in Sonic ethnography

It is a pleasure to contribute a few words to close this book, and for multiple reasons.

First, the multi-mediated conversations of Lorenzo Ferrarini and Nicola Scaldaferri have long struck me as among the most interesting, progressive and experimental of border-crossing dialogues between anthropology and ethnomusicology. Specifically, they have struck me as going far beyond familiar polemics and prescriptions for ‘multimodal’ research and publication, by actually putting into expansive collaboration two different kinds of scholar-artists, one a theoretically sophisticated ethnographer who is also artistically accomplished as a photographer and filmmaker; the other, a theoretically sophisticated ethnomusicologist who is also artistically accomplished as a musical performer.

A second reason is that this kind of scholar-artist collaboration doubly extends the multiple, collective and emergent forms of knowledge production of the newest trends in both sonic and visual ethnography. The first of these extensions is in the interplay of materials and media, that is, the opportunities offered to an open-minded public willing to take the time to juxtapose listening, viewing and reading experiences and grapple with both the depth and comprehensiveness afforded, as well as newly critical questions raised about ethnographic authority and representation. The second of these extensions is a further dialogue on the nature of media and mediation, particularly surrounding sound and image technologies and how they operate in histories of memory circulation. In effect, this positions the ethnography of Basilicata as the production of multilayered archives whose mediated materials must be considered relationally, from when old technologies and techniques were new, to how new technologies and techniques become their mirror.

The third reason is, bluntly, self-interest; I have been in regular contact and conversation with the authors for fifteen years, and count our many conferences, dialogues and Basilicata recording collaborations among the most stimulating of my forty-five years of experimental sonic, visual and textual inter-media collaborations in Papua New Guinea, Europe, Japan and West Africa.

That leads me to say that one of the most productive dimensions of the collaborations reported here is their inter-medialities. For example, there are many scholarly examples of rich sonic ethnography, work that goes considerably deeper than musical ethnography in the classic practice of ethnomusicology. But here we experience something more than just a shift in focus from song repertoires to sonic relations, something more than an inquiry into the ‘power of sound to order and structure space’. Starting anew from both the ordinary and special practices of listening, a sonic ethnography can invite a rethinking of strategies for making images both of performers/performance and multiple proximal and distal forms of participation. With listening central to the construction of aural ethnographic inquiry, images can explore the sensorium of resonances of sonic ambience, both in the experience of the photographer and the experience of the photographed. This is rather modestly presented, in the introduction, as an ‘ecological’ approach to sound/ing as a ‘capacity to enact relationships’. But it strikes me as something considerably more radical in potential: the possibility to imagine that one can practise a listening through the image or, conversely, imagine an imaging with the sound recorder. In other words, this is not just thinking and working through the multiple media of text, sound and image, but rather working cumulatively at their conjunctions, disjunctions, overlaps and interplays. What is at stake is a larger imagination of collusions and collisions of media narrativity. This strikes me as a particularly rich intervention by the authors, especially given the depth and range of earlier representations of Basilicata in all media, following the legacy of celebrated scholars Ernesto De Martino and Diego Carpitella.

Another highly productive dimension of this collaboration is the distinctive voicings of reflexivity that it puts into juxtaposition. Chapters 6 and 7 are particularly potent in this regard, no matter where or when you read them in the larger process of engaging the sounds, images and text. Take the ‘shifting positionality’ in Nicola Scaldaferri’s contextualisation of being both a researcher and a research subject, that is, a musical performer in the Basilicata events whose forms and processes he recounts here. This goes considerably beyond still commonplace but evermore simplistic differentiations of ‘outsider’ and ‘insider’ knowledges. In its place, it develops a nuanced sense of how knowing in sound involves a multiplicity of ‘outsides’ and ‘insides’ in shifting refraction. Likewise, take the theoretical contextualisation and practical examples of multiple strategies in Lorenzo Ferrarini’s photography. Again, we move considerably beyond still commonplace but evermore simplistic differentiations of ‘research’ and ‘art’ intentions to realise how art practice can be employed to advance theoretical agendas as much as those agendas can translate into new art practice.

Finally, a recommendation. Engaging a project like this one typically proceeds from reading to viewing, and then to listening. Do try it the other way around: listening first, and then either sequentially or simultaneously viewing, and then reading. Perhaps you’ll experience a similar sensation to the one that struck me: a sense that no media controls primal authority either when it comes to memorability or to explanation. Indeed, the strength of inter-mediality is less in distinction through the blur, as hinted in Clifford Geertz’s memorable quip: ‘art and the equipment to grasp it are made in the same shop’, something equally true about the sonic worlds of Basilicata and the rich contribution this work makes to their apprehension.

Steven Feld

Sonic ethnography

Identity, heritage and creative research practice in Basilicata, southern Italy


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