Everything Changing Real Soon
After March 28th of this year, Weird Vibrations migrates to Bangkok, Thailand. This trip is what the blog was created for, and what all the content so far has led up to. I’ll be there for one year, writing in this space as often as possible. Whether you came to WV through another sound site, or by accident, or because you know me, I hope you’ll keep checking in.
I can promise, at least, the following in return: erudite anthropological analysis, high-fidelity stereo sound recordings and concerned photographic documentation, political insight, what I’m pretty sure are actual dragons, danger-zone maps, nicknames like “Pizza” and “Dream,” sweat, rain, noise, the nexus of Buddhism and Bohemianism, and a brand of earnestness that can only be described as avant-garde.
Here is the deal:
I am going to Bangkok to study urban sound. This is dissertation fieldwork in pursuit of a PhD in ethnomusicology at NYU, for which I was fortunate enough to receive a Fulbright.
Bangkok, for those who haven’t been, is quite a modern place. But it wasn’t always – or even recently – so. In 1950, only a hair over a million people lived within the city’s borders, compared to more than 8 million today. New York, by contrast, grew in population by only a half million during the same period. Bangkok’s infrastructure has likewise expanded apace. What was once a patchwork of low-slung shophouses (the largest department store in the entire city in 1950 was only 500 square feet), canals, and even farms, is now a teeming megalopolis. Postmodern shopping malls, many of which are owned by ethnic Chinese, snake in every direction – over traffic, underground, and of course into the sky.
The Paragon shopping monolith in Siam Square
Modernity in Bangkok has been coterminous with globalization. In fact, much of the city’s 20th century expansion was a consequence of the American military engagement in southeast Asia. Troops stationed in Thailand, an American ally then and now, were the catalysts of Bangkok’s current hospitality industry, from hotels and restaurants to brothels. Today, as urban centers have become more desirable for a variety of reasons, the city is rife with ethnic enclaves – Indian, Chinese, Laotian, Malay, Khmer, Lebanese, ex-patriot, and backpacker. Wartime cooperation and trade have consistently been at the root of this diverse condition.
Nixon visits Thailand, a major aerial and personnel base during the Vietnam War
The bit of background in the last two paragraphs is actually a serious challenge to traditional anthropology, which wants to identify and analyze ethnic groups in situ. Global cities like Bangkok affirm that culture is in reality not static but dynamic, an ever-changing consequence of shifting identifications. This idea isn’t new within ethnographic theory, although it’s still only sometimes put into practice.
My project asks: if it no longer makes sense to chart culture visually, on a map as if it were a still life or a landscape, could we possibly learn something fresh by employing a methodology of listening? After all, sound is by definition in motion, and it always describes encounters between two or more things – hands clapping together, sticks smacking drums, tires rumbling on roads, people chatting. Aren’t the sounds of these encounters at least as rich as their images?
There is yet another reason to study sound: it is, itself, a resource. Sound is the stuff of democratic expression, used to control flows of information, spread ideas, and stimulate commerce. Appeals to our ears are more common than we realize. Sound can be a material for aesthetic experimentation, for identity-building, for environmental comfort, for creating efficiency as well as disrupting it, for the projection of power, and much more.
My fieldwork and dissertation will be an examination of these topics. Weird Vibrations, for the next year, will be the public face of my research, an opportunity to think through problems and share stuff (including, of course, sound recordings) with friends in the U.S., Thailand, and beyond. My goal is, first and foremost, to give people a chance to stay up-to-date on what I’m doing and, second, to open a space for discussion for those with scholarly interests in sound, music, public space, urban governance, or the city of Bangkok. The blog may or may not continue after this year of fieldwork, but it should be an interesting year.