Sustainable Music


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The commonwealth of culture

    “The commonwealth of culture” was the title of the Fellows forum that I put together for the annual conference of the American Folklore Society, which took place in Providence in October, 2012. By  cultural commonwealth I refer to expressive culture as commons, as a shared resource—that kind of wealth, not material wealth. On that forum, as well as in my keynote at the cultural sustainability conference in Vermont last August, I spoke about expressive culture—that is, folklore—within the contemporary commons discourse, particularly the digital commons, copyright, and cultural rights.[1] Commons is a familiar topic for readers of this blog, but it is not familiar, yet, to folklorists even though they are now so occupied with cultural sustainability that they made it the official theme of their 2012 annual conference. The abstract I wrote for the forum on the commonwealth of culture read in part:
    “Although today we associate commonwealth with a political entity such as a state or nation, the original meaning was public welfare or general good. It has something in common with res communes, which in Roman law referred to those things which then could not be “captured” or owned, such as the oceans or air mantle. But in modern nations commonwealth has moved closer to res publicae, the Roman law term for a state-regulated public domain, such as fisheries and air travel flyways. Commonwealth is therefore allied with the notion of a cultural commons, the domain of ideas and performance which folklorists like to think of as a group’s expressive culture. Much in the air today are arguments over enclosures such as copyright that limit the free flow of ideas in the digital, cultural, and/or creative commons. Folklorists, who have a long history of considering culture as a common group possession, have a great deal to contribute to this discussion. Commons thinking is one means of theorizing folklore and cultural sustainability, and so each of the participants in this forum will address those issues briefly and in turn before we invite general discussion from the audience.”
    Altogether six folklorists, all Fellows of the American Folklore Society, spoke on the forum: Mary Hufford, Burt Feintuch, Dorothy Noyes, Nick Spitzer, Lee Haring, and myself. I won’t rehearse their presentations here, or my own. But I would like to expand a little on the idea of folklore, expressive culture, intangible cultural heritage—the competing synonyms today for that part of culture which folklorists claim to know something about—both in the context of the above abstract, and also in the context of what I said in my keynote at the Vermont conference on cultural sustainability.
    Folklorists, I told the group in Vermont, have had a longstanding concern with expressive culture as commons. The idea that folklore is a common resource goes back to very early conceptions of folklore as the expression of a group, not an individual. The author of a folksong, folktale, proverb was thought to be anonymous. The originator of folkways used in making barns, farm implements, crafts and decorative objects was unknown. Of course, someone must once have originated it, but over time the folklore was modified and improved as it passed from one person to the next and down through the generations until it became accepted as a common resource, “traditional” and rightfully shared.
    What folklorists can contribute to the discussion of a cultural commons, then, is based in part on this longstanding concern, where the advantages for a community of shared resources are plain: acceptance by, and accessibility to, anyone and everyone. Aesthetic satisfaction through community validation is yet another advantage. In my presentation for the AFS conference, I emphasized the legal aspects of cultural commonwealth, suggesting that the history of folklore studies lends weight to the argument that no one must “own” culture if we are going to be good stewards of it. Ironically, folklorists are very much involved today in international efforts (e.g., those by WIPO) to propertize culture in order to protect it. (See my blog entry on WIPO.) But thinking of culture as intellectual property, and thinking of groups as possessing cultural rights in this property, while it may seem attractive in the short run, is a losing strategy in the long term, for by putting a price on expressive culture it degrades and transforms it into commodity, thereby furthering the mistaken project of economic rationality.
    In my keynote at the Vermont conference I took the same position, exemplifying it through sound and “orality,” another longstanding concern of folklore studies. My plea that we manage the soundscape as an acoustic commons for all creatures derives in part from this concern with oral communication. But in folklore studies, orality has always been constructed in opposition to literacy, with the result that this distinction has shifted attention away from something I think is more fundamental, and that is how orality (or sound) is experienced as a medium in itself, directly through vibration linking one being to another. This model of sound communication, I argued in that keynote, as well as in the keynote talk I gave in May to the Association of Brazilian Ethnomusicologists, is a cornerstone in the construction of an environmental rationality that stands in opposition to neoliberalism.[2]
    I felt a proprietary interest at the AFS conference in their theme, for to my knowledge I was the first to apply the sustainability concept to folklore, delivering a paper on that topic with special reference to music cultures, at their 2006 conference, then organizing a panel on that subject there for the 2007 annual conference. The idea gained traction, and late in 2008 I received an invitation from Rory Turner to take part in a conference of folklorists and other culture workers at Goucher College, chiefly to advise him and other faculty and administrators about starting an MA program in cultural sustainability, something that they had begun work on earlier that year. In 2009 Goucher did establish the first degree program in that subject, with Turner as founder. Since 2010, when Goucher’s first class enrolled, their MA program has taken the lead in folklore’s commitment to cultural sustainability. Turner has worked effectively to promote the concept. As a result of all these efforts and the discipline’s receptivity to sustainability, its enshrinement as the theme of the 2012 AFS conference may be the first indication that cultural sustainability has become the new paradigm for public folklore.
    Cultural sustainability has come so far, so fast because public folklorists think it an improvement over the previous paradigm, cultural conservation, which ruled from the 1980s until now. Of course, sustainability and conservation have much in common, but they also are significantly different both in concept and history. I've been writing about those similarities and differences in an essay on music, sustainability, and resilience for the forthcoming Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, co-edited with Slovenian ethnomusicologist Svanibor Pettan, for Oxford University Press. This volume, with more than 20 contributors, has been inching along for the past five years and probably will not be published until 2015 at the earliest. I wouldn't be surprised if the idea of folklore as an expressive cultural commons also gained traction within the academic side of folklore studies.[3] As the anonymous proverb-turned-cliché puts it, time will tell.

[1] My keynote talk for the Vermont conference on cultural sustainability in August, 2012 may be downloaded as an mp3 file at

[2] My keynote talk for ABET in May, 2012 on "The Nature of Ecomusicology" was published in their journal, Music E Cultura, and may be downloaded at

[3] Anthony McCann's pioneering work in commons and enclosure has important implications for folklorists. See 

Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Nature of Ecomusicology

My May, 2013 ABET keynote address, "The Nature of Ecomusicology," has just been published in the Association of Brazilian Ethnomusicologists' annual journal, Music E Cultura, Vol. 8 (2013). The abstract:

     The new field of ecomusicology combines ecocriticism with (ethno)musicology. It is the study of music, culture, sound and nature in a period of environmental crisis. To date, most ecomusicologists have accepted nature as real, external, and objectively knowable. However, critical theory, the so-called science wars, and a changed paradigm within ecology have posed serious challenges to scientific realism, balanced ecosystems, and to the economic rationality which has caused environmental degradation. Going forward, ecomusicologists can meet these challenges by relying on an ecological construction of nature based in a relational epistemology of diversity, interconnectedness, and co-presence. In that way, ecomusicology can work meaningfully towards sustaining music within the soundscape of life on planet Earth.

A free pdf (in English) of the talk in its entirety may be downloaded from the journal's website, here.

Thanks to Carlos Sandroni, Alice Lumi Satomi, José Alberto Salgado e Silva, and the others in ABET who invited and sponsored my visit and who are responsible for this publication. 

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Sound and sustainability at AASHE

     In early October, Aaron Allen, Denise Von Glahn and I spoke in a plenary session to the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, or AASHE (pronounced HEY-she with the H silent), at their annual conference, in Nashville, Tennessee. Aaron Allen, the Academic Sustainability Coordinator at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, received the initial invitation, then asked Denise Von Glahn and me to join him. Plenaries are special events at conferences, and so our photos and bios were prominently placed in the program.[1] Von Glahn is a professor of musicology at Florida State University; she is very active in ecomusicology and the author of two books on American composers, nature, and place—her latter book is specifically on women composers.[2] Allen is also a professor of musicology and one of the leaders and guiding spirits behind the ecomusicology movement. It was Allen who convened a group of musicologists to write essays for a colloquy about ecomusicology in JAMS (the Journal of the Musicological Society), and who was asked to write an entry on ecomusicology for the New Grove Dictionary of American Music.[3] Although I’m relatively new to the (relatively new itself) ecomusicology movement, Allen was aware of my recent research in ecomusicology via Thoreau, and of my longstanding interests in sustainability—hence the invitation.
     Our topic was sustainability and sound, while the conference theme was resiliency and adaptation, a theme which readers of this blog know has occupied me here for years in connection with ecological models for musical and cultural sustainability. We held forth at the plenary for 90 minutes with a mix of prepared statements (from Aaron, explaining ecomusicology and its relation to sustainability; and from Denise, tracing her interests in nature, sound, music, and listening) and an interview (Aaron interviewed me about my research in sound and sustainability, touching on my plea for thinking about the earth’s soundscape as an acoustic commons for all living creatures [4], and my research on the sacralization of place by sound, particularly in Appalachia.[5].
    Most college and university campuses today make an effort to “be green,” to involve their staff, students, and faculty in energy conservation and recycling, and to lower their campus’s carbon footprint. AASHE brings together the leaders from those campuses, so they can talk to each other about common concerns and their efforts to make their institutions more sustainable. According to its website, AASHE’s mission “is to empower higher education to lead the sustainability transformation. We do this by providing resources, professional development, and a support network. . . “ [6] Not only professional campus sustainability administrators, then, but also students engaged in various sustainability projects on campus, and faculty involved with sustainability and environmental studies, were present at this very large conference of nearly two thousand people. It was about three times the size of the conferences of the Society for Ethnomusicology or of the American Folklore Society, the two I’ve attended faithfully each year since the early 1970s in connection with my own research and teaching. Like the invitation I received two years ago when I spoke to the University of New Hampshire’s Sustainability Academy [7], this was an invitation where people involved with sustainability, chiefly from the perspectives of science and engineering, wanted to hear from humanists about their own involvement with sustainability—to bring the humanities into the discussion.
    Allen, who has thought about bridging those gaps for some years now, is convinced, as I am, that humanists do have something to say to scientists and engineers about sustainability. The reverse is also true, of course. Ecomusicology, as he presented it at the conference, builds on ecocriticism, which is a three decades-old movement in literary history and criticism that takes as its primary subject the interactions of people, culture, and nature within literature, at a time of environmental crisis; and it, too, involves some scientists. That is, ecocriticism is concerned with literature and the environment, broadly conceived. Ecomusicology, then, is the critical study of music and the environment: of music, culture, and nature at a time of environmental crisis.
    Many ecomusicologists, myself included, prefer an ecomusicology that goes beyond music to include the study of all sound, and its relation to all creatures in the environment. In moving from music to the broader concept, sound, we think that ecomusicology shares common ground with other fields that focus on sound, fields such as acoustic ecology, sound studies, and soundscape ecology. I will save for another time a description of the differences of emphasis in these allied fields; suffice to say that Allen, Von Glahn and I spoke to the AASHE conference not only about music and sustainability, but about sound and sustainability.
    By their questions afterwards, the audience seemed as interested in music as in sound. They wondered about the future of musical genres they like, whether classical, folk, hip-hop, etc. Indeed, the majority of entries on this blog have been about music, not sound and environmental policy. But in the past two years, as a result of my work with Thoreau, sound has become more important, as I continue with a line of thought I introduced more than twenty years ago, theorizing a phenomenology of sound, a way of taking listening to sound and music rather than reading and interpreting a text, as the paradigm case of being in the world, and one which leads to a relational epistemology based on fieldwork and friendship.[8]
    In my part of the plenary, I tried to make the point that colleges and universities ought to manage their soundscapes for the health of all the inhabitants, and that this should be part of campus sustainability initiatives. Campuses after all are unusual in the amount of planning that goes into their spaces (pathways, landscaping, architecture, etc.) and their upkeep. Campuses are managed landscapes, and like gardens and country houses they are managed to be pleasant (usually pastoral) retreats from the jumble of appearances characterizing people’s workaday lives. Why not manage the soundscapes as well? I mentioned studies that have shown that soundscape interference (noise) is unhealthy, causing both physical and psychological damage.[9] I asked them if they thought they had any stress on their campuses; when they laughed in agreement, I suggested some of that stress might result from the soundscape. They already manage, or try to manage, certain soundscapes, such as dormitories. Roommates have to agree on the soundscape of their living quarters at any given time, for example; and there are “quiet hours” in some dorms, and so forth. But there is no coordinated campus effort to manage the soundscape for health and general well-being; for curbing the sounds of leaf-blowers, for example, or for attracting birds and other wildlife specifically for their contributions to the soundscape. In many campus buildings, the sounds of ventilator fans, heating apparatus, and air conditioners are omnipresent and noticeable, causing a kind of background stress that most people aren’t aware of until they go outside, and maybe not even then.
    Here, then, Allen and Von Glahn and I were concerned about sound, sustainability, and health and well-being. Von Glahn teaches her students to listen to all sounds, not just music. Attentive listening is a skill that can be learned. Once it is learned, people will pay more attention to the soundscape and its effects on life, human and non-human alike. Allen’s task was more general, to act as interlocutor and to explain the relationship of ecomusicology to sustainability, which he did by saying, among other things, that it introduces an aesthetic dimension that might otherwise be missing if the conversation is confined to scientists and engineers.
    In a sea of presentations on various efforts at sustainability and their outcomes, on campus and in the community at large, mostly involving engineering projects and group activities meant to conserve energy, our plenary must have provided some relief (including comic relief). About 500 people attended it, one of the larger audiences I’ve spoken with. It was a great pleasure to make common cause with Aaron Allen and Denise Von Glahn in this effort to link sound to sustainability for environmentalists, and we may get a chance to do it again. Plans are afoot for a visit to the University of Minnesota, where some interested parties have applied for a small grant to bring us there to coordinate with their own campus environmental sustainability efforts. I’d like to go, to try to give something back to them; for it was at the University of Minnesota that my own graduate education in the humanities took place many years ago.

[1] For the bios, see
[2] Denise Von Glahn, Music and the Skillful Listener: American Women Compose the Natural World (Indiana University Press, 2013) and The Sounds of Place: Music and the American Cultural Landscape (Northeastern University Press, 2003).
[3] Aaron Allen, “Ecomusicology,” The New Grove Dictionary of American Music (Oxford University Press, 2013), also available at; and Aaron Allen, Daniel Grimley, Alexander Rehding, Denise Von Glahn, and Holly Watkins, “Colloquy: Ecomusicology,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 64, no. 2 (2011): 391–424.
[4] Jeff Todd Titon, “A Sound Commons for All Living Creatures,” Smithsonian Folkways Magazine, 2012, at
[5] See
[6] See
[8] Jeff Todd Titon, “Knowing Fieldwork,” in Gregory Barz and Timothy Cooley, Shadows in the Field (Oxford University Press, 1996), pp,. 87-100 and Jeff Todd Titon, “Knowing People Making Music: Toward a New Epistemology for Ethnomusicology.” Etnomusikologian vuosikirja, vol. 6, 1994. Helsinki: Suomen etnomusikologinen seura. [Yearbook of the Finnish Society for Ethnomusicology]