Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Instruments of Story: Merging Music and Ecological Design

It's 11:00am at Bioneers, and I'm backstage. Serendipity landed me an invitation to play onstage alongside Carlos R. Nakaii and a host of tremendously talented musicians and dancers for the closing ceremony. 

It's an on-the-spot improvisation, led by Carlos, and I'm excited and terrified. A roar of applause signals the end of Paul Hawken's closing speech. We move downstairs, to the side of the stage. The butterflies are having an unabashed dance party in my stomach. 

Laying in my hands is one of the most beautiful instruments I've ever held. Bestowed upon me by gifted multi-percussionist (and co-performer!) Afia Walking Tree just fifteen minutes prior, I have no idea what it's called, or where it came from, or what it's made from... but I feel connected to the earth when I hold it. Is it a hollowed out gourd, with salvaged steel for keys? Is it made from wood? Who created the artwork adorning its surface? I have no answers... but the one thing I know for sure is that I feel love emanating from it. A reverence for the earth. I feel gratitude for the human hands and the more-than-human 'hands' (e.g. soil, air, water) that played a role in bringing it into being... and before you know it, it's our time: onto the stage we go.

Shaking. Rattling. Soft crescendos on the drums. Carlos' flute sails us into a drifting melodic passage, and gradually we build our way into an upbeat, percussive groove. The singers and dancers bring their vibrant energy to our performance, and I begin moving my body freely to the music as well. Drumming. Moving. Staying 100% present to the story as it unfolds. 80% listening, 20% playing. Letting the spirit of music flow through me.

Culminating in a glorious, polyrhythmic soup of musical noise, we close the song. As we bow, and proceed to walk offstage to the sound of thunderous applause, it's official: my love of playing music is BACK.


My visual way of expressing the
interconnected nature of all instruments...
(see the third section below for context)
I can't say with certainty when my love affair with music was born, but I do know that it extends back to 1998, at which point I can clearly recall banging on a piano and being thoroughly satisfied with the resultant noise. What I can tell you is precisely when and where it was "placed on hold". 

On October 22nd, 2009, I found myself at the 10th floor of New York University's Kimmel Center for a national music conference, attending a poorly-attended panel on "The Greening of the Music Industry". I honestly don't know what drove me there — other than serendipity and faint curiosity — but it was life-changing. This guy named Bill something-or-other (McFibben? Mekibin?) was speaking, and he kept referring to the "climate catastrophe". I'll be honest: I knew little of such things at the time. Bill was right on point, though, clear and compelling as ever.  I went home that day determined to learn more. 

Fast forward a few months: I've become actively involved with grassroots student organizing at NYU around social and environmental justice issues, and I'm taking courses in the environmental studies department (a far cry from my earlier courses in music theory and orchestration!)... and what I'm learning about is changing everything. A lot of strong emotions come up. How were we not learning about this [in empowering, developmentally appropriate ways] from kindergarten, onwards?! What was my education FOR, up to this point, if not even once did it broach the concept of climate change?!? Of how our global economy is eating up this Earth's life support systems (aka "resources") at a substantially faster rate than they can regenerate? Or of all the social and environmental injustices in the world? Most importantly: why weren't we each being empowered, through learning that got us out of the classroom and into the community, to directly play a role in building the solutions? 

These are big questions I'd like to return to in a later post. What's of particular note for this post is that, amidst this sea change of life priorities, I tossed music overboard... on the grounds that it wasn't relevant. The logic went like this: "There just isn't TIME for this anymore, man! We need a massive mobilization around creating a thriving, just, more-than-sustainable world that works for all of us, in the shortest time possible!!! At the end of the day, focusing your energy on playing music is not an effective way for you to meaningfully contribute to this shift... so, let it go!".

...whoops. That didn't work out so well. Each time I heard a moving musical performance, or heard someone speak about why they loved music, I was brought to this dark emotional place of confusion and regret. 

Truthfully, I'm still trying to find a balanced place for music in my life — but what's different now is that I recognize how absolutely critical it is that I have an outlet for musical expression. 
Music runs in my blood — and I can try to ignore it, but it'll just end up boomeranging itself back at me. And, I know this from experience, getting hit by the metaphorical boomerang of life hurts; it's that sharp pain that hits you upon noticing that your day-to-day actions are out of alignment with your deeper calling. 


What "came back" for me that morning at Bioneers was a love of performing — a sweet, lingering experience of just how joyful it is to share a talent (in my case, musical talent) in the context of performance and to be appreciated for it.

What the experience also triggered, however, was an epiphany around the nature of musical instruments that I'll never forget. As I held the instrument that Afia Walking Tree had given me, contemplating its origins, it occurred to me on a more profound level than usual that all instruments are "from the Earth"; it's just that (at least in the US, for the most part), we tend to be enormously disconnected from the source of the materials used, and the hands (and machines) created it. 

What we are disconnected from, essentially, is the story of the instrument — and the fundamental fact that all instruments carry stories! Maybe it's just me, but I see tremendous significance in this.

I'm not just talking about hand-crafted Mbiras and Talking Drums, here. Even a mass-produced synthesizer, comprised mostly of plastic and rare earth minerals, has a fascinating story — one that spans hundreds of millions of years, involving primeval swamp goo and dinosaur poop and great geological transformations which, over time, yielded the fossil fuels and rare earth minerals necessary for its creation. Its story was carved out in the ground from which the materials were dug; it has rippled outward to the communities impacted, positively or negatively, by the extraction of those materials; it has involved all the people who laid their hands upon it, during the manufacturing process, during its transportation, and during its life within some stuffy warehouse or musical instrument store. How do the next chapters unfold? Perhaps it is transferred to a home recording studio; perhaps it is recorded onto a platinum selling record; perhaps it tours the country; perhaps all these things, or none at all. At some point or another, regardless, it will likely find its way to a landfill, at which point it may, over the course of millions...  of...  years...  gradually decompose into its constituent elements once again and, at last, be reintegrated into the intricate cosmic dance of our constantly flowing, self-regulating earth system

As I hope I've made clear already, no part of this process exists in isolation. To the contrary, the "story" of that synthesizer — and of every instrument you've ever laid your hands on — is intricately bound to the wider web of life. Through each stage of its life — from extraction to processing, manufacturing to distribution, and ultimately, to its disposal (or recycling/upcycling) — there are a tremendous array of opportunities for it to be a vehicle for social, economic and ecological restoration or degradation.

The point I'm trying to make is this: stories matter. They exert great power over us — whether we know them or not. The story behind a musical instrument can be a means of connecting to one's ancestors and future generations, and a symbolic reminder of our interconnectedness with the web of life. In the absence of our consciously knowing the full story, however, an instrument can serve to reinforce a worldview of separation that objectives the earth; through our engagement with it as an "object", not a living entity, this disconnection from the larger story perpetuates a way of seeing and being in the world that Charles Eisenstein describes, appropriately, as the Story of Separation.

I'm not the first to jump up and down over this: Annie Leonard beat me to it, hands-down, with The Story of Stuff. But, unless anybody has seen otherwise, I notice a stark absence of "product transparency" (knowing what's in your stuff, where it came from, who produced it, and under what conditions, and whether or not they were fairly compensated for their work, etc.), design for disassembly, closed-loop design processess, etc. for musical instruments and audio equipment, specifically. 

While there are gradual shifts underway (at least in the US) in the "Story of Food" (to put a neat little title on the way food is grown, where it's grown, who did the planting/cultivation/harvesting [and under what conditions], etc.) and in other realms (such as cosmetics, thanks largely to the work of groups like The Campaign for Safe Cosmetics and Teens Turning Green). . . there's no soundtrack to this movement. That is, music seems largely left out of the equation. With some exceptions, we have yet to see movement toward socially just, ecologically regenerative approaches to the creation of musical instruments from the established businesses that operate within the framework of a global economy (or from the ground up — although I would joyfully welcome any news you can show me that indicates otherwise!).

Why is this a problem?, you may ask. Is the investment necessary to shift the music manufacturing 'industry' toward sustainability and social justice (or build alternatives ourselves) a worthwhile expenditure of effort? I say it is. If we want music in our lives, and we want a diversity of it from the range of wonderful instruments that the "resource availability" (aka well-intentioned but deeply misguided exploitation of the earth) and industrialized mindset of the 20th century enabled us to create, then we need to change this – and there is no better time than NOW to get smart and build the solutions!

Alongside building the alternatives (see my final section for details on this), we can begin by reclaiming knowledge of the STORIES behind every instrument that passes through our hands. The mere act of asking questions and seeking transparency wherever it does not yet exist (e.g. where did the wood body of my acoustic guitar come from? Are the manufactuers practicing steady-state or regenerative approaches to forestry? Are they empowering workers or marginalizing them for greater profits? Is this guitar intentionally designed for disassembly/recycling/upcycling?) is a significant step toward standing for justice; you are helping unwrite a cultural narrative in which is is, for instance, perfectly acceptable for product manufacturers to omit mentioning the known carcinogens and endocrine disruptors used in their shampoos, baby shampoos, deodorant, body lotion, shaving cream, perfume, tooth paste, etc. Seriously? We can do better than this! At the same time, while a shift in consumer choices can and must be part of the larger process of transitioning to just, restorative economic models, let me be clear: not for a moment am I proposing that we can "buy ourselves out of" the deep economic, ecological, social and spiritual crises we're presented with. I believe more systemic transformations are needed, as well – but that's a conversation for another day.

While this is outright assumption rather than studious research, my hunch is that if you were to look at the instrument-making processes employed by a wide range of indigenous, tribal and aboriginal peoples, you would find their very ways of living on the earth ensure that their musical instruments are created in a just and ecologically sustainable manner. If you fully believe yourself to be connected with the plants and fibers from which your instruments are created, to the extent that you see them as an extension of yourself, you're not going to cut them all down beyond the point of regeneration — and if you helped create the instrument, or you know personally the people who did (and see them as extensions of yourself, too), you're not going to favor an economic system that disenfranchises them for your own 'personal gain'.

The question is... how could the underlying essence of this indigenous wisdom be applied to the manufacture of musical instruments within a global economy? Can the creation/distribution/sale of musical instruments take place within a globalized economic system AND be socially just and environmentally regenerative? 

Or will we, through the course of the 21st century, transition toward creating instruments at a more local/regional scale in ways that honor the web of life, each other, and future generations? 

I look forward to finding out... 

...and in the meantime, in a subtle nod toward the latter scenario, I will be devising curriculum/lesson plans for creating instruments with elementary and middle school youth from local plant/fiber-based materials. More on that to come! 


One more rambling thought:

While I'm all for walking, biking, public transit, and car sharing, I recently was fascinated to learn that Ford is aiming to use coconut fibers, wood, hemp, mushrooms, wheat, corn, soy, dandelion root and more as replacements for 'traditional' (read: petroleum-based) auto parts. At this, my inner Derrick Jensen leaped out of his chair and pronounced this as an inadequate solution, an attempt to transplant industrial-age thinking (lots of people owning their own cars, large-scale production facilities/operations, parts being shipped all across the globe, etc.) into a new era in which such industrial-scale thinking won't work. Einstein's famous saying — "you can't solve a problem at the same level of thinking that created the problem" — applies well here. Unless Ford plans to integrate this plant-based material strategy with a scaled down number of total cars produced and actively challenges the notion that owning one's own car is something to strive for (which would be a welcomed surprise, I must admit), it is hard for me to see this strategy contributing in a significant way to decreasing our dependence on fossil fuels at the scale that's necessary for us to have a decent shot at a habitable planet.

On the other hand, the visionary part of me is excited by the possibilities it would open up if Ford's research were to yield decent results. While I'm not in favor of a planet full of cars, I am rather excited by the idea of fully biodegradable materials being used to create instruments. On a small/regional scale, could we grow such fibrous materials (or better yet, repurpose the biodegradable byproducts of an already-existing process [e.g. growing hemp]) for use as building materials for musical instruments — ideally, reducing or eliminating the "need" for petroleum-based components? I'm being a wishful visionary, I know — but hey, sometimes (often?) that's how our most innovative solutions begin...