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An equal sound

by Budhaditya Chattopadhyay

In response to Rewire’s 2023 theme Times and Territories, artist, researcher, and writer Budhaditya Chattopadhyay contributes with an essay on how a critical engagement with Global Souths, diasporic and Indigenous artists and thinkers, and their listening cultures could contribute towards equitable planetary conversations.

In an ideal conversation, listening and speaking are in equilibrium. One who speaks may aspire to be a good listener too. An equitable relationship between the listener and speaker nurtures the exchanges and consolidates the communication. Likewise, a lack of such equity results in conflict, tension, and misunderstanding, as philosopher Gemma Corradi Fiumara suggests in her book The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Listening (1990). A passive act of listening may be reciprocated by voicing observations and opinions if the speaking act is respectful and eager to listen, encouraging and accommodating news and views that sometimes do not fall within expected responses. When a speaker listens, the listener may voice and share the many layers of experienced truths. New knowledges are formed by paying attention to how the changes in positionality remain reciprocal, and how well this dynamic plays out.

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The historical conversations between the so-called Global Norths and Global Souths (or the West and the East) often lacked an equilibrium. Scholars of globalization, coloniality, and migration pointed out how Europe’s relations with what it thought as its other, were now and again fraught with tension and misunderstanding, through imperial and colonial intentionality. These profoundly imbalanced conversations were ingrained in the colonially built hierarchies and extractive power structures that chose to ignore the possibilities of reciprocal exchanges. If we narrow our critical and scholarly attention to the field of sound and music, there have been numerous encounters, but the two-way communication fell through the labyrinthian corridors of power and colonial violence. The West hardly listened carefully to the East and Souths, but never hesitated to take them for granted. There are many instances of cultural appropriation from the East through an unequal distribution of knowledge with little interest in the sonic differences, auditory cultural specificities, acoustic territorialities, and the potential of sonic confluences.

African American composer George E. Lewis differentiated between Eurological and Afrological methodologies in musicking and sound making, based on the listening perspectives and differences in cultural practices. This distinction was made to provincialize the field of music and sonic arts, acknowledging the historical interactions and confluences, but also to resist Europe’s unabashed entitlement to universalizing knowledge despite discouraging non-western participation in its production. The distinction, likewise, helped to listen to the Global Souths – i.e., Africa, South Asia, Latin Americas – and their rich auditory cultures, sonic practices, and knowledge systems that were often left on the margin of sonic discourses through a select canonization of the field that claimed to be “universal”, but was essentially Eurocentric.

Today in the sphere of sound and music practices, research, and curation, a diverse community of practitioners and researchers are trying to make their voices heard across the globe. But, developing an inclusive and equitable exchange of sound and listening, critically engaging with Global Souths’ sound practitioners, artists, and thinkers, has not yet been attempted, largely remaining underexplored and yet dominated by Eurocentric views, methodologies, and monolithic ideas of listening. The works that are regularly discussed in sonic research and canonized in the global community of sound and music researchers by the sheer volume of citations and reviews have a negligible number of contributions from the Global Souths or from diasporic and Indigenous artists and thinkers. There is a serious lack of representation of the practitioners and researchers from the vast and diverse landscapes of the Global Souths in the curated events and the bibliographic resources and reference lists of these canonized works. One concerned with this problem of exclusion and unlistening may lament that contemporary music and sound practices indeed are overwhelmingly northbound, in other words, Eurocentric, in their curation and dissemination, and this geologic conservatism is limiting the fields’ epistemes and social formations. New perspectives could be generated by engaging with Global Souths and diasporic and Indigenous artists and thinkers regarding their diverse listening cultures, both by attending to their situated discourses and practices, as well as through the increasingly available access to many pertinent works. This critical engagement will contribute to a slowly emerging planetary knowledgebase invested in sound, music, and indigeneity, critical race theory, Asian/Arabic/Black/Afrofuturist sound and music concepts, and their cultures of listening. These new knowledge bases need to be mindful of the distinctions in terms of sonic time and territories, auditory cultural specificities, ways of listening, and the potential of sonic confluences.

The historical specificities and differences in approaches and methods of sounding and listening between the East and the West – or between Global Souths and Norths – need to be understood comprehensively in order to create a premise for an equal sound exchange and sonic confluence. If we locate a few fundamental parameters of sounding and listening, such as time and space, these specificities will be easier to comprehend. For example, the regions and cultures of South Asia and Southeast Asia traditionally nurtured a measure of time which was not a linear one and was not dependent on the entity of logic and matter, but rather tended to imagine a metaphysical world with a profound respect for nature and the ethereal divinities. Likewise, rituals, ceremonies, and community practices were developed in constant communication with spirits and deities to whom the sound makers and musicians dedicated their performance in order to maintain an equilibrium with nature. In these cultures, time was recorded less in writing – i.e., written scores or on recorded media – but more understood as a natural phenomenon. Time-based media, such as sound and music, were perceived as ephemeral, with an ineffable quality that needed to be left open-ended in their everyday cognition, and that needed to be disseminated outdoors in natural settings during their performance. In comparison, post-enlightenment European listening approaches preferred a linear curve of fixed compositional and listening time, consumed inside insular auditoriums and concert halls as settings or territories estranged from nature. In Sonic Flux: Sound, Art, and Metaphysics (2018), sound art scholar Christoph Cox differentiated between distinct sonic temporalities of the West and East. The western listening approaches mark a narrative temporal framework of “beginnings, middles and endings,” which he relates to the classical musical composition and performance culture based on a concept of temporality that runs through the musical works enmeshed with European modernity. In this context, organised sounds attempt to hegemonise time’s elusive flow by making it a measured, closed dramaturgy that follows a linear, climax-driven narrative. Understandably, this musical temporality was a thoroughly anthropocentric conception of time – one that accords with the utilitarian, logical, and scientific traditions of the West that conceive of time as linear, progressive, and aimed at accelerated developments. This sense of time and space permeates in colonial models of understanding the world, enabling a hegemonic and extractive relationship with the “non-West.” On the other hand, concepts of time in the East or in many parts of Global Souths’ listening cultures are circuitous, digressive, and improvisational. This approach manifests in the traditional ways of storytelling, rituals, songs, and folk music, and in the performances of court music, religious sounds, and devotional music.

These historical demarcations and differences need to be located, comprehended, and respected to create an equitable premise of global exchanges and auditory interaction of a planetary scale towards an equal dialogue and a possible sonic confluence. The artists and thinkers from the Global Souths, many of whom are in constant interaction with the European institutions – festivals, funding bodies, universities, conferences, and cultural organizations, etc. – in their post-global mobilities, as representatives of immigrant and diasporic communities in Europe, need to locate these tendencies in their work to self-determine and advance decolonial struggles. Only then, their work will achieve liberation from the colonial chains and clutches that constantly demand adhering to monolithic ways of listening to time, space, and territories through dehumanization, Europeanization, exoticization, erasure, and cultural cleansings. Once this self-determination is achieved, equal sounds can be found in planetary conversations.

Budhaditya Chattopadhyay will lead the Times and Territories assembly at Rewire festival on Saturday 8 April.


Credit: Janno Bergmann/Copper Leg Estonia

Budhaditya Chattopadhyay is an artist, composer, researcher, and writer. Chattopadhyay produces works for large-scale installation and live performance addressing contemporary issues of ecology, migration, race, and decoloniality. He has received numerous residencies, fellowships, and international awards. His sound works have been widely exhibited, performed, and presented across the globe. Chattopadhyay has an expansive body of scholarly publications in sound theory and aesthetics in leading peer-reviewed journals. He is the author of four books: The Nomadic Listener (2020), The Auditory Setting (2021), Between the Headphones (2021), and Sound Practices in the Global South (2022). Chattopadhyay holds a PhD in artistic research and sound studies from the Academy of Creative and Performing Arts, Leiden University, Leiden, and is currently a visiting professor at the Critical Media Lab, Basel.