Book Review – “Not Your World Music: Noise in South East Asia”

The second half of 2017 was full of good reads for me. Of the 23-25 (mostly non-fictions) books I read during the course of the year, at least 4 or 5 were excellent. Top reads included, “The Gene: An Intimate History” by Siddhartha Mukherjee, Bioart and the Vitality of Media by Robert Mitchell, and Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other by Sherry Turkle. (Since 2008, I’ve been writing down every book I read, every movie I see, and every place I visit; highly recommended.) To top this good year of reading was an unexpected gem, “Not Your World Music: Noise in South East Asia” by Cedrik Fermont and Dimitri della Faille that deeply resonated with me: as much for its content than its form, mission and approach. Thus, I decided to dedicate the first book review on my blog to this book. As a disclaimer, I am going to review this book from a perhaps unusual perspective: one that focuses more on the exciting methodology with which the book is created (and the implication of its adoption) rather than its content. This is motivated by my own similar approach to research (and writing) that is based on community-engaged DIY methodologies.

I came across “Not Your World Music” at the Ars Electronica Festival. It won the prestigious 2017 “Golden Nica” Prix in the category of “Digital Musics & Sound Art”. I’ve been consistently impressed by the artists who present their work at Ars Electronica (you can read my review of the 2017 festival here); additionally, the book had a very interesting (and ambitious) subtitle that immediately caught my eye: “A book about art, politics, identity, gender and global capitalism”. How can a book about a relatively unknown form of sound art, noise, be about all of these topics? Why did it receive such a prestigious award? Why study noise specifically in the Southeast Asian context? Enough questions to warrant a more in-depth inquiry.

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Not Your World Music – in physical format (Photo: Ars Electronica)

The first thing I found out about the book was that it is simultaneously easy and difficult to get a copy! The book is self-published and each ordered physical copy is printed on demand and send by authors via mail from Germany; the companion compilation is available as a digital download (limited physical CDs are sold out). More importantly, the entire book is available for free download, creating a possibility for creating a DIY version for one’s consumption. This is an important and meaningful choice for the authors as they explain: “Our decision to self-publish the book is political and revealing of the practices of the noise scenes. It is very possible that with some adjustments, this book could have found a receptive ear with a commercial or scholarly publisher. But, self-publishing the book allows us unchallenged control on content, distribution, price and schedule.” Furthermore, “books and CDs come with a very high price tag and are difficult to find and to get outside Europe and North America. Knowledge is difficult to reach for those who would probably benefit from it the most. … We firmly believe knowledge should be freely accessible to all. Besides the book in its printed version, we are circulating a PDF version available as a free internet download.”

Cedrik Fermont (CD/BE/DE), Dimitri della Faille (BE/CA)

Dimitri de la Faille and Cedrik Fermont at the Ars Electronica Festival

The next thing that caught my eye about the book was its two (primary) authors and their complex backgrounds. In a section entitled, “Who we are”, they describe their backgrounds: “Cedrik was born in Zaire (today the Democratic Republic of the Congo). He is of Congolese, Greek and Belgian descent and grew up in Belgium. He has not graduated from any university and is mostly self-taught. He is a professional composer and musician based in Germany. … Dimitri represents the stereotypical image of elite North European white male domination. He was born and raised in Belgium in an upper class family. Highly educated, he holds a PhD (doctorate) in sociology and is a tenured professor at a Canadian university. He now holds the dual Belgian-Canadian citizenship.” As can be seen from the passage above, the authors put the description of their identities front and center in the book. They go further and ask: “This book is being written by two “Belgian” males. Is that not paradoxical for an anti-colonial and anti-sexist discourse?” This question and how they address it is, in my mind, of paramount importance. In the last few years, I have also worked with many communities in Asia, Africa and Latin America, as well as, underserved communities in North America, where my identity as an Iranian-Canadian middle-class academic male has seemingly been at odds with the work I have been doing. Over the years, I have adopted a value-sensitive approach that shares a lot of aspects with the reasoning presented by Cedrik and Dimitri. This is how they address this question: “Yes, it would have been beneficial to have South East Asians tell and narrate their realities. Yes, it would have been greater to have females tell their own stories. Yes, knowledge is produced in part by the usual stereotypical domineering thanks to his understanding of the rules of publication, his high education and his capacity to navigate administration and gather resources. But, during the process of researching, writing and releasing this book and its companion compilation CD we have, as much as we possibly could, involved South East Asian collaborators. …. So, the suggested paradox is only superficial. … It must also be stressed that during the writing of this book, we have constantly attempted to keep the dynamics of ‘Northern’ male domination under control. Every aspect of this book has been constantly discussed, when not loosely negotiated, with those whose stories are being told here. And, in the case of Dimitri, we have attempted to transform his white upper class background into a sort of leverage. If anything, perhaps his status as a university professor from a ‘Northern University’ may allow counternarratives to be told in (what could possibly be perceived as being such) a more ‘legitimate’ way.” In other words, and this is what is brilliant about this approach, they have adopted a participatory, inclusive method where community members ultimately and reflexively create knowledge. Furthermore, Dimitri’s role is indispensable as it ensures that the effort is not considered as “outsider research” (by either academics or local practitioners) since there is an expert on board the project who can help inform and, thus enrich, the (de)construction of knowledge.

I admire Cedrik and Dimitri for not shying away from the complexity of describing cultural experiences and concepts in a feminist approach that is sensitive to nuances of identity and structures of power. Feminism is, of course, about understanding power and problematizing (or in Judith Butler‘s words, “troubling”) existing structures of power and especially existing hegemony. The self-declaration in the “Who we are” subsection is testimony that sometimes, feminist research does not have to take the form of protest or the subversive creation of alternatives, and can be more about explicitly talking about structures of power that are inevitably created by historical, social, cultural and economic forces; an important and often overlooked point of feminist analysis is not to necessarily change an existing hierarchy or power structure but to make it manifest.

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So, what is noise (or noise music) and how can it be defined in an “anti-colonial, anti-sexist” manner? A clue to the innovative way that this book addresses this question is in the title: “Not Your World Music”. In chapter 1, the authors state that, “As implied in the title, this book is critical of ‘world music.’ It is critical of the fact that the production and distribution of music from the ‘World’ is mostly in the hands of multinational companies headquartered in Europe and North America. It is critical of the fact that a single label, a ‘terminological dualism that distinguished world music from music’ (Feld, 2000, p. 147) is used to qualify music that is not from Europe or North America. Under such a label, ‘musics understood as non-Western or ethnically other [continue] to be routinely partitioned from those of the West’ (Feld, 2000, p. 147).” So, if the starting point of understanding noise music is not studying established texts (such as the book Bruits (Noises) by Jacques Attali) or scholarly definitions where to start? The answer, as it turns out, is to start on many fronts: First, the authors use an online survey to ask musicians in the region themselves about how they characterize their music and find out that the English term, “Noise Music” is actually widely used by musicians themselves. Next, they cast a critical look at the global history of noise music (in Europe, North America, Japan, and other places in the world). Through this examination, they identify two streams of artistic practice as roots of noise music: the electroacoustic stream (with strong connections to academic music traditions), and the avant-garde experimental stream (with connections to performance art, underground music, avant-garde rock, etc.). Additionally, they try to define noise from a sonic and acoustic perspective; offering both a negative definition (e.g., “as not resembling any commonly known music, especially popular music”) and a positive definition (e.g., “the art of organizing sounds (Landy, 2007)”). While these definitions might be helpful, the authors argue, it is difficult to get away from ethnocentric, normative and poetic tendencies when defining such an elusive genre. But that perhaps is the point: cultural phenomenon are messy and so should be their study. While the range of (sometimes contrasting) definitions seem confusing at first, after some reflection they seem cohesive and informative. In my mind, in such a challenging encounter the key step forward is neither to declare the topic as impossible to capture nor to give in to reductionist tendencies in order to satisfy our desire for organization; rather it is have courage to be satisfied with messy, “troublesome” characterizations that are not limited to binary decisions of “noise vs. not noise”. And what better subject to start with than noise music that in itself seems to be an expression of challenging arbitrary boundaries.

In addition to these fascinating foundational discussions, the book continues with subsections that discuss the history (or “itinerary”) of different genres of noise music both in a global setting and in much more detail, in relation to the countries in South East Asia. The book chapters alternate between academic-style essays (e.g., Chapter 5. Reflections on the Social Determinants of Noise Music in South East Asia) and fascinating conversations with a range of actors (artists, promoters, producers) of sound music in South East Asia (e.g., Chapter 6. A Conversation with the Noise Scenes in South East Asia). At times, these chapters might seem to be too different from each other and dissolve into a cacophony of narratives; however, with patience, they start to make sense and provide a rich tapestry of voices that masterfully capture the diversity and overall harmony of this phenomenon. This is rather similar to the experience of listening to the companion noise music compilation (highly recommended!).

As should be clear by now, “Not Your World Music” has a mission, or several missions. As I’ve argued above, it causes ethnomusicological “trouble” (in a positive, feminist sense); additionally, it motivates self-reflection in the community of noise artists in South East Asia. In their Ars Electronica lecture, Dimitri pointed out that since the publication of the book many noise artists in South East Asia have started to document their work and the work of their peers more systematically. In addition to the above, I believe there is a third, and for me, increasingly inspiring, outcome of this work: increased community-building through research (or knowledge-building) activities. In their attempt to build a participatory narrative of noise, the authors have included many biographical sketches, interviews and commentary from contemporary noise artists, producers, promoters and fans in South East Asia. The fact that the contributions of these individuals are brought together in a cohesive book that is freely available online means that they (and their communities) can learn about each other through this effort and potentially strengthen their international and regional networks. In a world where the outcomes of much of academic and non-academic research is (still!) hidden behind paywalls and inaccessible academic language, it is inspiring to see a knowledge-building and -sharing project that is committed to bringing back its results to the communities it aims to serve. The project is crowdfunded and crowdsourced; liberating it from obligations to prove anything to anyone to demonstrate worthy outcomes. This allows it to stay true to the community of noise artists in which it is situated: it is a project by the people, for the people; and that in itself is enough to pave a new way of creating and sharing understandings of slippery and multifaceted cultural phenomenon such that the outcomes are accessible and relevant to, first and foremost, local communities, as well as, other communities both academic and not.

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