Sound Matters: The SEM Blog

The official blog by the Society for Ethnomusicology

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Gabriele de Seta – The no-venue underground: Sounding Hong Kong’s lack of performance spaces

It’s 10 October 2012. I’ve been living in Hong Kong for less than two months, and Dennis Wong is waiting for me to arrive at the performance venue and do my sound check. Fellow experimental musicians from Shanghai suggested Dennis as one of the local organizers with whom I should get in touch.

A few weeks before, Dennis asked me if I wanted to play a show at a newly-opened local venue called C.I.A. (Cultural Industries Association—the acronym is also a play on the covert and secret operations of the U.S. CIA). “Sure,” I said, “when and where?” Dennis gave me an address and asked me if I needed anything else besides a guitar amplifier. I didn’t.

Now I stand outside the Kwai Hing MTR station, which, according to Google Maps, is the closest station to the venue. As I carry my hollow-body guitar and a backpack full of effect pedals, I try to find my bearings via GPS. The air is still heavy and humid, although Hong Kong is cooler in the fall than during the summer, and there aren’t many useful reference points around the station: a convenience store, a small noodle restaurant, and an overpass leading to the entrance of a shopping mall. Behind me stands a dense cluster of residential towers and a public housing estate. In front of me I see a wall of industrial buildings, the overpass disappearing into a small crevice between two of them.


Google Street View of the industrial buildings on Wah Sing Street, where art gallery/performance venue C.I.A (Cultural Industries Association) was located. Source: Google Maps, June 2011.

I spend ten minutes circling around the block, following the directions provided by Google Maps, only to realize that there is no way of crossing the six lanes of Hing Fong Road. I memorize the address of C.I.A. and put my smartphone back in my pocket: Unit 7, 8th floor, Block B, Wah Tat Industrial Centre, 8-10 Wah Sing Street, Kwai Hing, Kowloon, Hong Kong. I head back to the station, walk through the overpass, an elevated courtyard, another overpass, down an escalator, and venture into an alleyway between two industrial buildings. I end up in a maze of streets without shops, cars, or pedestrians; only container trucks come in and out of garage doors and loading ramps. Once I find the Wah Tat Industrial Centre, I still have to figure out how to reach Block B and how to get to the eighth floor. When I reach the elevator, the security guard instructs me: “that is the cargo elevator. People go in that other one.” The only signal that helps me find C.I.A.’s metal door is the bass frequencies reverberating in the damp corridors. I slide a heavy metal door open and I’m greeted by Dennis and the other musicians doing their sound checks and preparing for the show in a large whitewashed room with no windows.

de-seta-image-2A few weeks later, my Shanghainese friend Huang Lei tells me he’s been invited to perform in Hong Kong and asks me if I can help him organize another show. I get in touch with Dennis, who kindly agrees to set up a show for Huang Lei in his “NOISE to SIGNAL” series. We coordinate the details of the event through Facebook messages and I help him designing a flyer.

This time the venue, Strategic Sounds, is located on the 10th floor of the High Win Factory Building in Kwun Tong District, an industrial area on the other side of the Kowloon peninsula. Huang Lei, Dennis, and I end up playing an improvised set together, a twenty-minute mess of prepared guitar, crackling electronics, and distorted feedback echoing down the grimy ventilation shaft right outside the venue.

Throughout the following year, I was generously invited to play a few more shows at Strategic Sounds and C.I.A., meeting several of the experimental musicians active in the city at the time. Later, both venues closed down under the pressure of increasing rents and the challenges of sustaining an independent performance space in Hong Kong, a difficult enterprise even when eased by the relatively cheaper rents of vacant units in industrial buildings.

The author improvising with Shanghai-based musician Huang Lei (as 大小) and local organizer Dennis Wong (as Sin:ned) at Strategic Sounds, Hong Kong, November 2012. Video by Rolf.

Of the eight venues where I had the pleasure to play experimental music during my three years in Hong Kong, seven were located in industrial buildings. Besides C.I.A. and Strategic Sounds, they ranged from Dimension+, a small makerspace attached to an artist studio, to Hidden Agenda, a long-standing live-music house well-known among local independent music audiences. During these years, I also enjoyed live performances by some of my favorite musicians and bands, such as Makoto Kawabata, Hijokaidan, and Laibach, which played in shows organized by the same people I hung out with in former factory premises.

The two factors that pushed Hong Kong’s experimental musicians to find spaces in the post-industrial peripheries of the city were the infamously high cost of Hong Kong’s real estate market and the lack of suitable and welcoming performance venues in more central areas. The pubs and clubs hosting live music in central Kowloon and Hong Kong Island predominantly featured DJs and cover bands that catered to the tastes of the commercial audiences that they rely on for financial stability. Given the scarcity of spaces like garages, squats, cellars, and warehouses, experimental musicians turned to the industrial buildings hollowed out by the recent delocalization of factories. Other local artists and creative enterprises had also started taking advantage of these empty spaces.


“Performance area” signage on a mezzanine of the A.C.O. stairwell delimiting KWC’s live set during Sound-On-Site: Space Oddity #1: From Below show, January 2015.

The first Sound-On-Site show organized by booking agency Twenty Alpha and record label Re-Records at A.C.O. (Art & Culture Outreach)—performed at the end of January 2015 and aptly titled “From Below”—poignantly exemplifies  the lack of performance spaces for the local underground and experimental music scenes in Hong Kong. Rather than playing in the small bookstore located on the 14th floor of the Foo Tak Building, the three performing musicians decided to set up their equipment on different landings of the stairwell: laptops on small stools, with amplifiers turned on their side to fit the constraining spaces, cables dangling between floors, and performance areas marked off by improvised signage. Puzzled audiences moved up and down the stairwell, trying to figure out how to reach the floor from which the sounds were coming, or sat on the concrete steps listening to droning frequencies reverberating through the building, which itself became an essential architectural component of musicking. “This reminds me of Beijing,” commented a friend visiting Hong Kong from Mainland China, “but where in Beijing musicians are taking back hutong alleyways and old housing, here it’s all about industrial infrastructure.”

Jonathan Solomon, Ciara Wong, and Adam Frampton have defined Hong Kong as a “city without ground,” lacking the concept of “ground” both physically and culturally. It is somehow ironically appropriate that in this city without ground, underground musicians find themselves relegated to a precarious “overground” actively created out of fleeting spaces strewn across the upper floors of post-industrial peripheries. These precarious venues appear and disappear following the inexorable inflation of property prices, leaving local show organizers to work in the present tense with whatever space is available at the moment.

Predominantly sustained by personal passions and practices cultivated in spare time carved out of full-time non-musical careers, Hong Kong’s experimental music scene finds its most reliable spaces on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other social media platforms, where shows are organized, promoted, documented, and inscribed in the event geography of the city. Riffing on a locution coined by Rob Hayler, the British musician Jon Marshall describes the experimental music scene of Western Russia as a “no-audience underground,” a fluid social milieu in which performers also double as organizers, promoters, critics, and audiences. The situation in Hong Kong isn’t very different. Yet, despite the recurring lamentations of local musicians and organizers, diminutive audiences are not the biggest issue faced by the community. The precariousness and ephemerality of performance spaces determines the elastic and resilient fabric of the local experimental music scene, which could accurately be called a “no-venue underground.”


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.

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Thomas W. Ross – Amir Khan and the South. II


Grape, banana, and coconut

Because the goddess Sarasvatī holds both the book and the vīṇā, we are encouraged to summon both mind and heart in the pursuit of any learning.

This apparent contradiction has guises such as left brain/right brain, Apollo/Dionysus, and many more. It’s handy for sketches of the familiar: Herbie Hancock/Wynton Kelly, Béla Bartók/Aaron Copland, or Steely Dan/Justin Bieber.

But Indians seem to acknowledge a middle ground between these extremes: the triumvirate of South Indian composers, Tyāgarāja (1767–1847), Śyāma Śāstri (1762–1827), and Muttusvāmi Dīkṣitar (1775–1835), are likened to the grape, banana, and coconut. The first you pop in your mouth immediately. The second has to be peeled. And the third has a shell protecting its alabaster treasure.

The three are called vagayakar, ill-translated as composer: the term implies an equal mastery of book and vīṇā, of words and music. Dīkṣitar, for one, came from an illustrious line of musician-scholars whose formidable pieces betray a poet’s knowledge of Sanskrit.


Viswa told me that he first learned Dīkṣitar’s highbrow, gnarly, big-design coconut pieces, to the neglect of the other two composer-saints. Such august fare earned his early performances the gossip of being one-sided, so he added Tyāgarāja (the ultimate bhakti popularizer) and Śyāma Śāstri (a middle-ground) pieces as an appeasement. Same with swara kalpana, improvised solfege: they joined his concerts as a nod to mainstream Karnatak orthodoxy.

Dīkṣitar’s semi-legendary life has striking parallels to the eclectic and somber Amir Khan’s. The vīṇā -playing devotee of Shiva visited tirthsthans (pilgrimage sites) all over India, including a stint in Banaras. His interaction with the glacial-tempoed dhrupad singers and bīnkars of that music-drenched town (when indeed the Hindustani and the Karnatak weren’t so far apart as today) seem to me likely to have had a profound effect on his compositions.

The Word and the Lute, the Sword and the Flute. Amir Khan was an alert and thoughtful gatherer of influences that he came to call the Indore gharānā or school. A common cultural memory of Mughal/Rajput, worldly and ascetic, resonated between the disparate worlds of a Muslim animus of khayālthe North and a Hindu anima of the South. Khansahab admittedly could be downright ponderous in the slowest of his Jhumra (14-beats). I’m not the first to nod off with him occasionally. But his rāgas were leavened later in a performance by astonishing flights of tān melismas, even while retaining their bhāva or particular flavor.

The Balasaraswati family style also championed the leisurely and architectonic together with the sensual and the pyrotechnic, both by their renderings of the Dīkṣitar repertoire and in the sultry seriousness of the padams with which Bala ended her concerts. This musician’s musician’s milieu was Amir Khan’s during his visits, where the admiration went both ways. It’s a good guess that the impossibly slow tempi of his opening khayāls were encouraged, if not by direct influence, by a common taste for gravity.

In the Balasaraswati style, here’s Muktamma’s version of Dīkṣitar’s devastatingly gorgeous “Vīṇā pustaka dhāriṇī” (we were taught it in Jhampa tāla, a slow 10 beats, 7 + 3). Like Ahīr Bhairav in the North, the rāga Vegavahini (also called Chakravakam) is 1 ♭2 3 4 5 6 ♭7.

Borrowed and stolen

Amateurs borrow, professionals steal. (Variously attributed)

Two Dīkṣitar pieces have recently been given amateur or professional treatments by the North, I’m thinking: “Vātāpi Ganapatim” and Anandamritavarshini. From the latter, I hope to shed light on a mystery rāga by Amir Khan, sometimes called Amirkhani.

I was taught “Vātāpi,” the closest to a potboiler that Dīkṣitar ever wrote, by S. Ramanathan at Wesleyan in 1963. The kṛiti, in the sunny rāga Hamsadhvani, is the icing on a serious composerly cake, albeit well-wrought:

Later I learned its Northern offshoot in the same rāga, starting with the words “Lāgī lagana”. The little khayāl appropriates, as it were, the first two lines of a famous poem (and no more) without acknowledging it’s by someone called Robert Frost. This in turn has recently spawned its own grotesquerie in an army of high school-level sitārists fronted by dark-skinned ringers from the South:

Amir Khan’s quick khayāls in Hamsadhvani retain some of the rāga’s lightheartedness. Its smile is wider than a major scale. In this rendition, he keeps Lagi lagana’s basic melody but abandons the brief Brjbhāshā text, transforming Dīkṣitar’s sagati variations into a brisk drum-syllable tarānā:

But what of this mystery rāga? One of the last recordings Khansahab made, at a Calcutta gathering, featured an unknown rāga that he treated with his characteristic introspection. It combines the optimism of the Kalyāṇ family with a lowered 7th degree: 1 3 #4 5 ♭7. Any effort so far to parse it points South, either as an arcane offshoot of the Vāchaspati family or, I’m guessing, as an ingenious twist on the rāga to Dīkṣitar’s most famous and accessible tune, “Ānandāmritavarshinī.” It differs from the mystery rāga only in its 7th degree, and given the preference in Bala’s household for Dīkṣitar’s music, I think Khansahab lowered the 7th degree of Āmritavarshinī for what’s now called Amīrkhānī:

Although we must be thankful for all of Khansahab’s contributions, this last caps a career which included an openness to anything musical transpiring in the Madras home of his hosts, the Balasaraswati family.

Thomas W. Ross

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Thomas W. Ross – Amir Khan and the South. I


In The sword and the flute, an exquisite documentary on Indian culture told entirely with miniature paintings, the court and the temple offer clashing views of human experience. The dominance of the 16th-century Muslim Mughal emperor, Akbar, adopts a symbiosis with the Hindu Rajputs that is evident in Indian music even today. The lighter-skinned potentate stands respectfully while hearing the great Tansen sing songs that depict the cowherd girls sporting with a dark, flute-wielding god, Krishna himself. Thus the ascetic meets the worldly in a rich mulligatawny brew.


That courtly Northern master, Amir Khan, was in a similar stance to the Southern Balasaraswati family style. It was mutual admiration, and he always stayed with Bala when he had a concert in Madras. One could hazard that two minorities, the Muslim and the devadāsī temple-dancer caste, were equally challenged to excel. Khansahab’s father didn’t let him perform in public until he was thirty; Bala’s and Viswa’s performances, stellar though they might have been, were met only with fault-finding from their mother Jayammal.

The dynamic of North/South borrowing today retains the Mughal/Rajput imbalance: There are numerous examples of Karnatak musicians doing credible and even excellent renditions in Hindustani style, but the reverse is not true.

Amir Khan, however, was an alert witness to the depth in the Balasaraswati style, where some of the most inventive and profound music could happen in friendly competition between Bala and Viswa while sitting around preparing the evening meal. Because Bala engaged even me in lick-trading at her house, it’s hard to imagine musical exchanges not arising with some frequency, on an Olympian level, between herself, Viswa, and Khansahab during his stays.

And yet the same Karnatak rāga Chārukeshī, from Amir Khan and, say, M.S. Subbulakshmi, reflects these contrasting world-views.


From the get-go Amir Khan diverged. He learned sāraṅgī from his father before settling on singing. He introduced a super-slow version of tālas for the dhrupad-like development of his slow khayāls. And he appropriated rāgas and rhythmic concepts from Karnatak music. I think these came especially from the family of Balasaraswati.

Without a gecko on the wall, we can only guess at the specific nature of Amir Khan’s musical exchanges with Bala and her family when he stayed with them in Madras. He surely kept his own twice-daily riyāz practice, as he did with me in my Calcutta flat. I remember the house scene in Madras as rāga- and tāla-soaked, continually.

Here I’m thinking about Ranganathan, Bala’s brother and one of my first Indian teachers at Wesleyan. In addition to the special skills needed to accompany dance, like any good mṛdaṅgam player Ranga never stopped figuring out pieces, at or away from the instrument. In his final days, bed-ridden, he seemed to do nothing but. At odd hours, he’d call up old students like me:


T. Ranganathan

Tom. This one’s in khaṇḍa [5 beats]. Do you have a pencil and paper? Any number fits in this piece. They won’t get it because it’s anti-dramatic. [By “they” he meant the general Indian audience.]

Two people are talking. At each exchange, the first person (A) keeps his speed, while the second (B) talks slower. So it’s

A: x.
B: x.
A: x.
B: 2x. [Twice as slow]
A: x.
B: 4x. [Four times as slow]

This gives you 10 exes, so everything fits in five beats, regardless of the value of x. So for the tisra (3) version of this ingenious little piece (spoken simply as ta ki ta), you’d have:

A: (3) ta ki ta
B: (3) ta ki ta
A: (3) ta ki ta
B: (6) ta – ki – ta –
A: (3) ta ki ta
B: (12) ta – – – ki – – – ta – – –

which gives 30, a multiple of 5. Try it with 4, 7, 9 . . . they all work!

Wow. I’m not a math person, but this is elegance itself. It’s really a paradigm for making more pieces, itself a model modularity.

Although Bala refrained from improvised swaras in performance (“too unladylike”!), the entire family were rhythm whizzes, and it’s very likely that such pieces as Ranga’s were aired while Amir Khan was a guest. In a rare interview, Khansahab speaks of his rhythmic approach in the dhrut (quick) sections of his music. Without acknowledging the devadāsī family specifically, he rattles off the classic Karnatak jātīs (in the traditional order!): chatusra, tisra, misra, khaṇḍa, and sankīrna, 4, 3, 7, 5, and 9.

Amir Khan was of course also a master of North Indian rhythmic approaches. There was, for instance, a legendary exchange of sophisticated pieces one evening between him and the great tablist Ahmedjan Thirakwa. But he obviously benefited from his stays with perhaps the most eminent music and dance family of the South.

Thomas W. Ross