“Echoing Europe – Postcolonial Reverberations”. Interview with meLê yamomo
The sound performance “Echoing Europe – Postcolonial Reverberations” premiered at the Ballhaus Naunynstrasse Berlin on 16 May 2019. The event was produced by Kultursprünge at Ballhaus Naunynstrasse and funded by the State of Berlin, Senate Department for Culture and Europe. We interviewed the performance’s composer and performer, meLê yamomo, about the event.
On 16-18 May, you premiered a sound performance entitled “Echoing Europe – Postcolonial Reverberations” at the Theater Ballhaus Naunynstrasse Berlin. Could you tell us the background of the project?
Around the same time that we were organizing the “Acoustic Historiographies” conference that I convened at Forum Transregionale Studien last year, Theater Ballhaus Naunynstrasse contacted me on developing a theatre project based on the research I am doing on colonial sound history. In the performance I am critically examining the colonial history of the sound archives in Berlin and other cities in Europe. As an artistic project, I investigated the historical and theoretical reverberations of these materials as they are circumscribed by the bigger discourses of post/de-colonial histories of sound and media. I engage with these materials to inquire on their aesthetic and affective resonances to today’s global and postmigrant discourse—drawing from the transregional context of Southeast Asia. So, according to Fabian Larsson, the head dramaturg of the theatre, what he found most interesting in this project is the constellation of me being asked by an institution known for postmigrant discourse, financed by the European Heritage Fund, speaking about Prussian Archives now moving into the planned Humboldt-Forum, speaking as scholar of a European university and as a performer trained in the Philippines.
Could you briefly explain the basic idea of the performance?
First of all, I am happy to announce that there are plans for restaging “Echoing Europe – Postcolonial Reverberations” for the next theatre season, which means there would be more opportunities for you to see/hear the performance again. Thus, I’ll try not to reveal too much details of the performance.
Inside the nineteenth-century ballroom I’ve created a museum of sound history where old sound recording technologies, players, and carriers are displayed. The exhibition features materials about Southeast Asia from sound museums and archives in Berlin and in the Netherlands. This is the scenario in which Echoing Europe transpired. I am joined onstage by Filipino performance artist Pepe Dayaw as a co-performer. In this museum space, the public can walk around and see the objects on display, listen to the curatorial lecture about the exhibit, and hear the historical recordings. In the European imperial centers, anthropological and ethnological museums serve as mausoleums of trophies of their colonial plunder. Echoing Europe is an intervention to reanimate and engage the affective epistemologies of these retired objects of silenced colonial history.
Within this dramaturgical premise, this piece also allowed me to examine the materiality of sound and the mediality of (my) listening colonized body. In the process of the creation, I found myself caught in the entanglements of sounding and listening, and of speaking and silencing. There is a tacit expectation of me to speak about the culture from which I come from and for the subjects of my research. At the beginning of the creation process for this piece, I was reflecting on Spivak’s question: Can the subaltern speak? Working on this project made me confront my own privileges and marginalizations as an artist and academic who grew up in contexts of colony and who now lives and works as a postmigrant at the heart of the European imperial center. In listening to the archived sounds, the theatre served as a laboratory through which I artistically engaged the politics of silence and silencing.
Could you tell us more about the sound sources you were using in the performance? Where are they from, and who is in possession of these recordings?
I worked with different historical sound technologies and carriers, as well as sound recordings in and about colonial Southeast Asia in the period between 1890 to 1950. These historical sound recordings include musical, linguistic, folkloric, and radio broadcast from the Phonogramm-Archiv Berlin, the Lautarchiv der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, and the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. For example, we hear the musical recordings made by Carl Stumpf (founder of the Phonogramm-Archiv Berlin) of a Thai Phi Phat Ensemble visiting Berlin in 1900. There are also sound documentations of the prisoners of the First World War made by the Prussian Phonographic Commission in the 1910s.
The theme of the performance is closely related to your research project in sound studies. What is the relation between your research and your artistic work?
I think that scientific research and artistic creation—epistemology and aesthetics—are two sides of the same coin in humanity’s attempt to understand the world and the social processes that we are part of. Science dissects big systems into its small minute parts to understand how the universe operates. Art allows us to re-assemble the inchoate fragments within and around us to make sense of how they form unities. I need both modes of thinking and creating in my own processes of world-apprehension and world-making.
My first training was actually in an art school in the Philippines where I studied to become a theatre maker and music composer. My theatre mentor advised me to pursue a philosophy degree in the university that could compliment my art practice. That is why I undertook my Bachelor’s studies in the Humanities and Art History. When I came to the Netherlands and Germany to pursue graduate school, it took me a while to understand that in the continental European educational tradition, there is a distinction between the academic training of the Universität and the practical education in a Hochschule. A few years after I finished my PhD, I am still struggling to find the balance between my research and creative work—but I feel privileged to be able to work on projects that allow me to work in this intersection.
Would you claim that sound is a source that is particularly adapted for (post)colonial research? How can the study of sound enhance the knowledge and the awareness of the colonial past?
Let me answer this question by following the two arcs of my academic inquiry and my artistic reflections—which I shall bring together at the end. In my current research project, “Sonic Entanglements”, I am questioning the ‘sensory’ dispositif of universalized European knowledge. Since the Enlightenment, the eyes and visual perception have been the dominant episteme of academic discourse. We use visual metaphors when thinking about how we arrive at an understanding: “I see what you mean”; “you framed the argument very well”. The eyes are also taken as the ‘objective’ sensory tool of ethnography—in its presumed distanced observation. Hermeneutics itself is based on literacy: the writing and reading of text—a cultural technology of the eyes. Here we find the epistemic violence in the silencing of the subaltern voices, when we take into consideration how in many colonial territories, less than ten percent were literate to the printed language of imperial knowledge, technology, and state-craft. Thus, my research investigates sound and the epistemologies of listening as the site of post- and decolonial strategies.
When we think about the institutionalization of artistic and musical practice and the universalization of Western aesthetics through its canons and pedagogy, we are also confronted by the same rigged system. I find that the re-shifting of theatre towards the paradigm of performance equalizes the European canons with performative practices outside Western institutions. In theatre school, we would study James Brandon’s (1997) taxonomy of performative practices in Southeast Asia wherein Brandon labeled certain performative practices “proto-theatrical”—as if the European theatrical tradition is the Darwinist criterion through which all other performative cultures are evolving to become. I am taking the same methodology into my sound research and sound art project. I am exploring how Western music constructed its hegemonic discourse through ‘musicology’ by othering non-European sound cultures as they were historically re-categorized from noise into ‘music’ within the matrix of ethnomusicology (academically) and world music (commercially). Hence, my work in sound studies and sound art overlaps at the very crossroads of my post- and decolonial position. Within such sonic entanglements, I am exploring propositions for a hermeneutics of transcendental sound cultures and practices.
Questions: Moritz Buchner
meLê Yamomo is a performer, composer and an Assistant Professor of Theatre, Performance, and Sound Studies at the University of Amsterdam. He was a recent fellow at the Interweaving Performance Cultures Center (FU Berlin) and the Global Theatre Histories Center (LMU München). meLê is a current laureate of the »Veni Innovation Grant« by the Dutch Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) for his project “Sonic Entanglements: Listening to Modernities in Southeast Asian Sound Recordings”. On 11-12 January 2018, meLê convened the Explorative Workshop “Acoustic Histories/Historiographies in the Asia Pacific” at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. A report and an interview from this workshop is available on the TRAFO Blog.
meLê yamomo and Barbara Titus (University of Amsterdam), in partnership with Harry van Biessum (Dutch Institute for Sound and Vision), are organising a follow-up workshop on the same topic. “Sonic Entanglements: Sound, Archive, and Acoustic Historiographies in the Asia Pacific” will be held on 9-10 September 2019 at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision and the University of Amsterdam. You can find the Call for Papers here.
Citation: meLê yamomo, “Echoing Europe – Postcolonial Reverberations”, TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 24.07.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/19223.