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Waiting for Aspiring Progressives

by Gavin Lee (Soochow University)

I recently decided to revisit the issue of teaching opera in prison again with colleagues. Despite insightful responses by William Cheng and Bonnie Gordon to the widely condemned post “Don Giovanni Goes to Prison” by Pierpaolo Polzonetti (all on the Musicology Now blog, published by the American Musicological Society), it seems that musicologists[1] as a community have not developed a deeper understanding of the issues related to racial dynamics in the US as expressed through music and musical institutions.[2]

The reaction of many in the musicological community reflected a progressive commitment to anti-racism and anti-colonialism as anchored in the concept of cultural difference. Accordingly, many regard it as unacceptable for a professor who is “white” in the contemporary US context[3] to impose his music on students who are drawn from a prison population which is majority people of color. “Colonialism” is a term I’ve heard in discussion with colleagues which was used to describe Polzonetti’s educational endeavor. Implied in “colonialism” is the power differential between the educator and students, and the cultural mismatch between the “white” music and the target audience consisting primarily of people of color.[4] Many read Polzonetti’s post through discursive lenses: Polzonetti’s portrayal of a black male student protesting Donna Elvira’s shoddy treatment (by the title role in Mozart’s Don Giovanni) was interpreted as an instantiation of the racist stereotype of the violent black man; Polzonetti’s self-described attempt to get his students to “chill out” by focusing on the music analysis of emotion was interpreted as a discourse of the civilizing force of white opera on a black man.

Much more needs to be said about opera and Western empire, including opera’s racism and orientalism, and the contemporary globalized reverence for Western art music. Here, I’ll focus on the reception of Polzonetti’s post and suggest alternative strategies for the progressive movement in musicology, which is unavoidably contextualized by heightened racial tensions in the US: recall that Polzonetti’s post appeared in February 2016 as Trump was emerging as a presidential candidate and running a campaign characterized by abhorrent racist discourses. What if, instead of assuming the worst about Polzonetti, we had given him the benefit of the doubt, assuming that educators who volunteer in prison have good intentions? Can we regard Polzonetti’s work in prison, crossing racial and class lines, as progressive to some extent? I wonder what the effect of the “calling out” of Polzonetti through public denouncement on social media has been on him as a scholar, educator, and individual. And I wonder if Ngọc Loan Trần, who has critiqued call-out culture for alienating instead of engaging those deemed to be offenders, would approve of calling “in” Polzonetti, which means inviting him to join an even more progressive agenda by developing conceptual and pedagogical frames together with him.[5] Is there a way in which we could have acknowledged Polzonetti’s effort to reach across the aisles of race and class—albeit in a highly problematic way—and persuade him to revise his position and adopt what progressives would accept as a more ethical way of relating to racial others?

This is a question that has been bothering me, and not just because of the “reparative” view that seeks to acknowledge at least some traces of good intention, versus a “paranoid” view that Polzonetti’s efforts were made in the name of naked oppression.[6] The question bothers me because call-out culture is fragmenting progressive communities at large (which aim for social, cultural, and legal reform) through policing in public platforms and a tendency to shame and cast outside those aspiring progressives who are deemed not progressive enough. The more pressure that is applied on race in the Trump era, the more aggressive call outs are likely to be, and the less patient progressives are likely to be with one another. The result is that instead of coalition building, parts of the progressive movement seem to aim to become more and more progressive by slicing off other unwanted portions of itself. This revolutionary avant-garde mentality that insists on the purity of resistance seems a little paranoid—“You are not progressive enough, and so you must be here to destroy the progressive movement by watering it down.” Sedgwick appropriately describes the stylistics of paranoid readings as that of “minimalist elegance and conceptual economy”—sounds like call-out culture?

There are of course inherent problems with certain practices of pedagogy which focus on the transmission of knowledge from expert to novice, problems exacerbated in prison context; Polzonetti’s account seems to suggest that he opted to convey specialized knowledge (the musical analysis of emotion) as a response to the emergent feminist narrative of the student protesting Donna Elvira’s treatment. In doing so, Polzonetti appears to have missed an opportunity to create a community of learning where students collaborate in the making of musical knowledge—this is particularly disappointing given the dire need for avenues for negotiating the personal and social spaces of a harsh carceral environment (Harbert’s research is instructive in this regard[7]). Teaching is a relational activity where race relations are often unavoidable and can even be instructive. A unit on opera as part of a larger course can become a chance for everyone in the classroom to participate in a discussion of the history of the adoption of Western art music, including opera, by the white majority in the US, and from there move on to the general racialization of music. This could lead to further discussion of issues like the acquiring of cultural capital (through opera courses) as well as sheer musical enjoyment, and the complicated ways in which race, history, social status, and musical joy intersect. Most often, however, many of my colleagues attach a “racist” label to teaching opera in prison and stop there; and many of them, including opera specialists, have yet to develop a conceptual frame for thinking about the racial dynamics of the teaching of opera. This does not necessarily mean that they hold beliefs about the superiority or inferiority of races; it means that musicology as a whole is lagging behind other disciplines in its racial reckoning. In the context of institutional racism, individuals may unwittingly perpetuate a racist system or “formation” by maintaining conventions (such as doctoral translation exams in the key operatic languages of German, French, and Italian). They may even be aware of personal culpability within a racist system without knowing how to walk out of it. It is a mistake to lump together those opera scholars with no interest in reaching beyond racial lines, with opera scholars who teach in prisons with good intentions and might even want to develop a pedagogical framework that addresses race in a responsible way—if only we had waited. In the age of online social media, literally waiting in terms of quantitative time is improbable as we rush to comment. But what I mean is waiting in the sense of withholding judgement, and opting instead to sow the seeds of change in others’ minds. Is it possible that this less radical approach might be able to achieve something that fiery critiques can’t?

In the age of Trump, it is important that we examine how racial critique has had to suffer the additional burden of speaking ever more loudly against power. Lived racial lives and race as a concept and symbol have had to carry the heavy responsibility of serving as vanguards of the resistance against Trump, which must surely have had the effect of sharpening progressives’ racial awareness. But racisms within and without AMS are not one-of-a-kind necessarily—they exist on a continuum of the capacity for physical and social harm, have different genealogies, and call for different responses. Where there are good but misguided intentions, where there are willing interlocutors, we might create room for patient conversation. To recognize when and where “calling in” might be appropriate, we have to differentiate: the institutional racism of AMS that musicologists today inevitably and perhaps unwillingly inherited is not necessarily the same as the kind of racism wrought alongside political and economic forces in global hyper-mediatized neoliberal context. It is not necessarily of a kind with racism wrought in the heteronormative imaginaries of reproductivity and the organic body. We need to think in terms of radical intersectionality between racial scapegoating and off-shoring of jobs in the US, between race and its symbolic reproduction, between organic and inorganic racial bodies, and between anti-racisms that limit rather than expand agency and participation—that is to say, we need to think of race as part of a much larger material “assemblage” (after Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari)[9] or “queer assemblage” (after Jasbir Puar) of different components that continuously change in terms of relationality to another, relative visibility, and impact on racial lives.[10] Racism is real. It relies on, has a complex relation with, and can sometimes even distract us from the equally devastating effects of poverty, capitalist exploitation, psychological manipulation, and environmental degradation. Because racism is rampant and is deadly, we can become impatient—in light of that simple truth—for scholars undertaking European-focused musicological or music theory studies to develop a critical awareness of race. In not waiting for that, we risk closing our ears to any anti-racist voice that is not already amped up to the highest volume. “No aspiring progressives allowed!”

Particularly in a moment of impending, intertwined ecological, economic and social disasters brought on by global predatory capitalism that has been practiced by appointees of the Trump administration (drawn from Goldman Sachs, ExxonMobil etc.), it is more important than ever that progressives find strength in one another and work to broaden their base of support. We must apply innovative approaches to address the rise of racial and other forms of social reactionism, and understand the alignment between reactionary politics and ideologically coherent, profit-driven practices (job offshoring, weakening unions, climate change denial etc.) that have created a fertile ground of white poverty for hate to fester in. It is against this background that we must ask, How should those of us who are in relatively less precarious situations develop a strategy for the complexities and ambiguities of confronting and working through our national legacy of institutionalized racism and the current neoliberal racial regime, so that we all are given a chance to evolve and build a stronger movement together?


[1] “Musicologists” in this post denotes the contemporary North American understanding of term as referring to scholars involved mainly in the study of primarily Western art music and to a lesser extent popular and global music.

[2] Pierpaolo Polzonetti, “Don Giovanni Goes to Prison: Teaching Opera Behind Bars,” Musicology Now, February 16, 2016.

William Cheng, “Musicology, Freedom, and the Uses of Anger,” Musicology Now, February 21, 2016.

Bonnie Gordon, “The Perils of Public Musicology,” Musicology Now, February 22, 2016.

[3] It should be noted that historically Italian-Americans were not considered “white,” which is a continually negotiated category.

[4] The historical and contemporary construction of opera as white is a complex process that involved multiple moving parts, of which pedagogy is a key component. Vocal programs in conservatories play a part in the construction of operatic and art song singing as white through their admissions process, by admitting only candidates who adhere to those forms of singing, while rejecting those who sing in the style of blues and jazz—i.e. black music. See Julia Eklund Koza, “Listening for Whiteness: Hearing Racial Politics in Undergraduate School Music,” Philosophy of Music Education Review 16.2 (Fall 2008): 145-155.

[5] Ngọc Loan Trần, “Calling IN: A Less Disposable Way of Holding Each Other Accountable,” BGD Blog, December 18, 2013.

[6] Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You Are So Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You,” in Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

[7] See e.g. Benjamin J. Harbert, “Only Time: Musical Means to the Personal, the Private and the Polis at the Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women,” American Music 30.2 (2013): 203-240.

[8] See Michael Omi and Howard Winant, Racial Formation in the United States (New York: Routledge, 2014).

[9] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).

[10] I suggest that we need to go much further than analyzing race in relation to nation, ethnicity, class, and “color blind” ideology, as outlined in Omi and Winant. In order to counter the politically constrictive forms of identity politics which fail to be intersectional, Jasbir Paur, for instance, disarticulates identity using the figure of the material terrorist body dismembered by a bomb, such that notions of self and other are radically reconfigured. See Jasbir Puar, Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007).

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Academic flying and climate justice: Toward an inclusive and sustainable ethnomusicology

by Catherine Grant, Aaron Pettigrew, and Megan Collins

Earlier this year, SEM members released a Statement entitled “Disciplinary intervention for a practice of ethnomusicology” (available in full on this blog). According to its authors, the Statement is intended as “a declaration of commitment to changing the academic structures that deny many scholars full inclusion in their fields.” It calls for greater equality and justice in the practices of ethnomusicology, through “active change” and a “radical restructuring of professional societies” and the “multiple spaces in which ethnomusicology occurs.”

We wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment of the Statement. In this post, we draw particular attention to a single such practice of ethnomusicology (and other academic disciplines) that we believe requires radical restructuring in the names of inclusion, equality and justice. That is the phenomenon of academic flying: frequent air travel for conferences, networking, fieldwork, and other academic activities.

Although only a privileged few of the world’s population fly regularly, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization plane travel is responsible for around 2-3% of all greenhouse gas emissions. The European Commission notes that by 2020 emissions from fossil fuel flying are predicted to be 70% above their 2005 levels. Emissions from flying need to be urgently and dramatically reduced in order to limit global temperature rises to well below 2 degrees Celsius, in line with the 2015 Paris Agreement.

Scholars in some disciplines have stopped questioning whether unfettered academic flying is an environmentally sustainable practice—clearly it is not—and have instead begun engaging with it as an issue of ethical and moral concern. Some leading climate scientists have committed to radically reducing their own flying, or even ceasing it altogether. Others are advocating for systemic change (see Parke Wilde’s online petition); still others are spearheading change within their institutions and professional organizations (like those associated with the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research, UK).

In light of the Statement mentioned above, we wish to bring this wider discussion about academic flying and climate change to the discipline of ethnomusicology. We believe that climate change (as an issue of social justice) and academic flying are inextricably connected with the wider systemic concerns around access, inclusion, and justice raised by members of SEM and our other professional societies.

Take academic flying as an issue of climate justice. Ethnomusicologists fly around the world to carry out or disseminate our research on important issues such as the global refugee crisis, poverty, civil unrest, and cultural endangerment — all topics of recent research in our discipline. And yet we little acknowledge that through our flying, we are contributing to a global intergenerational crisis that is set to tremendously exacerbate these and other issues of social justice and human rights. We also seem to overlook the fact that climate change is likely to have the worst impacts for those peoples and cultures that have least contributed to the problem — those same people and cultures that the discipline of ethnomusicology has historically been most concerned with.

In fact, it is rather astounding that climate justice so rarely surfaces as an explicit factor for consideration in our ethnomusicological decisions around funding applications, research design, or conference planning. By failing to embed climate justice in our collective consciousness in the same way that principles of mutuality, collaboration, and respect are now embedded in our work as ethnomusicologists, we simply further ingrain those global imbalances of power that have led to a privileged few being able to fly in the first place.

This, of course, directly invokes a problem SEM and other ethnomusicological organizations have been struggling with for decades: how can we enable the broadest possible participation at our conferences and other scholarly gatherings? The issue rightly causes angst. When only some researchers are able to gather (often at fancy conference hotels) to report on their work, the absence of those who cannot be there for economic reasons is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of inequality and injustice in our discipline.

One organizational response has been to offer travel bursaries or registration subsidies to researchers (and indeed, we authors have been recipients of such bursaries in the past). Though well-intentioned and often very helpful for individuals, this approach arguably entrenches existing economic and power imbalances, with those already in positions of relative power or privilege determining the participation of less powerful and/or less wealthy members. Further, such a strategy is not scalable to anywhere near the degree necessary to achieve a fair global practice of ethnomusicology, because it does not address the root problem — the considerable costs associated with conference travel that are prohibitive for most people in many countries around the world.

So, we believe that one necessary step toward making ethnomusicology more inclusive and equitable is to reconsider the way our conferences and symposia are run. One way to enable participation by researchers who cannot fly (or who choose not to for environmental reasons) is to permit virtual or remote presentations, and to actively support such presentations through ensuring technological capacity at the conference site.

While SEM has been live-streaming selected conference presentations since 2011, current SEM policy does not allow remote presentations (except under rare circumstances). Allowing such presentations would reduce the carbon emissions associated with our gatherings, while also increasing their accessibility. Successful prototypes exist for low-emission or even ‘nearly-carbon-neutral’ conferences that enable geographically dispersed, interactive participation and networking opportunities through online means.

By signing SEM’s “Disciplinary intervention for a practice of ethnomusicology”, we pledged to “[r]equest that societies and organizations to which we belong devote resources and attention to democratizing and horizontalizing representation within these societies.” In this spirit, we invite SEM and its membership to reinvigorate a conversation around more democratic, inclusive and environmentally sustainable conference practices that reduce the need for flying.


In July 2017, the authors delivered a (semi-virtual) panel “The Plane Truth: Academic Flying, Climate Change, and the Future of Music Research” at the International Council for Traditional Music World Conference (Limerick, Ireland) The panel was featured on an episode of Culture File on RTE Irish National Radio.


Evrim Hikmet Öğüt – Soundscape of a coup d’état

F16 jet istanbul 7-15-2016

F-16 jet flying low over Istanbul, 15 July 2016


Editor’s note: What follows is the author’s translation of an article that appeared on 17 July 2016; the original Turkish version is here.

It was an extraordinary, traumatic 24-hour period. We do not have a full grip on the details of what happened, but it is highly possible that it will result in bringing more authoritarianism and stronger polarization, fear, anxiety, and intervention in the lifestyles of almost half of the people in Turkey, along with many other catastrophes that we fear to think and say aloud.

The oppression of the coup d’état attempt has already turned into a collective and summoned frenzy where attacks on Alevites, Syrian refugees, and people drinking alcohol outside started to occur.

There will undoubtedly be a great number of analyses of 15 July 2016 and its aftermath. My intention is not to add another one to the list; instead, I will strive to describe those 24 hours through their soundscape, which, I believe, presents highly fertile ground for sociological analysis. Some of the sounds I mention below have entered our lives for the first time and in a very striking manner, and we have been constantly talking about sounds for 24 hours whether we realize or not.

Although this time we did not see Hasan Mutlucan on the screen, and the coup did not come with the “sound of combat boots”, what heralded the events to follow was sounds. On the night of 15 July a social media post by a friend in Ankara about F-16 jets flying over the city gave the first hint of something going on. Of course, what enabled her to notice the fighter jets was the loud sound they made: a sound that we, living in the western part of the country, are not used to hearing. After a short while, upon noticing the sound of a helicopter over my apartment in Istanbul, I joined those sharing posts on social media in an attempt to make sense of the commotion outside.

As the night went on and the sounds of the coup become varied with sirens, ambulances, clashes and blasts, these sounds enabled us to learn about what we could not see as well as bringing forth the emotions of surprise, fear, and anxiety. For us, the newest and the most striking one was possibly the explosion-like noise coming from the jets that break the sound barrier—a sonic boom.


Jets and sonic boom


The opposition to the coup did not stay silent during 15 July and its aftermath. The strongest sound against the coup attempt came from mosques. From mosques, which use the ezan (adhan) sound to designate the spatial limits of their community, this time came the sala to invite the citizens to the streets. The sala, which serves to notify the community of an all-concerning event in an Islamic context, was used in line with its purpose, defining the ideological content of the news as well.


Sala and bombs


In addition to the sala, untimely ezans and announcements inviting people to reclaim the motherland, posts indicating the recitation of the fetih sura and other parts of the Quran from different mosques—even a call for jihad from a mosque in Ikitelli—circulated on social media.

While citizens responded to the call by taking to the streets chanting the tekbir and slogans, the oppression of the coup instigators started to be celebrated with honking, the salavat, the Turkish National Anthem and the mehter anthems coming from cars. (Mehter music is an incredibly influential tool for the current government in shaping the space of public struggle.)


Salavat and tekbir


Our conversations, which incessantly continued in both public and private spheres, constitute another auditory aspect of this 24-hour period. That the conversation among children playing in front of my apartment focused on the opposition between the soldier and the police indicates the reach of vocabulary and the world of meaning surrounding the coup.

Sounds/noise play an influential role in creating a space of public struggle and strengthening the hegemony of both the government and the opposition over masses, regardless of their ideological orientation. Sounds are far more effective than verbal expressions in their appeal to the collective memory and ability to reach across wider space. Thus, while reading 15 July through sounds, we should keep in mind that neither the choice of these sounds nor their impact on us is coincidental.

No coup attempt brings democracy. The idea that a coup attempt can be oppressed by public reclamation of democracy, and people’s own willpower, is important. However, the fact that this willpower in the current example is far from a real, all-encompassing discourse of democracy emerges as a startling reality.

If we describe it through sounds, the mehter music and the audioscape of the street protests in the aftermath of 15 July point to a cultural and historical context that is far removed from providing democracy for us (as phrased by by Erdoğan Aydın in the TV program Türkiye’nin gündemi on 16 July). We do not have the option of leaving the demand for democracy to these sounds and giving up the struggle for making ourselves heard. That is, we have to speak up.


Istiklal Avenue on 16 July (includes mehter music)


Evrim Hikmet Öğüt earned the Ph.D. in ethnomusicology at the Centre for Advanced Studies in Music (MIAM) at Intanbul Technical University with the dissertation “Music in transit: Musical practices of the Chaldean-Iraqi migrants in Istanbul”. She currently works as a teacher and research assistant at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University. Her website is here.

Catherine Grant – “They don’t die, they’re killed”: The thorny rhetoric around music endangerment and music sustainability


In a recent edition of the SEM newsletter, Robert Garfias reflected on the issue of music endangerment:

[L]ike biological diversity, species are disappearing, languages are disappearing. And in a sense cultures are disappearing. Every few years some­body dies who was the last person who knew how to do something or other; the last person who did this or the last person who knew this tradition dies. And when that species dies, you can’t reconstruct it, you can’t bring it back. So I’m concerned about the things that are being lost forever. . .it’s terrible to lose something. (in Rice, 2014, pp. 7–8)

As the viability of music genres features increasingly as a topic for (applied) research in our discipline, it is important to keep a close eye on the way we characterize the issue. The words we choose—the rhetoric, the metaphors and analogies—reflect and reveal certain values and assumptions, and for this reason warrant careful consideration. Perhaps even more critically, they affect whether and how we take action against a perceived threat to, or loss of, music genres (for example by supporting communities to reinvigorate intergenerational transmission, secure funding, grow governmental support, or engage the media or music industry).

To begin, consider how linguists talk about the parallel problem in their field: the threat of extinction, within this century, to fully half of all the world’s 6000+ languages (Crystal, 2000). Language endangerment is a term—and a concept—so widely accepted that it refers to a whole sub-discipline of sociolinguistic research.

The rhetoric and the metaphors get significantly more uncomfortable than that. Some of them are shocking, like the terms language death (e.g. Crystal, 2000), language suicide (e.g. Beck & Lam, 2009), language murder, and language genocide (both Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000). When these terms are employed, they are used in an effort to convey strong messages about the agency and urgency of the problem of language loss. “I cannot regard people being coerced—no matter how subtly—into abandoning their languages as anything other than a form of violence”, writes David Harrison. “It represents an erasure of history, of creativity, of intellectual heritage” (2010, p.177).

Arguably, if (as Harrison believes) even subtle coercion is an act of violence, then failure to respond where a response is possible could be considered complicity in violence. This is as true of musical as it is of linguistic expressions of culture. Communities can undoubtedly be coerced—however subtly—into abandoning their music practices, and power imbalances (such as those arising from the ongoing effects of colonization) are a major force in the viability of music genres too. In a TED Talk on endangered cultures, Wade Davis reasons, “It’s not change or technology that threatens the integrity of the ethnosphere [“the myriad cultures of the world”]. It is power, the crude face of domination” (14:50-15:54).

Wade Davis on endangered cultures (click for transcript)

Yet far from using terminology like genocide or death, ethnomusicologists still tend to be uncomfortable with even the rhetoric of endangerment or loss: it’s too romantic, too colonial, too Eurocentric, too paternalistic (Grant, 2014, pp. 3-4). Perhaps the specter of “salvage ethnography” (Calhoun, 2002) looms large when, anxious about having such charges laid against us, we revert to talking about “change”, or find other ways of speaking about (or around) the problem.

But while loss is indeed a kind of change, speaking in such terms fails to fully acknowledge that specific traditions are simply no longer being practiced, against the will of the communities concerned. Nor does it adequately acknowledge the crude face of domination, or the grief of individuals and communities at the loss. As Ampush (Lucas) Ayui Chayat puts it: “If I lose my culture I’m no longer Achuar”.

One kind of rhetoric critiqued at length in our discipline is that of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage and the concomitant notion of safeguarding it. As Jeff Todd Titon and various others have convincingly argued, such terminology, while it has its uses, embodies and invokes a defensive and preservationist approach to music genres.

More aligned with current ethnomusicological understandings of the way music works is the rhetoric of ecology and sustainability (as reflected in the Garfias quote opening this post), which has been very useful to our discipline, as Titon’s blog makes abundantly clear. Among other things, it reminds us that the maintenance of culture is a matter of future justice, of responsibility to next generations. Schippers (2015) argues in favor of the term music sustainability, which he believes “has the best chance at transcending ‘tradition under siege’ associations”, suggesting as it does “a more gentle process” playing on music genres.

The video for the SoundFutures research project draws on the ecosystem metaphor to argue for the need to support music sustainability

But what of those cases where the process is anything but gentle? Where cultures are indeed under siege? The years of war and oppression under the Taliban; the devastating ongoing effects of colonization in Aboriginal Australia; the genocide in Cambodia (1975–79), when an estimated 90% of artists were killed and 50% of musical traditions were lost?

Sok Duch_22-02-13 copy

Master-musician Sok Duck, 87 years old and one of the very few artists to survive the Khmer Rouge regime, continues to make efforts to pass on his skills to younger-generation Cambodians.

Photo by the author, February 2013

In these cases, sustainability may still be a useful concept through which to gauge the various complex factors at play. But categorically avoiding terms like endangerment, loss, or extinction downplays the harsh realities of force, coercion, violence, power, and domination acting on many genres. Worse, it may also fail to mobilize action in the way that using stronger language could.

What would it mean, for example, to talk about the genocide or murder of music traditions? Perhaps most of all, such language would underscore in no uncertain terms the agency at play in many situations. Anthony Seeger is one of very few ethnomusicologists to use courageous language like this to speak about issues of sustainability: in his words, many traditions “don’t die, they’re killed, in a sense, they disappear for a reason—they’re disappeared.”

In a lecture at UCLA on February 22, 2012, Anthony Seeger talks of music genres “being disappeared” (from 1:16:50-1:18:16). Audio from Ethnomusicology Review (Vol 17, 2012).

I am not necessarily arguing for our adoption of terms like music death, extinction, or genocide. There are indeed problems with this rhetoric too. Some linguists argue that such forceful terms, applied to languages, “make it too easy to blur the difference between language shift and violence. This either makes the former seem worse than it is, or cheapens our moral language for talking about the latter” (Levy, 2003, p.230). Another problem with these terms is their finality; even if music genres are no longer living traditions, the existence even of a single recording leaves open the possibility of revival at a later date, as various recording repatriation projects have shown.

Instead, what is needed is greater acknowledgement in ethnomusicology of the reality, seriousness, urgency, and agency of the problem facing many communities trying to keep their music practices strong. Careful choice of rhetoric will go far here, because “naming realities is owning them” (Skutnabb-Kangas, 2000, xxxii). In situations where it is more appropriate to talk about endangerment than change, for example, let us have the courage to do so.

Only once we ethnomusicologists fully acknowledge—in our language and in fact—the real and imminent threat to many music genres across the world will we be impelled to mobilize consolidated local and global action in collaboration with the communities directly affected, as linguists have done for around a quarter of a century now.

Catherine Grant

University of Newcastle, Australia


Beck, David & Lam, Yvonne. (2009). Language loss and linguistic suicide: A case study from the Sierra Norte de Puebla, Mexico. In Sarah Cummins, Brigit Janoski, and Patricia A. Shaw (eds.), All the Things You Are: A Festschrift for Jack Chambers, 5–16. Toronto: Toronto Working Papers in Linguistics.

Calhoun, Craig J. (2002). “Salvage ethnography”. In Dictionary of the Social Sciences. New York: Oxford University Press, p. 424.

Crystal, David. (2000). Language Death. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grant, Catherine. (2014). Music Endangerment: How Language Maintenance Can Help. New York: Oxford University Press.

Harrison, K. David. (2010). The Last Speakers. Washington, DC: National Geographic.

Levy, Jacob T. (2003). Language rights, literacy, and the state. In Will Kymlicka and Alan Patten (Eds) Language Rights and Political Theory, pp. 230-249. Oxford: Oxford University Press .

Perley, Bernard C. (2012). Zombie linguistics: Experts, endangered languages and the curse of undead voices. Anthropological Forum 22(2): 133-149.

Rice, Timothy. (2014). Robert Garfias interviewed by Timothy Rice. In SEM Newsletter 47(4), pp. 1-8.

Schippers, Huib. (2015). Applied ethnomusicology and intangible cultural heritage: Understanding “ecosystems” of music as a tool for sustainability. In S. Pettan & J.T.Titon (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Applied Ethnomusicology, pp. 134-157. New York: Oxford University Press.

Seeger, Anthony. (2012). “What is it all for? Applying Scholarship Outside the Classroom: Indigenous Rights, Archiving, Folkways Records, and Professional Organizations“. Lecture at UCLA, February 22, 2012.

Skutnabb-Kangas, Tove (2000). Linguistic genocide in education – or worldwide diversity and human rights? Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Titon, Jeff Todd. (2008-2015). Sustainable music [blog].

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Ana Hofman – SINGing, SOCIALizing, SELForganizing: An insight into an engaged Viennese music collective

It is the evening of 11 December in Vienna’s 15th district, and I am sitting with Jana, Lejla, and Šarlot, eagerly awaiting the screening of a documentary about a unique community choir on the occasion of its fourth anniversary. We are in Brunnengasse, known as a migrant district of Vienna, at the AU Gallery, which is starting to crowd with men, women, and children of all ages and various ethnicities, all of them warmly greeting each other. In this setting, through the documentary and a public rehearsal that soon began, I became acquainted with a most interesting Viennese singing collective, the 29th of November Choir. Vienna is a city known for its music, and one can expect many different musical networks, organizations, and professional bodies. And yet the choir members, many of whom I met at the documentary screening, do not perceive themselves as musicians at all. Rather, they claim radical amateurism, musical self-education, and self-organization. Why?

hofman 1Performance of 29th of November in front of the Ministry of Internal Affairs in support of Asylum seekers, 3 October 2012

An experimental sonic collective

Members of this self-labeled “punk choir” use collective singing to “shout” social problems, “scream” social anger and discontent, and “give voice” to those who are suppressed. The choir cherishes a diverse repertoire including partisan songs, worker songs, revolutionary songs, pop music and folk pieces from former Yugoslavia, as well as the so-called repertoire of the “global left”–the most popular songs of various social movements ranging from the Spanish civil war to recent social movements.

The choir was created by Saša and Alexander, both second-generation Viennese-born Yugoslav gastarbeiters (guest workers; a full definition is here). Its name was chosen to mark the founding date of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which symbolically associated the choir with both the legacy of socialism and the Yugoslav idea.

Initially founded as a short-term artistic project dedicated to the neglected histories of guest workers from the former Yugoslavia, the choir has grown into a self-organized music collective with international membership and a strong dedication to self-learning, street performances, and flash mobs. The choir practices a strong inclusiveness in terms of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, language, and musical genre.

While from the very beginning the repertoire did not consist only of the songs from former Yugoslavia, as the Austrian members were joined by ones from other parts of the world (such as France and Ghana), it became even more internationally oriented. The members will say that they perform in “various languages and constantly expand the repertoire,” as stated in the promotional video Bastards of Yutopia, which displays their goals and portrays their main activities–debates, rehearsals, and performances.

Bastards of Yutopia

None of the members have musical training or previous singing experience (with the exception of the conductor and most recent member to joined the choir, Jana). The internal structure of the choir does not imply fixed membership, but rather one that is relational and fluctuating. As a collectivity, it is characterized by temporal discontinuities–some singers reappeared after having been absent from rehearsals for weeks, months, or even years; others appear only at performances.

That non-centralized and self-organized nature in which music is a central link in new forms of organization, socializing, and decision-making is also visible in the fact that anyone can join the collectivity at any time and “everyone chooses his/her own level and intensity of involvement. Still, there is always a danger of transforming it into a more structured organization or disappearing,” Milan explains. The choir thus embodies the potential for sound itself to increase the ability for individuals to act collectively, also through the specific productive instability associated with the temporal nature of both the collective and its sonic actions.

In their undertakings, the choir members employ the generally rediscovered social and political productivity of utopia and the politics of hope. Particularly in the case of migrants from former Yugoslavia, it serves as an outlet for therapy and healing, enabling singers to legitimize their emotional continuity with the personal and historical past. The members of 29th of November mobilize the unique power of the sonic collective to promote idealism and believe in a better world as a “utopian rethinking of art’s relationship to the social and its political potential” (Bishop 2010: 3).

Radical amateurism

Could this singing collectivity in its very existence be a seed of a new society? Or, to put it in Angela McRobbie’s words, are these just glimpses, flashes, cracks, or moments within a landscape of capitalist domination, which entails new levels and forms of submission (McRobbie 2010: 70)? We should not forget that the potential of arts for social engagement has also been recognized by stakeholders, and contemporary forms of capitalist organization also demand cooperativeness, participation, creativity, and other practices of communal work (Gill and Pratt 2008: 19).

Yet what differentiates the 29th of November is their practice of radical amateurism with an emphasis on self-emancipation through musical self-learning, which is both a politicized strategy and a kind of existential experimental practice. The members share a common goal of resistance to the contemporary mechanisms of the privatized and deeply individualized, consumerist, and professionalized music industry by offering an alternative audio-social networking. Such radical amateurism is rooted in Rancière’s concept of self-education as an important vehicle of emancipation (see his “The ignorant schoolmaster”). Employed as a counter-response to market-led democratic individualism, the choir promotes the idea of abolishging art itself through practicing the loss of individuality as an attempt to argue an anonymous subjectivity that draws its capacity from the paradoxes of what political art should be in global capitalism.

For that reason, I believe that the potential of this choir should be considered in all possible experiential registers of the radical amateurism that it promotes. In their case the process is far more important that the outcome or impact; producing temporal socialites through music and sound is a contribution to rethinking the conservative idea of politics in favor of the little affective powers available in everyday life (Bertelsen and Murphie 2010: 139). The choir’s performances thus not only increase the capacity to act in the actual world, but also open up a wedge into an alternative ethic of living as a vision of a self-sustaining society of cooperation and solidarity, making room for new political forms that produce new distributions of power. This singing collective thus can be seen as one of a number of experiments of effective togethernesses (Stengers in Thrift 2008) that are currently taking place, aimed at disrupting given spatial and temporal arrangements and new political forms in this post-liberal moment.

Ana Hofman

Slovenian Academy of Science and Arts

More about the choir:

FB profile:


Short visual biography:

Story of Jana, the new conductor (in Serbo-Croatian):


I am thankful to my dear colleague Dave Wilson for English proofreading and the anonymous reviewers for their useful comments and insightful suggestions.


Bertelsen, Lone and Andrew Murphy, 2010, “An Ethics of Everyday Affinities and Powers: Félix Guattari on Affect and the Refrain”in The Affect Theory Reader, (ed.) Melissa Greg and Gregory J. Seigworth, Duke University Press, pp.138 – 157.

Bishop, Claire, 2012, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, New York: Verso.

Gill, Rosalind and Andy Pratt, 2008, “In the Social Factory?

Immaterial Labour, Precariousness and Cultural Work,” Theory, Culture & Society December 2008 vol. 25 no. 7-8, 1-30.

McRobbie, Anne, 2010, “Reflections On Feminism, Immaterial

Labour And The Post-fordist Regime,

Nigel, Thrift, 2008, Non-representational theory: space, politics, affect, New York: Routlegde.

Rancière, Jacques, 1991, The ignorant schoolmaster: five lessons in intellectual emancipation,Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press.

Ana Hofman received her PhD in ethnomusicology from the Graduate School for Intercultural Studies at the University of Nova Gorica, Slovenia. She is associate researcher at the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research of the Slovenian Academy of Science and Arts in Ljubljana and a lecturer at the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Nova Gorica. She is currently a visiting fellow at the Centre of Southeast European Studies at the Unviersity of Graz.

Her research interests include music in socialist and post-socialist societies with an emphasis on former Yugoslavia; music and cultural memory, music and gender; and applied ethnomusicology. She has published numerous book chapters and articles, and in 2009 and 2010 she was a co-editor of the International Journal for the Euro-Mediterranean Studies. In 2011 she published the monograph Staging socialist femininity: Gender politics and folklore performances in Serbia (Balkan Studies Series, Brill Publishing), which was translated into Serbian in 2012.