The annual Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM) conference starts Wednesday; look for live updates here, and via the #sem09 tag on Twitter. This material will comprise the rest of the week’s posts. Expect some combination of panel reactions, SEM celebrity gossip, and sound snippets from around Mexico City. For today, please enjoy browsing a late draft of the paper I will be presenting at the conference on Thursday. Comments and discussion are most welcome.

Apologies, incidentally, for the lack of updates over the past six days. (I got hitched.)
Wedding! Wedding!


Untitled Conference Paper, Originally “The Co-Motion of Bangkok”

by Benjamin Tausig
PhD Candidate
New York University

The scene opens in a hotel room, luggage splayed on the bed, a copy of Time Out Bangkok folded over to a page of events listings on the night table.

A. This paper will be delivered as an imaginary travelogue. On a narrative level, we move from a hotel in Bangkok to a rock concert a few miles off. On a theoretical level, we move from a discussion of urban spatiality to the point where an empirical examination of contemporary musical practice in Bangkok can begin, searching as we move for connections and patterns of determination between spatial configurations and culture. The things we see and hear along the way will serve as catalysts for specific discussions about the production of space and its potential relationship to new methods in ethnomusicology.

B. What do we mean by the production of space? The term itself comes from Henri Lefebvre, who emphasized the political and historical richness of space – urban space, mental space, safe space, national space. Lefebvre sought the material basis of each of these metaphors, and in doing so challenged the idea that they were indeed metaphorical at all. Space is not an empty vessel into which humanity pours its actions, but is an object of labor, contest and transformation. Lefebvre’s approach has been influential for a number of Marxist geographers, including several prominent Thai ones, and has worked towards upending the idea that spatial containers such as cities, states, and cultural identities are fixed and pre-given containers, rather than political emergences.

My argument is that we can usefully refigure our analysis of discrete musical events by focusing on the production of their spaces. In Bangkok, like many modern urban areas, this means dealing with mobility in some historical and ideological detail. Subjectivity in capitalist space is largely defined by the way one moves around. Modes and timing of transportation are significant class markers, for example. And a spatial regime predicated on mobility, as we will see, has had all kinds of implications for musicality.

So, as a complement to the other papers on this panel, which consider technologies of mobile listening, I want to examine how technologies of mobility, broadly considered, have been brought to bear on listening, even the kinds that might appear, at a glance, situated.

C. Ethnomusicologists have tended to study Thai music locationally, much as ethnographers have tended to study culture of all sorts. At times they have had good reason to do so. Traditionally, which is to say in the years before bureaucracy and mechanical reproduction, musical knowledge in Thailand was transmitted from teacher to pupil firsthand in the teacher’s home. I quote Patricia Shehan Campbell, writing in the 1990s, at length – “for the serious musician, the piphat houses provide the intensive training that performance mastery requires – the frequent one-on-one lessons with a master musican-teacher, the uninterrupted periods of solo practice and ensemble rehearsals, the continuous stream of music and musical commentary that hangs in the air. The piphat houses provide an ambience unequalled in Thailand, and rarely found in other world contexts. That these houses remain at all is surely a testimony to the strength of the system, and to the realization that such training has produced Thailand’s greatest musicians.” For Shehan-Campbell, Pamela Moro, Terry Miller, and many others, home-based pedagogy proved more potent than the modern techniques that supplanted it, such as following along with a recording or learning from sheet music. These scholars argue that new methods privilege speed over mastery, sacrificing technique in the process. With regard to historical standards, they are correct.

D. Nevertheless, and perhaps regrettably, home-based musical education in Thailand has grown rarer through the decades, beginning with the fall of the absolute monarchy in 1932. In that year, court musicians stopped receiving patronage from the king, and the burden of support for musical training shifted wholesale to the federal government. Numerous scholars, including Wong and Miller, have written about this transformation in detail. Today, Thai classical music is organized, taught, and performed under the authority of the Department of Fine Arts. Ensemble music is housed almost exclusively within the public educational system, from elementary programs up to the universities, and, as Wong suggests, public performances are now calibrated to serve the specular goals of the state, including the appearance of enlightenment, historical cohesion, and modern nationhood.

E. Thai nationalism arguably reached its apotheosis at precisely the moment when ensemble training left home; that is, during the U.S. military engagement in Southeast Asia in the middle years of the 20th century. Thai political figureheads worked tirelessly to avoid colonization or direct occupation, and succeeded through a policy of strategic acquiescence to the American political agenda. This included making a convincing show of hunting communists as well as offering the northern provinces as bases from which to launch air strikes during the Vietnam War. In those same years, the transient presence of more than 1 million American G.I.’s throughout the course of the war fueled a booming tourist economy. Bangkok had around 40,000 tourist visitors annually in the late 1950s; by 1970 it had 600,000. And with economic growth came mobility outward as well; increasingly, Thai students as well as a number of senior officials spent significant time in educational programs in the United States. A catalogue from a recent exhibition at the Thailand Creative & Design Center claims that “Thai architecture of the late 60s was catalyzed by three main forces: the advent of modernizing urban lifestyles, new construction technologies, and the return of overseas-educated Thai architects influenced by Western modernist principles.”

The spaces of the city thus changed dramatically, as hotels and offices quite literally sprouted on top of rice paddies. Those years saw the development of a metropolitan infrastructure that could both entice and accommodate international visitors, laborers, ex-patriots, and business people.

F. As for musical practice, a military-sponsored globalization of the economy effectively recast the home as a single pulse in a quotidian rhythm that integrated Thai music elsewhere – pedagogically, as a part of the educational system, and performatively, on the highest international stages available. Traditional music, for the first time in Siamese history, became a category unto itself, distinct from a growing array of popular alternatives that operated according to their own spatial logics.

G. Anyway, here we are, in our hotel room, tourists about to leave to see a show.


We step outside, and are hailed immediately by everyone. A woman fries noodles on a wheeled griddle; a man hawks summer blockbusters from overseas; a tuk-tuk driver asks where we’re going; a taxi honks; a bar girl tells us we’re handsome.

A. Ross King and Cuttaleeya Noparatnaraporn argue that many Bangkokers are uneasy about the streets, or thanon, that serve as the city’s primary arteries. In the past, it was the canals, or khlong, that people traveled along. Many khlong are still used today, especially by poor Thais, for transportation, cooking, and bathing, but they are unspeakably filthy. For the authors, thanon exemplify the regime of empty surfaces that reigns over public life in the modern era, while khlong represent neighborliness and depth. The abject toxicity of the khlong today is powerful evidence that modernity disregards the values that flow through it. Using the physical characteristics of water and land as metaphors, King and Cuttaleeya describe a zero sum game between fluidity and segmentation. And their dichotomy maps comfortably onto the prevailing lament among many ethnomusicologists for a waning moment of immediate pedagogical interaction.

B. However, it is well to remember that the paved roads of Bangkok are not only vacant conduits between the rhythmic pulses of a modern social space. Lefebvre reminds us that rhythms can be both linear and cyclical, that certain operations return continually to prior points while others process indefinitely. As aural arteries, thanon sweat with the clamor of exchange. They are unplanned and unpredictable, sometimes contradictory, all of which is to say noisy. There is a whole lot more to say about this, but we have to keep moving.


Next we board the elevated subway, the BTS SkyTrain. Opened in 1999, the SkyTrain was intended to ease Bangkok’s notorious urban gridlock. In an ethnography of civil unrest in the city, anthropologist Alan Klima tells the story of a mobile phone commercial, based on a true story, that aired in the early 1990s. A pregnant woman, stuck in traffic, goes into labor. Armed with a cellular phone, she calls the hospital, which sends a helicopter to fly her out of the morass. Less than a decade later, the SkyTrain appeared just as heroically, as a savior gliding unimpeded above the polluted, jam-packed thanon.

As with many cities’ public transit systems, mobile communication technologies are highly prevalent on the SkyTrain. Commuters use the downtime of transit as an opportunity to talk to friends on the phone; teenagers send SMS’s and play games; and televisions alternately show commercials and offer bilingual information about the next stop. Sonically, the SkyTrain reveals some of the city’s most advanced efforts at efficient organization. Cross the yellow line near the tracks on any platform, and one of two safety officers will blow a whistle with impressive haste. Listen for station details pronounced in exquisite central Thai, through pristine loudspeakers. Watch advertisements that help fund system maintenance. Recognize every digital ring and ping from someone’s device as a meaningful form of address. This is not the whole story of sound on the train, but our stop is coming up.

Lastly, the advent of the SkyTrain has had an important impact on musical space. Mass transit links far flung parts of the city, opening up scores of potential new venues that would have been impractical twenty years ago. Middle- and upper-class audiences in particular can be expected to travel quite far, and with round-trip fares on the SkyTrain as low as 50 cents U.S., the cost is not prohibitive. Some of Bangkok’s more creative indie promoters have taken advantage of this situation by scheduling shows in surprising, inexpensive venues, including the occasional illegal warehouse party in an industrial area or blue-collar neighborhood. These shows are explicitly non-local affairs. The mobility of the audience means that promoters can attempt to summon listeners without advance notice, to congregate in whatever location works for their purposes at that moment.


We reach our stop. As we walk down the steps from the SkyTrain platform, we notice that this area is altogether unlike Sukhumvit Road. The signs are almost exclusively in Thai, for one thing, and there is a lot less neon. Furthermore, we are no longer bombarded with the promise of infinite pleasure for just a few baht. In fact, the only human beings in view are four men wearing orange vests lounging on motorcycle taxis next to a 7-11, passing around a bottle of whiskey and cracking jokes about our weird farang clothing.

Since the show is almost a mile up the side road, it makes sense to hitch a quick ride.

Mototaxis are a cheap and common form of transportation, used mostly for short trips like this one. They are also far and away the most dangerous way to get around town, as the leadfooted drivers blatantly ignore red lights and even sidewalks while you cling to their vehicle, wearing a cracked helmet or none at all. Weaving through traffic is, in contrast to the SkyTrain, an inelegant form of mobility. You can do it, but it’s risky, not to mention somewhat vulgar.

Although precise occupational statistics are difficult to find, most mototaxi drivers arrive from Isaan, the impoverished, agrarian northeastern region of Thailand. Internal migration from Isaan has grown substantially as upcountry folk have come to Bangkok in search of higher wages to send back to their families. Many find employment in construction, day labor, transportation, or as sex workers. They speak a highly distinct regional dialect largely incomprehensible to central Thais-speakers, which is a frequent source of derisive humor.

Isaan’s most visible cultural contribution to contemporary Bangkok is, ironically, music. Morlam and lukthung styles, which originated in the northeast, have been seized upon by proponents of Thai nationalism (most of whom hail from Bangkok) as symbols of a shared national heritage. Whereas northeastern styles were once considered base among the metropolitan elite, they have slowly gained cache since the 1980s. Miller describes this sea-change of taste in his 2005 article, “From Country Hick to Rural Hip: A New Identity Through Music for Northeast Thailand.” And Pamela Moro suggests that many musicians now supplement their income playing Isaan music at tourist venues in Bangkok. Many of these performances, which take place in the same neighborhoods as western bars and clubs, also feature dancers in stylized regional costumes. Although the shows are pretty kitschy, both tourists and urban Bangkokers invest a great deal in their authenticity. Appropriation of regional music is a political and musical gold mine.

We attempt to haggle with the driver, but our accent betrays us. The three-minute trip costs an exorbitant 30 baht.


We arrive, at last, at our musical object, a concert taking place in a venue called the Live House. For now, we can only hear the music obscurely, as a nebulous cloud pushing outward against the doors, the lower frequencies escaping into a cavernous, marbled courtyard. There are no names yet, no lyrics and no instruments. There will be plenty of time for those.

This clip is not offered in irony, as a symbolic turn away from music. By stopping at the doorway, before we reach “the music itself,” I hope it will be clear that a discussion of mobility has not been incidental to musical production. The process of pursuing a musical object is itself highly revelatory in a way that can and should be meaningful to ethnomusicologists. In the paper just presented, what we heard as we traveled, from street noise to accents, held out quite a bit of useful data about the production of the music that lay behind the door, still beyond our ears. I am not suggesting that we dispense with conventional musical analysis, but I hope that by isolating and listening closely to the journey, I have convinced you that attention to space can be a useful ethnographic method.

And if the trip was dizzying, if it left us with a nebulous cluster of conclusions rather than a concrete object to take home, perhaps we should let it be so. The phenomenological experience of moving through an urban area, through channels carved out according to a variety of logics, has a great deal to teach us about spatial contours and effects, which bear in no small way on the bundle of relationships called culture. Understanding the relationships between space and cultural practice will require enduring a little motion sickness.

Finally, too often the traditional and the modern are dichotomized and counterposed, eastern body and western infection. But modernity is not a viral condition. It is a diffuse ideological regimen with a long and complex history that demands new ways of thinking through identity, including some that are equipped to consider mobility more acutely than situation. For ethnomusicologists, it is crucial to recognize that music in a modern moment – be it received as traditional, popular, or classical – is necessarily routed through a modern infrastructure. Listening to space, we can begin to hear how.

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