Workshop Report: Acoustic Histories/Historiographies in the Asia Pacific
by meLê yamomo
The Exploratory Workshop „Acoustic Histories/Historiographies in the Asia Pacific“ took place on January 11–12, 2018 at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. It was convened by meLê yamomo (FU Berlin/University of Amsterdam) and realized with the support of the joint project Transregional Studies of the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung – Deutsche Geisteswissenschaftliche Institute im Ausland.
How did the early sound recordings constitute and construct knowledges and understandings of modernities in Asia Pacific? How did the materiality of the early sound technologies mediate sonic discourses of global modernities among communities in the region? How can we consider sound technologies as the epistemes of Asia Pacific modernities? Participants of the two-day workshop Acoustic Histories/Historiographies in the Asia Pacific reflected on and engaged with these questions. Organized by the Transregional Studies Forum, the workshop brought together experts from different disciplines and geographic specializations to rethink currently nation-framed historiography in considering the transregional implications of sound history. The two-day event enabled conversations among sound scholars and archivists who do not necessarily know each other’s work and/or collections.
Conceptually, the workshop sought to expand the history of sound beyond its euphonic understandings in the region, and therefore tested the limits and intersections of the sound studies framework from the perspectives of (ethno)musicology, geography, anthropology, history of science, theatre and performance studies, heritage studies, cultural history, and archival studies. Participating scholars shared working papers and debated over current issues on sound history drawn from specific sonic experiences, conceptual frameworks, and historiographical methodology. Archivists presented their collection on the Asia Pacific, and as part of the workshop, participants visited the Sound Archive at the Humboldt University of Berlin. In the span of two days, discussions on Sound Art in Hong Kong and China, radio history in the early Philippine Republic, urban noise reduction in Taipei, and bird sound competition in Java, among others, concretized the theoretical reflections among the workshop participants.
New Topographies of Sound
The first panel mapped the terrain and topographies of sound studies and sound histories through the review of current scholarships, a proposal for post- and decolonial methodologies, and reflections on original case studies.
Convener, meLê yamomo’s working paper established key theoretical questions and frameworks of the workshop. He critiques Benedict Anderson’s (1991) notion of modernity built on nineteenth-century print capitalism. The project, therefore, engages acoustic historiography in exploring sound epistemology as a decolonial methodology in understanding Asia Pacific modernities. This proposal for an epistemic shift is critical if we are to consider that in the colonial territories, less than ten percent were literate to the printed language of modern statecraft, economy, science, and technologies (Ricklefs et al. 2010, Nathan 1922). Such print-illiteracy has therefore been the bases for the argument of the absence of subaltern Asian ‘voices’ in modern cultural historiography.
In his paper, Adam Bobette (University of Cambridge) presented a non-human case study in the practices of birdsong competition in Java. In a practice called ‘mastering,’ birds are trained to sing the songs of an extinct or near extinct bird species. Bobette’s paper complicates the discourse of sound studies in the region as sound culture is emplaced within the intersection of human relationship with animals and the environment at large.
The history of understanding sound is also the history of how humans grapple with their understanding of noise. Jennifer Hsieh’s (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science) paper traced the historical conception of noise in Taipei through the noise abatement policies in the city. Hsieh reflected on Taipei residents’ equivocal understandings of noise as they are analyzed through sound measurement technologies, on the one hand, and in how they are articulated through government legislation, on the other.
Aural Identities and Wireless Politics
The popularization of radio as a mass audio and its vital role in the formation of imperial, postcolonial/national, as well as cosmopolitan identities in the Asia Pacific was the red thread in the second panel.
The alternative formulation of imagined communities through radio listenership (as opposed to Benedict Anderson’s collective readership) in postcolonial Philippines was Teilhard Paradela’s (University of British Columbia) contribution to the workshop. In his paper, Paradela studied how radio as a mass sound-media formed the early understandings of the Philippine nation in an archipelago of multiple islands and multiple languages. Paradela also brought to the table the significance of digital humanities tools and big data analysis as research methodology in the field of sound history.
Carolyn Birdsall (University of Amsterdam) who has researched intensively on the relationship of radio with the Nazi state in Germany presents a preliminary investigation of radio history in the period of Japanese statism (ca. 1930-1945). Birdsall’s working paper inquired into the role of radio, as early sound mass media in the political economy, imperial ideology, and race-based nationalism of Allied occupation in the Asia Pacific.
Lonan O’Braian (University of Nottingham) presented the neglected history of the Việt Nhạc—the first all-Vietnamese ensemble in the mid-twentieth century which appeared regularly on Radio Hanoi. O’Braian describes how Việt Nhạc “pioneered local ways of making music for a growing indigenous audience, a technique that was later deployed to great success by musicians sponsored by the Communist Party of Vietnam.” O’Braian’s analysis of the sound of indigenized musical aesthetics and the border-crossing medium of radio exposed how such intersection formulated cosmopolitan identities and aesthetics that flourished in the overlapping years of French imperialism and Vietnamese independence.
Adding more layers into the conversation, the third panel interweaved the issues of urban identities (gender, professionalism in art, and urban citizenships) through popular music and new contemporary sound practices.
Bart Barendregt (Leiden University) explored the sonic politics of gender and religious identities through the nasyid, a music genre popular throughout the Islamic world. In his working paper, Barendregt examines how two all-female musical combos in 1970s Southeast Asia were instrumental in the making of “a genre which ironically today is perceived of as mostly a boy band genre.” His historical research traces the mutable role of nasyid in the imagination and formation of masculinities and femininities through its listeners while making audible what Barendregt calls the “forbidden modernities” in Southeast Asia.
Yiu Fai Chow’s (Hongkong Baptist University) and Jeroen de Kloet’s (University of Amsterdam) research project teased the tension of sound archiving “as real, as evidential, as authenticating, as true, and the possibility of archiving the elusive and the fugitive.” They listen to sound archiving projects: The Inevitable II: The Repetitive, an online exhibition which is part of the umbrella project Soundpocket (Hong Kong), and Sound and The City (Beijing 2005-2006) sponsored by the British Council. Reflecting on these two case studies, Yiu Fai and de Kloet, inquired on “the relationship between the archive and what it archives, how to mobilize the function of the archiving archive as not merely recording but producing (Derrida 1995)”.
Dayang Yraola’s (University of the Philipines Diliman) working paper presented a study of contemporary ‘sound practices’ in Manila. Yraola traces the different trajectories of sound practices that emerged from various contexts (underground/ alternative music scene, art workshop and schools, and visual arts project) which are mostly outside the formal music institutions. As part of her ongoing dissertation, she maps a topography of these different projects encompassing experimental music, electronic music, noise and sound art from the 1990s to the present.
In the two day workshop, participants responded to each other’s working paper. Two guest sound scholars, Viktoria Tkaczyk (Humboldt University of Berlin) and Markus Tan (National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University Singapore) also participated as respondents.
Sound archivists, Ricarda Kopal (Ethnologisches Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin), Harry van Biessum (Dutch Institute for Sound and Vision), and Helmut Kowar (Phonogrammarchiv Wien) presented the background and histories of their institutions and provided an overview of their collections pertaining to the Asia Pacific region. For the emerging field of acoustic histories and historiographies in and about the Asia Pacific, questions of historical empiricism and its materiality in the archives bring to the fore critical questions: What early sound media in/about the Asia Pacific exist and where are they located? How do current and existing practices of sound archiving of early sound media from and on Asia Pacific constitute and influence the region’s national and transregional historiography? Through the presentations of the archivists, it is reassuring to know that early sound recordings about the region exist and are preserved in these European institutions.
In the conversation between the archivists and scholars/historians, it became apparent that there are still challenges to be faced in bridging the collection and their intended users. Participants asked: What can be done to improve existing methodologies and theoretical framework of sound archiving that is inclusive of the source community’s (the community from where the recording was made) perspective? How can archival practices of sound media be developed and implemented beyond the confines of local and national frameworks? How can we engage the materials that are, on the one hand, stored in archives of the different post-imperial centers and peripheries, and on the other hand, cataloged in different languages of the postcolonial societies and previous colonizers? Furthermore, how do we deal with the limitations set by institutional and copyright policies? These reflections underlined the necessity for a continuing conversation between archivists and the stakeholders of these historical sound collections.
Bridging the theoretical discussion with access to historical materialities, workshop participants also visited the Lautarchiv at the Humboldt University of Berlin. The excursion was framed by Karsten Lichau’s (Max Planck Institute for Human Development) insightful presentation on the history, socio-political context, and the current state of the archival collection. The day started with an exercise on (uneasy) listening to silence. From this metaphorical act, Lichau contemplated on the politics of speaking and silencing—in that through the act of speaking, others are concomitantly silenced. In preparing for the encounter with the sensitive collection of the Lautarchiv, Lichau enthused the workshop participants to ponder on Britta Lange’s (2015) two philosophical consideration of the prisoners-of-WW1 recordings. In the first instance, the voice recordings are poste restante such that, as Lange explains, this “archive of voices act as a depot where the addressees and the receivers may eventually collect the message waiting for them”. In the second metaphor, the sound recordings serve as distress messages in bottles, thrown into the open sea of history, for unknown listeners in the future.
In the small storage and listening room of the archive, student archivist, Marie Lührs oriented the group to the location of the collection, the use of the online database, and the procedures for requesting materials. The group also discussed the need for researchers to engage this unique collection vis-à-vis the question of ethics behind the sensitive nature of the materials. The archivists also invited the participants to assist in the much-needed work of transcribing and translating the recordings.
Possibilities and Challenges of Sound History in the Asia Pacific
At the beginning of the workshop, yamomo’s working paper postulates the possibilities and challenges that sound studies hold in decolonizing the Eurocentrism of academia. Drawing from Walter Mignolo’s (2009) call for ‘epistemic disobedience,’ yamomo proposed this framework in examining the “emergent possibilities of sound studies and sound histories in rethinking a more democratic and postcolonial knowledge-making.”
In the span of two intensive working days, the analytical framework of sound as ‘epistemic disobedience’ amplified and augmented the current discourse in sound historiography through and with concrete and particular sonic experiences in and about the Asia Pacific. The workshop also made audible how the specific sound practices in the Asia Pacific crucially contribute to the global socio-cultural processes. A recurring motif articulated in the discussions was the entangled role of the historical production and consumption of sound with the politics and economics of local and transregional understandings of gender, race, and class.
Archivist Harry van Biessum also raised a metalevel provocation: How can the acoustic epistemological (acoustemological) turn in sound research methodology reflect a parallel sensorial shift in the medium of knowledge distribution? The time limitations of the workshop allowed only for speculative suggestions to explore podcast, audiobook, and sound-supplemented publication. This is still a challenge that sound scholars and historians face within academia’s literacy-centrism.
Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso, 1991.
Lange, Britta. “Poste Restante, and Messages in Bottles: Sound Recordings of Indian Prisoners in the First World War.” Social Dynamics: A journal of African studies (2015): 1–17.
Mignolo, Walter D. “Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought and Decolonial Freedom.” Theory, Culture & Society 26, no. 8 (2009): 159–181.
Nathan, J.E. The Census of British Malaya, 1921. London: Waterlow & Sons, 1922.
Ricklefs, M.C., et al., A New History of Southeast Asia. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.
Citation: meLê yamomo, “Exploratory Workshop Report: Acoustic Histories/Historiographies in the Asia Pacific”, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 24.07.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/10951.