrasting them with “natives.” In Kent’s country, the same distinction was between “came heres” and “been heres.” As in Maine, each group had its own notions of what it wanted. The “came heres” wanted Starbucks and services they were used to in the big cities; they thought that the “been heres” were culturally deprived and they wanted to “help.” The “been heres,” of course, had a culture of their own; and seed saving was an unimaginable (to the came heres) part of it. Kent had her students go out into the community and talk to the been heres who had home gardens about the seeds they saved, and of course just as had happened to me nearly a quarter century earlier and in a different part of Appalachia, they not only got seeds but also stories. So the seed saving project, along with the oral histories and stories, was presented in the community, and the came heres began to understand something about the been heres, while the been heres were reassured about their own culture.
    In our cultural sustainability symposium, Kent not only talked about this project, but she got us all into a workshop where we told each other family stories, something that might have gone on all afternoon—but there were other presentations to hear, and besides, all this talk about food made us hungry for the farm supper that was only a couple of hours away.    

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The language of avoidance

    All of the presentations at the recent cultural sustainability symposium at Sterling College interested me, but in this and the next few entries I’ll single out some of those that linked most directly to the kind of thinking that’s engaged me on this blog: those by William Westerman, Mary Hufford, Rosann Kent, Nancy Menning, Michael Lange, and the field session with Farley Brown and Ross Morgan that concluded the symposium.
    Westerman spoke about the need to understand, confront, reveal and undermine those social, political and economic forces whose actions “disrupt local cultures with destructive, sometimes even genocidal, impact.” As he pointed out, people make decisions that set those forces in motion. They often are hard to identify because the disruption is often chronicled in the passive voice—events just seem to occur, and causation is not assigned.
    Much of what Westerman said is congruent with my own argument that culture workers must consider economic and environmental threats to cultural continuity, rather than confine ourselves to helping communities promote and maintain their traditional and characteristic artistic expressions, be they music, ethnic foods, religious folklife, dance, and so forth. Culture workers, who are trained to identify and document tradition-bearers (folk artists), ought also to direct efforts at identifying and documenting those people who give agency to the disruptive and destructive economic and environmental forces, and to exposing them.
    But Westerman’s focus on the language in which these problems are addressed is absolutely critical (a theme, also, of Mary Hufford’s presentation). It isn't just about what we say but how we think and therefore how we know, and how we can know. (The technical term for this is epistemology.) When one says, “The New York and New Jersey Coast was devastated by Superstorm Sandy,” that is the passive voice: the Coast “was devastated.” The fact is stated but the cause is not identified. If, instead, one says “Climate change is causing violent storms like Superstorm Sandy that devastated the New York and New Jersey Coast,” we have the active voice, which identifies the actor (cause), in this case climate change. Examples like this are more useful than contrasting sentences such as "The ball was hit to center field by John" versus "John hit the ball to center field." Of course, it's possible to identify actors in the passive voice ("by John" in the above contrast); but often the actor is absent, and sometimes on purpose.
    Westerman’s concentration on the evasive language of the passive voice reminded me of “Strunk and White” (The Elements of Style) with its prescription to use the active voice, chiefly to make writing vigorous. Contemporary contrarians have delighted in pointing out grammatical errors in their examples of the passive voice. But Strunk and White isn’t about grammar: it’s about style. And using the active voice is about more than style; it’s about naming “whodunit.” The passive voice, as George Orwell pointed out more than sixty years ago in his essay, "Politics and the English Language," is the deadening language of government bureaucracy. It’s a language of avoidance; it’s “official language,” it’s what my own freshman English teacher, William E. Coles, Jr., back in the day, used to call “bulletproof language.”
    Fifty years ago, Norman Mailer understood the paralyzing consequences of Lyndon Johnson’s bulletproof language. In one of the finest analyses of the failures of the passive voice, Mailer critiqued Lyndon Johnson’s presidential campaign book, My Hope for America. Mailer's book, Cannibals and Christians (1966), contains that essay. In it, Mailer showed just how Johnson’s passive voice avoided naming and blaming, and in failing to say what were the causes of, say, poverty in America, Johnson’s language disabled him (and others) from thinking clearly about it and therefore from effectively addressing its causes.
     I was reminded, also, of a Cambridge Forum broadcast from October of 2011, featuring Bill McKibben and Wendell Berry, in honor of Thoreau’s essay on "Civil Disobedience." In the midst of the discussion, someone asked Berry why he was still willing to talk to those coal barons responsible for mountaintop removal when it was obvious that they weren't listening. The gist of his reply was that good people can still do terrible things, and if they're good people we must talk to them and try to reach the good within them. They need to know that "they're in the house that they're burning down. . . . and maybe we can help them put the fire out.” (View Berry's entire response at
     In other words, it's not enough simply to say that the house is burning down, or we're in ecological crisis, or that local cultures are disappearing. They are "being disappeared," as Tony Seeger reminded us at the symposium; and it's up to us culture workers to identify the people who hide behind the passive voice, and to try to keep a dialogue open with those powerful "good people who do terrible things." The language of avoidance blinds them to causation, keeps them from knowing that they are burning down the house that we all are in. But the spirit of non-violent resistance appeals to the good in them, in hopes that they will listen and we can put the fire out together.