Posts tagged with Thai

Throughout the year, I’ve kept a running list of Thai words that relate to sound and listening, jotting down notes from interviews and books, and going through sections of the dictionary page-by-page. It turns out that the Thai language has piles of vocabulary to describe the sonic environment, from the poetic to the precise, from the inexplicable to the sublimely local. While I’m not sure if this language is better equipped than English to discuss sound, it certainly covers some idiosyncratic territory.

The list below is a small selection of what I’ve collected so far:

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Give it enough time and attention, and anything will become musical.

The same sounds, repeated again and again, compel us to hear melodies and rhythms we usually ignore. Say the same word the same way fifteen times out loud – cookiecookicookiecookiecookiecookiecookicookiecookiecookiecookiecookicookiecookiecookie – and you’ll begin to hear it in new ways. It will seem both more and less familiar, more and less strange. You’ll notice pitch and texture irrespective of meaning.

A visit to the Bangkok Metropolitan Electricity Authority reminded me of this effect two weeks ago. You can usually pay your electric bill at the nearest 7-11, but if you’re delinquent like I was this month, you have to brave the buses on busy Rama IV Road and haul it over to the central office.

When I went, there were at least one hundred people chatting and killing time in the waiting room. I took a number. The process was so efficient that the automated voice was calling numbers in direct, almost uninterrupted succession for minutes at a time. I made this recording while waiting for my number:

For each announcement, the automated female voice began by saying Maai Laehk, which means “number.” Maai has a rising tone; you say it by starting from a low pitch and ending on a higher one. Laehk has a falling pitch; you start with a high pitch and end on a low one. Next, the voice announces the number, and since different Thai numbers have different tones, this introduces some variation. Then she says Deern Tawng, which means (roughly) “walk to.” Deern has a middle tone; you say it without any special inflection. Tawng has a falling tone. Finally, the voice announces the number of the desk that’s just opened up. Then back to the beginning.

The sameness/predictability of the announcement brings out the music in the automated voice, especially if you listen for it. In the middle of a tremendously boring situation, this kind of hearing can be a defense mechanism, a way of stepping away mentally for a moment.

Fashioning political analogies out of allusions to local religion, cycle and repetition have become a trope in recent reports from Bangkok. The reporters ask: is any of this really new? Is this place trapped in a cycle of suffering?

I’ll ask a different question: Are people hearing music here now? And answer it: yes, but music is not always beautiful.

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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!

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In the wake of the first domestic use of sound cannons, against protesters at the recent, sparsely-picketed G20 summit in Pittsburgh, which comes just a few weeks after the same technology was used to suppress protesters at a factory in Bangkok, I want to discuss sound as an absolute phenomenon – that is, at the point where a human listener experiences acute physical harm through exposure, where sound stops being musical or aesthetic and becomes quite literally indistinguishable from a blunt object or explosive device.

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This (see “about artworks” or “Artwork #1” for background) was recorded about a year ago.

One day in downtown Bangkok, I crossed paths with a blind man using a lead pipe to echolocate his way down the street. The resonance of the hollow pipe is especially well-suited to producing sonic images that can reveal large objects at a distance – walls or buildings or sets of steps, say. This is a useful supplement to the cane as a means of feeling objects directly. As the man walked, a gym in the ground level of a shopping center played a trancy jingle through loudspeakers mounted outdoors. The gym is called California WOW Xperience, and they’re all over the city, enticing natives and visitors alike with kitschy, oily body-building imagery that nevertheless gets its point across.

Music in advertisements, rather obviously, recruits consumers. Songs plug into associations between identity and sensuality that we often don’t even realize we carry around. The California WOW Xperience ad declares in sensual terms (i.e., without needing to use words) that the gym is high-tech and modern. The accelerated tempos of trance suggest not only the pace of exercise but of the modern more broadly. The use of this ad thus creates and maintains a space that might “feel” “right” enough to passersby to entice them into laying down good Baht for a personal trainer or a yoga class or whatever.

Any useful acoustic analysis has to account not only for primary sound sources as they come into contact with materials, but also for reflections and noise. Sounds interact with one another in complicated ways that can confound engineers attempting to manage sound environments. This recording gestures to another source of confusion, one that lies beyond echo or interference – listening. The taps happen to be audible acts of listening that disrupt or at least mingle with the advertisement, which is what makes this work as a piece (I think). But it should also remind us that listening is a kind of work we do every time we encounter a sound, even if it seems to be second nature.

The ad and the taps are also, finally, kind of amusingly indifferent to each other. I like this a lot, because it rightly insinuates (to my ear) that human encounters are only fleetingly cooperative and never truly systematic.

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