Sound was a persistent, if at times inscrutable, undercurrent to the 2009 SEM conference. HVBE6GGVBHTQ

There were, first, more panels than ever devoted to topics like technology, listening, and conflict. These redirect ethnomusicology toward problems of history and politics, which is the rationale for veering from music to sound. One great example was the music and violence panel chaired by JP. In it, MariĆ© Abe gave a lovely paper on a peace music “festa” in (still) US military-occupied Okinawa. Rana El Kadi gave an equally lovely paper on problems of transnational aesthetics via the Beirut-born artist Mazen Kerbaj and his improvisations for trumpet and bombs recorded during the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah conflict. (Look for a post on Kerbaj here soon.) In both cases, the question of music as resistance was rescued from mootness by an emphasis on sound and listening, including overhearing.

There was, second, a provocative President’s Roundtable focused on music scholarship in the wake of area studies.

This event made a few things clear. For one, area studies is widely acknowledged out loud as a relic, but ethnomusicology just can’t quit it. For two, the structure of the university is on the cusp of changes consonant with a cautiously optimistic neoliberal ethos – waiting at the gates for the recession to turn its back for one second, university administrators busy themselves tweaking business models in ways that will never be untweaked, expecting to rush through any minute with a renewed spirit of insatiable expansion. For three, the apparently undeniable quaintness of area studies might just be a way of cheerleading “for two” in ideological disguise. (Thanks to Dr. Cusick for insinuating as much. Read this, as well.) For four, this situation cries out not only for a sonic turn, but for very good Sound Studies work, the kind that arguably hasn’t even been done yet. We should know by now that music offers a genuinely unique avenue for thinking about interactions between culture, and interactions between culture (including disruption, violence, and transformation) are precisely at issue when considering the institutional changes that will inevitably trail the economic crisis. The aftermath of this crisis, like every crisis, will be a savage scramble.

There was, third, a Sound Studies special interest group meeting. We all hope this is the beginning of something significant. The membership includes some very impressive people. You are invited to join. The definition of Sound Studies remains opaque, perhaps necessarily so.

There was, fourth, a keynote address by the most prominent Ethnomusicologist in the business. Being a structural linguist, the speaker described
sound as a way of mapping culture onto environment. This approach, even as it foregrounds aurality, is mildly at odds with work that deals with interpretation and contest rather than ritual. With the keynote address, Sound Studies seemed newly imprecise, even standing at center stage.

There was, fifth, an announcement that one of next year’s conference themes would be sound. This was a significant step for Sound Studies, and revealed a recognition of an important new direction in the field. There were four subheadings to the sound theme, which LG recalls as 1) Music, displacement, and disaster; 2) music and social activism; 3) music, copyright, and human rights; and 4) film music. Good ideas, although none have to do with listening or audition, which is disappointing.

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