Sustainable Music


Sunday, December 28, 2014

Amateuring at Sustainability

   There was far more to the ecomusicologies 2014 conference last October than the two presentations I reported on. In many ways it reminded me of the cultural sustainability conference at Sterling College a year and a half ago, in that unlike the usual conferences I go to, which are sponsored by professional academic societies, the people attending came together out of a common interest in ideas. Scientists, humanists, artists, musicians, and political activists, some employed in colleges and universities and some not, gathered to share ideas and, to an extent, music. At this conference I heard ecomusicologists speak about folksingers who championed environmental causes, philosophers who speculated on whether animals responded to human music, activists working with indigenous communities to sustain local knowledge about sound and the environment, composers who took their inspiration from listening to the sounds of the earth and its inhabitants while sleeping out in the desert, scientists reporting on the responses of birds and plants to sound, and musicologists who applied ecocritical perspectives to the environmental compositions of contemporary composers. And that is still just scratching the surface: we heard music, we took an environmental soundwalk, we watched and discussed a documentary film about wood used in building guitars that had become endangered, and many other things. Among many surprises, I found myself listening without warning to my own recordings of hermit thrushes, played back in a presentation by David Rothenberg, whereupon he took out his clarinet and played along. He used the thrush recordings from Worlds of Music, where since the 4th edition (2002) they've helped stimulate readers to think about the continuum (or boundary) between sound and music. I was fortunate to have been invited to deliver a keynote address, and I spoke to them about my belief that ecomusicology could make a fundamental difference in a period of global climate crisis. It could do this by re-orienting humans to relationships based in sound interactions among living beings—in more technical terms, what I’ve written and spoken about over the last few years as a relational ontology and epistemology, based in the recognition of co-presence, through the medium of sound vibration. In other words, ecomusicology may help bring about the revolution in consciousness required for a human commitment to interdependence and its full environmental implications.
    I am not used to such conferences these days. The spirit of amateurism is in them, where most participants temporarily put career considerations aside in favor of a willingness to admit ignorance, a desire to contribute to a common project, and an interest in adventuring outside one’s area of expertise to learn different ideas and ways of thinking about them. Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) conferences from the 1970s were closer to these in spirit, while the Modern Language Association (MLA) conferences, which I also attended back then, were not. I had an advanced degree in English and my academic appointment was in Tufts University’s English department, so the MLA was my professional association; but I held the doctorate in American studies with a dissertation in ethnomusicology, so I attended SEM out of interest. I didn’t know, then, that in a few years I would be holding a joint academic appointment in English and ethnomusicology, or that I’d eventually move to another university (Brown) to direct their doctoral program in ethnomusicology.
    The MLA conference was huge—perhaps ten thousand in attendance, compared with a few hundred at SEM—and like a smaller class size, the smaller SEM conference size encouraged a fuller exchange of ideas. Besides, a major part of MLA was devoted to career-building and job interviews. Newly-minted Ph.Ds and other young unemployed or underemployed English professors met with teams of interviewers in small, stuffy hotel rooms for roughly fifteen minutes at a time, with offers, careers and lives hanging in the balance. I recall that this aspect of MLA was called the “meat market,” likening the interviewers to buyers inspecting meat in a butcher shop, and the job candidates to cuts of meat, some prime, some choice, some not so favored—not a happy comparison. We all hated the superficiality of it—inspectors and “meat” alike; but in the name of efficiency we did it.
    In top and second-tier colleges and universities at that time, English department life was almost deliberately inefficient by comparison, and anything but professional—sometimes (for me, then) maddeningly so. The English gentleman amateur was the unspoken ideal. The drudgery of professionalization—“Grub Street”—was out of character for those inclined toward a contemplative, literary life. For example, we didn’t try to coach doctoral students in the ways of the world that would help them get a good teaching job, something that seemed to me irresponsible even then, and certainly now. The literary life had its pleasures and rewards; but in those days I thought this ideal of the amateur went a little too far. Let me offer an example. Our university faculty, filled with scientists, engineers and other practical-minded people, decided to institute a Grievance Committee, charged to hear and to give informed and objective advice in response to complaints from any faculty member against others, including colleagues, department chairs, administrators, and so forth. I was elected to be a member of this university committee. After a year of hearing enough grievances to plot a dozen academic novels, I went to my department chairman and told him I’d been impressed with the work that this committee was doing. Before I could go any further, he asked whether I myself had a grievance with our department. No, I said, I did not; but I added that I thought it might be a good idea if our department established a grievance committee among ourselves, a departmental version of the larger one. “I don’t think that would be wise,” the chairman told me, “because then we would have grievances!”
    At the time, I thought he was joking; but later I realized he was quite serious—and speaking from the position of the literary culture he’d adopted. I should have known—I did know—that in English departments in those days, informed by the spirit of an idealized English aristocracy, one kept one's grievances private. Gentlemanly it was, because this was in fact a male society; but it was not long before this male dominance and its accompanying sexism was challenged and, thank heavens, overturned within the English profession. But back then the gentleman amateur prevailed, and while at times I enjoyed imagining myself a part of it, chiefly I felt myself surrounded by departmental colleagues as quaint as Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey.
    Now I look back on those colleagues, and those days, with a lot more tolerance and, I hope, understanding. I don’t miss the men’s club or the sexism, but I do miss the spirit of amateurism. I've written often about amateuring here before; it's one of the themes of this blog. Today’s young professors have undergone, in their graduate education, a great deal of what is called professional development, another word for systematic advice on building a career. This is useful advice for competing on the job market, which has become far more difficult to navigate than it was forty years ago. But it is not, I think, useful advice for encouraging the free flow of creative ideas among those whose real work isn’t to advance a career but to educate, to contribute to knowledge and understanding, and see to it that this helps make a difference in the world. This is what tenure is supposed to convey on professors—academic freedom—but with a much smaller percentage of tenured appointments today, with more job competition, and with more need for professional development, conferences like those on cultural sustainability, and ecomusicology, are now fewer and farther between.
    I would not leave this topic by endorsing amateurism as an end in itself. We want master surgeons, not amateurs, doing heart and brain surgery—any kind of surgery. But master surgeons, like all good professionals, keep learning. What I’m endorsing here is the spirit of amateurism—being willing to admit that one doesn’t know; to share, rather than own, ideas; to take intellectual risks; and to change one’s mind. These qualities were all on display in abundance at those conferences, while the excitement of learning and sharing ideas was contagious.