February 11th, 2011 | by BRETT CAMPBELL Arts & Books |

Finding the Links Between Sustainability and Music

Sustainable-Eco-Friendly-SpeakersSustainable, Eco-Friendly Speakers with Power Consuming Amps - Photo courtesy of uptodatedesign.com.
In those lists of buzzwords that should be banned every year, “sustainability” should be at the top. Not because the concept isn’t vital; certainly the idea of an economy and way of life that pays attention to the future has been neglected by our greed-is-good, I-want-it-now, consumer/casino economy for the last , oh, millennium or so. But the term has gotten so overused, folded, spindled, mutilated, greenwashed and co-opted by its very nemeses that it threatens to undermine its own ideals.

That’s why, even though I’ve covered both issues as a journalist, I approached last Friday’s Portland State University's Music & Sustainability lecture series with some skepticism and puzzlement. I wasn’t alone. “Does that mean you’re going to recycle sheet music?” one faculty member asked PSU music prof Bonnie Miksch, who serves on the department sustainability committee that’s sponsoring the initiative. Even PSU President Wim Wiewel, whose tenure has seen the term/brand linked to various PSU programs, showed up for Friday’s roundtable because he told the assembled members and invited guests, he was curious to see how the two concepts connected.

By the time the 90 minute discussion was over, we had our answers, or at least some productive questions. Credit Miksch, who acknowledged up front that the university was still in the exploratory stages of figuring out the connections, and affable committee co-chair (and much-admired local jazz pianist) Darrell Grant, who invited a commendably broad range of guests and adeptly moderated the discussion, for setting an open-minded tone and eliciting a broad range of what turned out to be promising, even practical potential areas for exploring how music itself can be more sustainable, and how it can contribute to the planet’s sustainability.

Those were the two primary directions identified by the first lecturer, Brown University Ethnomusicology professor Jeff Todd Titon, who early on seized upon the concept as a specialty and blogs about it. Other PSU faculty members from music urban studies, sociology and humanities participated. But this roundtable also included working musicians with broader interests such as The Spinanes co-founder Rebecca Gates (who’s working with the Washington DC based research and advocacy organization called the Future of Music Coalition), musicians union president Bruce Fife, and ubiquitous musician/composer/thinker/writer Tim DuRoche, plus a couple of city officials, Cary Clarke (the PDX Pop Now founder turned mayor’s arts and culture policy coordinator) and Human Relations staffer Ronault “Polo” Catalani, and even a student double majoring in music and community development. Most offered thoughtful, sometimes provocative insights about how music can be made more sustainable, whether through preventing the injuries that end the careers of a startling number of musicians, or resisting the commodification of creativity.

Of course, many of these questions have long been studied and debated, like the ongoing tension between fostering musical innovation while at the same time preserving indigenous and folk musical traditions. Viewing them through the lens of sustainability, Titon suggested, can provide new insights.

Discussion of the role of music in advancing planetary sustainability veered a bit into the abstract, mostly because of time constraints. But the panelists did suggest plenty of areas for practical policy recommendations that would address Titon’s first point, such as how to help build communities around musical innovation, or to determine what sorts of intellectual property rights and economic arrangements can best allow musicians to sustain their careers without starving, and otherwise how to help leaders determine what cultural policies might, Titon said, “sustain music and the place of music in human life.”

Nim Xuto, a Thai immigrant who works with refugees, recalled how playing her country’s music on guitar helped her sustain a connection to her culture after her father’s death, while her son’s hip-hop filled iPod helped him get through the trials of adolescence. “Music sustains us as human beings,” she said. “How can we as a community sustain musicians and artists?” That’s a question worth exploring, and PSU’s lecture series promises to lead the way.

GO: Upcoming Music & Sustainability speakers include composer and professor Barry Truax (March 3), trombonist and teacher Jan Kagarice (April 14), and anthropologist Dr. Rory Turner (May 19). See the full schedule of upcoming Music & Sustainability events at http://music.pdx.edu/sustainability.

 
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