I used to host a weekly show at a campus and community radio station. Ostensibly, Tectonic Plates was a world music[1] program, though I’d also mix in snatches of poetry, fiction, and current events from whatever region I was investigating musically. I’d even throw in film scores and musical tracks from elsewhere in the world if I found that something about them — rhythm, instrumentation, vocal cacophony — resonated with that week’s “world music” in some way. I’d study liner notes and consult library books to make sure that I could help my audience understand the music with relatively intelligent on-air commentary.

It was in the record library of that station that I first encountered gamelan ensemble, a musical tradition indigenous to Indonesia in which an orchestra plays precisely tuned percussion instruments such as xylophones, chimes, and gongs. A few weeks later, I left the studio after spinning an hour of this music, walked home at dusk in freezing rain. The world seemed tuned differently: I could hear overlapping rhythms as the raindrops hit my hood, the slip and slide of my footsteps, the shimmering of water droplets on my face. And so it has been for years that my predominant association with gamelan ensemble has been cold and slush, the discomfort of soggy feet.

The smorgasbord of gamelan that our class experienced when we last met hasn’t exactly blotted out this association, but it has certainly added layers to my connection with this musical tradition, enriching both my understanding and, especially, my experience of it. We considered the Gamelatron, a fully robotic gamelan orchestra that translates the spiritual and social significance of gamelan for the technological age. We watched Peter Mettler’s balifilm[2], an experimental travelogue that evokes gamelan by interspersing footage of Balinese dance and shadow puppet performances with scenes of landscape, agricultural labour, and religious icons from around the island. Fundamental to this cinematic experience is the soundtrack, a live recording made during a projection of the film, in which Toronto’s Evergreen Club Gamelan reinterprets the musical form’s rhythmic and melodic structures. We listened to R. Murray Schafer’s Gamelan, which reconstructs gamelan ensemble from a capella voices. As a class, we also rendered our own performance of Schafer’s composition, experiencing gamelan as it bubbled up from our lungs, coursed across our vocal cords and out our mouths. Dinga-dinga-ding-dung-ding-dong-ding ding-dong-ding-dong-ding-dang chimed in my head for the rest of the afternoon.

Experience. Render. Reconstruct. Reinterpret. Evoke. Translate. To me, these words aptly describe the work of the ethnographer, who, through observation and participation, documents the lives lived by a particular people, later sharing her record with a broader readership in terms that make sense to that readership. While the tropes of immersion — the ‘deep hanging out’ an anthropologist does with her interlocutors — and translation — the act of decoding the life world of one people for people of another — are often used with respect to ethnography, Helmreich (2007) suggests that transduction can provide an equally revealing framework. Transduction is the process by which energy is converted from one form to another; for example, our ears intercept vibrations and transform them into electrical impulses which the brain processes as sound. He proposes that “[t]o think transductively is to attend to the earache, to imbalance, to all the embodied capacitances of the ethnographer — and to the work necessary to place oneself in particular networks, machinic and social” (Helmreich 2007:633). When we think of ethnography in this way, we are forced to recognize the distortion that the ethnographer, as a physical being working within a material world, unintentionally introduces into any written account.

It follows, then, that there is no pretense to subjectivity in ethnographic studies; any ethnography invariably contains the ‘white noise’ of its maker, whether or not it is apparent to its readership — or even to its author. Ethnomusicologist and anthropologist Steven Feld takes this acknowledgement of subjectivity one step farther, embracing the choices — methodological, intellectual, artistic, aesthetic — that must be made both during the collection of data in the field and in the eventual editing of that research (Marshall 2010). Feld is recognized for the documentary soundscapes he produces from recordings he’s made in the field.[3] However, these soundscapes are not simply a selection of recordings spliced together; instead, Feld manipulates his source material — mixing, layering, equalizing, and adding effects such as reverb — to better convey the space of his fieldwork site, to make certain presences more palpable for uninitiated ears, and to suggest something of his own history of learning to listen. He refers to this way of working acoustemology, “a sonic way of knowing place, a way of attending to hearing, a way of participating and absorbing” (Cummins 2006). The end result, he hopes, will bring his audiences closer to understanding how other populations of people might hear and sense the world in which they live, his own experiences in both the field and the studio guiding the way: “[t]he idea is to turn my ear-witnessing into an invitation for your ear-witnessing” (Feld in Marshall 2010).

From this perspective, the various incarnations of gamelan I experienced in class were each an invitation to ear-witness, an opportunity for me to absorb something of someone else’s take on gamelan ensemble, to deepen what basic understanding I had prior to walking into class that day. Moreover, these invitations were not just about understanding gamelan ensemble intellectally, but to know it aurally — and beyond that, sensorially — the embodied experience of the class chorale: my breath, my voice, my posture, eyes closed and balancing, awash in the voices of my classmates and the closeness of their bodies to mine.

As Marshall (20120) aptly points out, sound elicits a deeply synesthetic response. Gamelan ensemble originally evoked for me a dark, wet walk home, with its attendant hushed and slushy soundscape, the pickiness of my scarf against my face, the homey smell of damp wool, fresh, chill air in my lungs. However, for practitioners of Javanese court performance, it might instead prompt bodily technique: a necessary posture, a certain tensing of muscles, an exacting sense of control. It might also evince a specific consciousness, a formal code of moral and intellectual conduct, as well as a feeling of cultural identity (Hughes-Freeland 1997).

How can ethnographers possibly convey this sensorial complexity? I think of the Marshall’s taxicab soundscape, how it captures not only the sonic communications of Jamaican cab drivers, and the broader dancehall soundscape in which they live, but also something of the musicologist himself. It’s just an essay transduced. What if students and academics were to pursue the craft of phrasing and editing sound, photographs, and film with the same doggedness with which we pursue the written word, aiming for the same sophistication that we do in our written texts? What would anthropology sound, look, feel like then?


[1] At the time of my radio show, the term world music was widely used to describe any culturally exotic music, most especially non-Western traditional or quasi-traditional music. I now find the term problematic: first for its exclusion of Western musical traditions from the “world,” as it were, that is, the tacit suggestion that what is not from the West is “other”; second, globalization has led to many hybridized musical forms that cannot be so easily defined as either traditional or entirely non-Western.
[2] View an excerpt from balifilm here.
[3] Despite the power of these soundscapes to speak ethnographically on their own, Feld also accompanies them with rigourous written explications. He acknowledges that in academe the written word is treated with the utmost respect, whereas sound is considered of secondary value, if of any at all — an excellent example of the ocularcenrism of our time.


Cummins, Jim

2010 Research Reports for the Ears: Soundscape Art in Scientific Presentations. May 12. Accessed November 03, 2012.

Helmreich, Stefan

2007 An Anthropologist Underwater: Immersive Soundscapes, Submarine Cyborgs, and Transductive Ethnography. American Ethnologists 34(4):621-641.

Hughes-Freeland, Felicia

1997 Consciousness in performance. A Javanese Theory. Social Anthropology 5(1), 55–68.

Marshall, Wayne

2010 Feeling the Unheard. October 24. Accessed October 22, 2012.