Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Voices and Places: History, Repetition and the Musical Imagination

Academic journal article Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Voices and Places: History, Repetition and the Musical Imagination

Article excerpt

I have always found it difficult to disentangle the way I listen to places from the way I look at them. A point of view brings sounds into new juxtapositions and relationships, demanding that we attend to some sounds and ignore others. Sounds demand some kind of interpretation of the spaces they occupy and the position of the listener in relation to them. And whilst social experience insistently privileges the visual, and ethnographies unerringly continue to reproduce this fact (Clifford 1986: 11-12), what we know about ourselves and others and the spaces we create for ourselves is also built out of sounds. We forget these sounds, or pretend they are not there, to our disadvantage. I start with the proposal that we consider sounds and points of view, voices and places, as connected social experiences. This exercise raises a number of issues relating not only to the narrow focus of this article (the relationship of social and musical experience), but also to the way anthropologists write about culture in general. If our experience of places is primarily visual, what else might these places teach us about ourselves that we fail to understand simply by virtue of our insistent 'looking'? Whose views of reality and common sense have we reproduced? How can sound be written into the picture, and who should do this writing?

The connexion of sound, view and place is particularly intense in Istanbul. It was, of course, sound that brought me to this city as a student in 1981. Its appearance depressed me. I arrived in a summer thunderstorm and the memory of the endless greys of the rain-stained concrete apartment blocks, the streets and the sea has stuck with me. On reflection, this confrontation of image and sound might have taught me an important lesson at an earlier stage. The often dissonant relation between sound and image is a recurrent theme in the life of many who live in this city. For those who see themselves as Istanbul's insiders, generations of migrant outsiders have brought the sounds of their regional dialects and music into this privileged site of civilization, marked by its picture-postcard skyline of palaces and mosques. The cacophony of the newly deregulated media worries those who still feel they have a duty to control what people hear.(1) During summer nights, Istanbul throbs to the sound of heavily amplified music. Those for whom the ethos of the city should by defined by its minarets are disturbed by the uncomfortable proximity of these polluting sounds.(2)

These issues - the presence of Turkey's often unacknowledged 'others' in the city, the conflicting and rapidly changing demands of a liberalized media system and the new political force of religion in Turkish life - constitute the fixed points around which musicians in Istanbul negotiate their professional lives. This negotiation is no easy matter. Many urban weddings, for example, increasingly take on the appearance of modest, sober, religious respectability; but they also require music, to provide those aural textures which make or break a ritual occasion (Waterman 1990: 213). These two imperatives do not sit easily together; musicians have to work out a way of dealing with the contradictions that ensue. They need to have an exquisite understanding of the moments at which strictness can be relaxed or made the subject of humour, and the points at which they must defer, step back, or demonstrate courteous restraint. Performing musicians have to grasp a complex dynamic that negotiates the appearance of order and an unspoken, often turbulent and conflicting world that lies beneath it. It is this fact that makes musicians rather important to anthropologists since it is their social skills and knowledge (and often theirs alone) that glue ritual occasions together. Waterman elaborates a point which lies at the heart of contemporary ethnomusicology, strongly and repeatedly emphasized in Blacking's (1976: 50-1) studies of the Venda tschikona. Music, according to Blacking, is not simply something which happens 'in' a social context, but is, in a crucial sense, constitutive of a fundamental process of sociality itself. …

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