Saturday, October 3, 2015

Toward a Sound Ecology: Activism, Community Engagement, and Ethnomusicology

    Several months ago I was invited to Limerick, Ireland, to give a plenary address in a conference for ethnomusicologists, on activism and community engagement. Community-engaged activism is characteristic of applied ethnomusicology, of course, but some who are activists in our field don’t self-identify as applied ethnomusicologists. No matter; the conference organizers wished to cast a broader net, and they therefore brought together many people whose work was unknown to each other—not just ethnomusicologists, either, but also arts promoters who’d done much to program concerts featuring indigenous performing groups. The gathering took place two weeks ago and resulted from a historic alliance between the US-based Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM), and the Europe-based International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM). It was a great pleasure to meet and speak with some European colleagues whose work I’d read but whom I’d never seen before. Several old friends and colleagues were in attendance as well. While some ethnomusicologists are active members of both societies, SEM has been my only professional organization for ethnomusicology since I joined in back in 1971.
    I was impressed with many of the presentations. It so happened that Oxford University Press had a small book exhibit at the gathering where the Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology was prominently featured. Although that book was published only two months earlier, it’s already had some impact. Many of the conference attendees had seen it; and parts of it, especially my introductory essay, were referenced in several presentations. A few of the conference highlights: Angela Impey from the University of London offered a description of her work with songs that “tell the truth” in war-torn South Sudan, where music makes meaning and expresses justice. Deborah Wong, a professor at the University of California, made an appeal for “witnessing” as activism, and related her work in Riverside, with the soundtracks of police violence against African Americans. José Jorge de Carvalho, from the University of Brasilia, described a program in which indigenous “masters” (bearers of traditional knowledge) are brought to teach in his university, on a level playing field with Western professors. Such a program, limited to the arts, does not threaten the established political order; but bring in masters to teach indigenous ideas about nature, for example, and give them authority equal to Western science, and you have the beginnings of a revolution. Denise Bolduc, a member of the First Nations (Canadian) Anishnabe group, spoke about her work in promoting concerts and other performances for a broad audience. One of the phrases that stuck with me from her presentation was “blood memory,” a kind of memory that is genetic rather than cultural, and which some indigenous people invoke to provide authority for a cultural process in which they feel they have re-created ideas and practices of previous generations that had been lost to cultural genocide or for other reasons. Andrew McGraw, from the University of Richmond, spoke about his work helping prison inmates make hip-hop tracks, describing the new Richmond (VA) city jail as a highly sophisticated surveillance state. Anthony Seeger spoke about lessons that could be learned from applied anthropology, and Rebecca Dirksen spoke of her efforts in applied ethnomusicology to make a documentary film involving music and waste in Haiti, where the streets of Port-au-Prince are piled high with trash. Mark DeWitt described (and played recordings of) songs made in the wake of the BP oil spill in the Gulf Coast, meant to raise environmental consciousness. He added that the songs, while powerful statements in themselves, seemed like everything else done in opposition to the oil drilling culture to have little effect on the oil industry itself, and wondered what he, as someone supported as a university professor by the economic establishment in the region, and as someone answerable to many different and sometimes conflicting constituencies, could or should do about it. Luke Lassiter, whose work in collaborative ethnography was well known to me, and whose book on it I taught in the fieldwork seminar at Brown, talked about new developments in this area, including increased reflexivity and a broadening of the concept of collaboration. Some of the presenters referred to my published work when making a similar or related point, and one critiqued my ideas about music’s economic and cultural value. We disagreed politely and explored those disagreements in a question-and-answer session after his presentation, all of which was helpful to me and, I hope, to him.
    The one who was critical objected to my point (made in this blog and elsewhere) that music should not be considered intellectual property or bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, I’m not the only one to feel this way, nor was I anywhere near the first to say so. But I’ve argued that music has personal and cultural values that ought not be confused with exchange value in the marketplace, yet value and values are brought into tension and compromised when music is bought and sold. My critic raised the common objection that musicians needed to make a living and ought to be paid for their music, artists for their art, and so forth. Oddly, most of the musicians he discussed were amateurs whose main income wasn’t from music; but still, there are those whose is, and why shouldn’t they have the right to be paid for it? In the economic systems prevailing in developed nation-states, of course this makes sense; musicians are laborers and should be paid for their work. But I envision a different economy, one in which making music is as natural as breathing or walking, and where it is not labor at all.
    The presentation closest in concept and spirit to my plenary talk was by someone who was entirely unfamiliar to me, Professor Chad Hamill, of Northern Arizona University. It came at 8:30 in the morning, and the conference room was only half full, which was a pity. Chad is of both Native American (Spokan Indian) and non-Native ancestry, and has his doctorate in ethnomusicology from the University of Colorado. His spoke about indigenous adaptation in the era of climate change, but began with a portrait of Spokan life in the natural world pre-European contact. Translated into my terminology it was a world of relational being, knowing, and doing, anchored in sound. Chad explained how in this Spokan world song bound humans to (and in) nature, linked to a sacred geography centered in the Spokane River. Today that river is polluted and dammed, and the salmon no longer run, all in the “photochemical haze” of the colonial legacy. Yet they are fighting all of this in the courts and gradually obtaining justice. He and I were able to speak about our common interests at times during the conference, and afterwards. I was reminded of the efforts of the Penobscots in Maine to restore the Penobscot River, efforts that are being rewarded as pollutants are outlawed, dams are being undone and the river is renewing itself. In that effort these Native Americans are joined by non-indigenous people who are conservation-minded, many of them sportsmen and women who would otherwise be on the right wing of the political spectrum.
    My plenary lecture came in the evening, after supper, and closed out the events that same day. It was fitting for Chad and me to bookend the day by speaking about nature, culture, and music within an environmental activist framework. I explained my current work in ecomusicology as it moves toward what I’ve been calling a sound ecology, or a new ecological rationality based in sound and presence, one that encompasses a sound community and displays a sound economy. These ideas have been gradually coming to me out of my concerns with music and sustainability, economy and ecology, nature’s economy, music, heritage and tradition, the sound commons, applied ethnomusicology, and so on as readers of this blog will understand. They had their first expression as music and sustainability in 2005 in my Nettl Lecture, at the University of Illinois, and then again at the SEM conference in 2006 in Honolulu, on a panel I organized on sustainable music—those papers were published in a 2009 issue of the world of music. Since then, they’ve been influenced profoundly by Thoreau’s writings, or at least by my interpretations of them, as they bear on ideas of presence, co-presence, and a critique of economic man, the business mentality that underlies the global corporate capitalism that turns music and art into intellectual property (and where traditional arts are given the value-added status of heritage) and fuel for the creative economy, cultural tourism, and so forth. I must emphasize that my critique is not directed at capitalism per se, as so many others’ is today (e.g., Thomas Piketty, Naomi Klein). Rather, it is directed at what underlies contemporary neoclassical economics and capitalism, namely “economic man,” the assumption that humans are capitalists and traders by nature.
    Gradually I am bringing my ideas of a sound ecology to publication; two essays on Thoreau will be published very soon, one in Current Directions in Ecomusicology and the other in the inaugural issue of Sound Studies. The keynote address that I gave at the CSTM conference last June should appear in an issue of Ethnologies within a year or so. I also have a publication that will appear on sound and climate change, more of a personal essay, in Antioch College’s environmental journal, Whole Terrain, later this year. All of this thought on music and sustainability inches toward a larger, comprehensive publication that will bring the ideas on sound, presence, co-presence, community, economy, and ecology together.

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