From Ethnomusicology to Echo-Muse-Ecology:
Reading R. Murray Schafer in the Papua New Guinea
By Steven Feld
What role can an anthropological voice have in this
large mix we're calling acoustic ecology and soundscape studies?
How is this voice complementary to, yet distinct from, voices from
history, acoustics, performance, design, psychology, geography,
musicology, composition, architecture, philosophy, or communications?
One way to answer is with the simple observation that anthropologists
tend toward the Kantian view that all knowledge begins in experience.
We jump off that cliff to study how human experiential patterns
and practices construct the habits, systems of belief, knowledge,
and action we call culture. And we study it everywhere and anywhere
we can. Our ultimate concern is with people, with adequately and
evocatively representing their experiential worlds, their voices,
their humanity. To take up that concern the anthropological project
basically must ask, what could it possibly be like to be - to feel,
sense, imagine, act, become - another kind of person? A full answer,
of course, is an impossibility. We cannot become another. But the
challenge of getting close or at least closer, of glimpsing, hearing,
touching other realities, is thoroughly compelling to us. Another
way to say it is that what turns us on is human complexity and diversity,
and we celebrate and document it all, from beauty and hope to horror
and despair. In fact we tend to do this in far more detail and with
far more obsession than the general public cares to know about.
We justify what others perceive as our excess by claiming, simply,
that there is too much we don't know about the sources and varieties
of human difference. But deep down we hope that by writing and circulating
other peoples' histories, by giving their voices places to speak
and shout and sing from, we in some measure combat and counter the
longstanding arrogance of colonial and imperial authority, of history
written in one language, in one voice, as one narrative.
Let me now position myself a bit more in this story. In the intense
climate of race and war politics of the late 1960's I found myself
moving from being a musician to wanting to be an anthropologist.
I soon found out that there was a kind of hybrid field, an anthropology
of music; its practitioners called themselves ethnomusicologists.
I took up the study of this field of ethnomusicology in earnest
in graduate school, only to find, disappointedly, that a great deal
of it mimicked the study of western art musics, replacing western
history with a remote ahistorical exotic. Ethnomusicology often
seemed very much about doing to presumed "others" what
had already been done to a presumed "us". So, for example,
it replaced periods of western music history with areal regions
of geographically defined others. It presumed western music theory
could translate and definitively explain other musical materials
and concepts. It focused on reified categories and things, like
pieces, instruments, texts, and composers, and otherwise took music
as a universal given. It valued the same things elsewhere that it
valued in Europe: virtuosity, melodic and rhythmic complexity, sophistication.
And predictably, explorers in this field were after discovering
and preserving stunning new finds, like their musicological counterparts
were after discovering and preserving stunning old manuscripts.
Little of this was intellectually exciting to me, so I spent most
of my time training as a linguist figuring that the anthropological
study of languages and oral traditions was far less shadowed by
such big aesthetic and political agendas. When it came time to do
a dissertation fieldwork project on some aspect of language and
music, I abandoned the usual framework (e.g., "The Music of
the Bongo-Bongo: An Ethnomusicological Analysis of their Song Texts")
and rudely called my project by a deliberate counter term: an ethnography
of sound, or, an ethnography of sound as a symbol system. I wanted
to study ways sound and sounding link environment, language, and
musical experience and expression. Taking up the simple hypothesis
(one I'd heard years before, from my undergraduate teachers Colin
Turnbull and Edmund Carpenter) that rainforest environments might
be the places where humans developed to acute levels of acoustic
adaptation, I headed for the rainforests of south central Papua
New Guinea, about as remote and different a place as I could possibly
try to experience and know.
"As I learned about the symbolism of the weeping and singing
voice I was taught about their intimate connection to rainforest
In Papua New Guinea I lived through 1976-7 with the Kaluli people
of Bosavi, on the Great Papuan Plateau, working in collaboration
with another ethnographer, Edward L. Schieffelin (see his The Sorrow
of the Lonely and the Burning of the Dancers, 1976, St. Martin's
Press, for a study of Kaluli rituals and ceremonialism), and another
linguist, Bambi B. Schieffelin (see her The Give and Take of Everyday
Life: Language Socialization of Kaluli Children, 1990, Cambridge
University Press, for a study of how Kaluli children acquire language
and culture). My focus was on ritualized vocal expression, principally
Kaluli women's funerary sung weeping and Kaluli men's ceremonial
poetic songs that brought audience members to tears. As I learned
about the symbolism of the weeping and singing voice I was taught
about their intimate connection to rainforest birds. This is because
birds, for Kaluli as with most Melanesians, are spirits, and spirit
voices _from talk to cries to song_are reflected in bird sounds.
Ritual weeping and song recall and evoke the presence of spirits,
and are understood as expressions of sadness embodied in being a
bird. This sadness makes listeners cry like birds, completing a
symbolic and emotional circle.
In this and other ways I learned how the ecology of natural sounds
is central to a local musical ecology, and how this musical ecology
maps onto the rainforest environment. For songs and weeping not
only recall and announce spirits, their texts, sung in a poetry
called "bird sound words", sequentially name places and
co-occurring environmental features of vegetation, light and sound.
Songs become what Kaluli call a "path", namely a series
of place-names that link the cartography of the rainforest to the
movement of its past and present inhabitants. These song paths are
also linked to the spirit world of birds, whose flight patterns
weave through trails and water courses, connecting a spirit cosmology
above to local histories on the ground.
I analyzed these sorts of issues to write an ethnography of sound
(Sound and Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics and Song in Kaluli
Expression, 1982, University of Pennsylvania Press; expanded second
edition, l990). The book concerned the Kaluli world of birds, myth,
and cosmology and how they were united with poetry, song and lament.
My interpretation showed how Bosavi birds turn into Kaluli singers
and weepers, how Kaluli singers and weepers turn into Bosavi birds,
and how all of this is a local ecology of "voices in the forest".
It wasn't until the early 1980's, when most of this research and
writing was initially done, and I was teaching courses on sound
at the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania,
that I encountered R. Murray Schafer's The Tuning of the World (1977,
Knopf) and the publications of the World Soundscape Project. I found
these publications very exciting; they opened new windows into a
familiar world, one that could now be re-imagined from the standpoints
of acoustic ecology and soundscape studies. I took these publications
with me to the Bosavi rainforest during my field trips in the 1980's,
and re-reading R. Murray Schafer's suggestion that people "echo
the soundscape in language and music" I began to transform
myself from an ethnomusicologist to an echo-muse-ecologist.
"Ethno" always implies otherness, but "echo"
is about presence, about reverberant pasts in the present, presents
in the past. And I remembered: sound is memory, here as everywhere.
From there I began to explore how the Kaluli soundscape, from its
bird calls to song paths of place-names, is always about memory,
about absence and presence, about how in the forest sound reveals
what vision conceals. This is beautifully enunciated in the Kaluli
idea for "echo", the mimetic compound "gugu-gawgaw."
"Gu" is downward moving sound; by duplication "gugu"
marks the action as continuous. "Gaw" is outward moving
sound; "gawgaw" likewise marks continuity. So the auditorally
ambiguous melange of continuous downward and outward moving sound
is what is heard and instantly felt as "echo". In the
forest one easily confuses the height and depth of sound, particularly
in the absence of visual cues. In this place "echo" means
that upward sounds like outward. The phonesthesia (phonetic synaesthesia)
of Kaluli vowels trace movement this way, becoming one with what
they sound like in both everyday language and song poetry.
"Lift-up-over sounding", like "harmony", is
both a grand metaphor for natural sonic relations ... as well as
for social relations ...
The blur from music-ology to muse-ecology was equally obvious, for
the important thing in Bosavi wasn't "pieces" or "forms"
of music in isolation, but rather the constant interplay of inspiration,
imitation, and incorporation that linked the flow of natural and
human sound expressions. A way of hearing the world comes from interacting
with it, but it also has to do with appreciating it, imagining it
as one's very own. Linking forest birds and places with voices and
experiences was more a search for "patterns that connect",
Gregory Bateson's notion in Steps to an Ecology of Mind (1972, Ballentine),
than it was the "sciencing about music" my ethnomusicology
pro£ Alan Merriam advocated in his The Anthropology of Music
(1964, Northwestern University Press).
Exploring Kaluli echo-muse-ecology in the Bosavi rainforests lead
me to realize that what I was trying to understand all along was
that the language and music of nature are intimately connected with
the nature of language and music. Shifting from the realm of ritual
performances to that of everyday experience and expression I learned
that sounds are heard as time of day, season of year, vegetation
cycles, migratory patterns, forest heights and depths. Place resounds
as a fused human locus of space and time. Local acoustic ecology
can thus be considered a kind of aesthetic adaptation, a naturalization
of place, or, put differently, a pattern of ecological and aesthetic
The most recent extension of these concerns, developed in the field
research I've done in the 1990s, is what I call acoustemology (i.e.,
acoustic epistemology). These days I am exploring acoustic knowing
as a centrepiece of Kaluli experience; how sounding and the sensual,
bodily, experiencing of sound is a special kind of knowing, or put
differently, how sonic sensibility is basic to experiential truth
in the Bosavi forests. Sounds emerge from and are perceptually centred
in place, not to mention sung with, to, and about places. Just as
"life takes place" so does sound; thus more and more my
experiential accounts of the Kaluli sound world have become acoustic
studies of how senses make place and places make sense.
...the full body is always present in the "flow" of the
voice, just as the connections of land are always present in the
"flow" of water...
Two important keynotes of a Kaluli acoustemology, both richly hearable
on Voices of the Rainforest (CD/cassette, l99l, Rykodisc), my hour-long
soundscape of a day in the life of Bosavi and the Kaluli, are complex
local notions translatable only as "lift-up-over sounding",
and "flow." The first of these, "lift-up-over sounding"
is as potentially omnipresent in the experiences and aesthetics
of Kaluli as the notion of "harmony" is in the West. "Lift-up-oversounding",
like "harmony", is both a grand metaphor for natural sonic
relations, the ways tones combine together in time, as well as for
social relations, for people doing things together in concert. In
the Kaluli world "lift-up-over sounding" sounds are dense
and layered, blended, and forever thinning and thickening. One hears
no unison, only a constant figure to ground motion of densities,
decays and fades, of overlapping, alternating, and interlocking
sounds. These sounds, whether in the forest, in Kaluli music singing,
or in the overlap of the two, are "in-synchrony but out of
phase". By this I mean that they are always cohesive, yet always
seeming, as well, to be at different points of displacement from
a hypothetical unison. Neither a clear-cut polyphony nor heterophony,
"lift-up-over sounding" sounds define an acoustic space-time
where upward is outward. One sound stands out momentarily, then
just as quickly fades into a distance, overlapped or echoed by a
new or repeated emergence in the mosaic. This pattern of sounding
in the natural environment is the inspiration for many Kaluli vocal
and instrumental forms. Likewise it is the pattern of fluid but
tense egalitarian social life, where an anarchic synchrony of energy
and assertion take prominence over fixed categories, in a social
order without political or economic hierarchy.
One of the ever-present "lift-up-over sounding" sounds
of the Bosavi environment, layered as a ground to the remarkable
figures of avian life, is the hiss of water. Runoff from Mt. Bosavi,
an extinct volcano, crisscrosses the Bosavi lands, turning into
numerous rivers, creeks, falls, and streams. Walking means crossing
water, yet always hearing it before seeing it. Water carries in
and out of visual perceptual immediacy but always has dramatic,
though ever-changing, acoustic presence. This carrying power, moving
through and connecting lands, is water's "flow". But this
"flow" does not only exist in the way water connects what
Kaluli call the "thighs" (i.e., saddles) and "body"
(i.e., hills) of the land. Water is to land what the voice is to
the body. The voice connects the many parts of the body; by resounding
in the head and chest, the full body is always present in the "flow"
of the voice, just as the connections of land are always present
in the "flow" of water.
Water flow also animates much of Kaluli musical imagination, as
all waterway terms are also the names for the musical intervals,
the segments of song, the patterns of rhythm, and the contours of
melody. And composing songs is like getting a "waterfall in
your head"; the pool is the melody in motion and the fall the
text mixing into the melody to create song. Kaluli compose their
songs by creeks or waterfalls, singing with and to them. And the
texts of these songs are maps of waterways or trails, viewing them
from above as spirit birds might. Additionally, "flow"
is also the carrying power of poetic song, the way it stays in memory.
A waterway can be continually heard but visually appears, disappears,
and reappears when one walks through forest trails. This is its
"flow", its path of carrying. Likewise as one hears a
song, it disappears quickly from an experiential foreground and
reappears through time in memory, reverberating and lingering in
sonic traces and fragments, far past and beyond the moment of an
immediate experienced performance.
This is how Kaluli songs, like Bosavi waterways, "flow",
emerging in the density of a "lift-up-over sounding" soundscape
of rainforest acoustic ecology.
On Voices of the Rainforest you can hear many kinds of Kaluli "liftup-over
sounding", from birds waking a village, to women singing, whistling
and talking with their children as they work to scrape and pound
sago, to men whooping and singing as they clear a forest garden,
to a bamboo jews harp duet with cicada rhythms and bird calls, to
singing with a creek, to the dusk volleys of frogs and birds overlapped
by an evening rainstorm, to a quartet of in-sync and out of phase
drummers, and a duo of ceremonial singers overlapped by a man who
is moved to crying by their song, to the density of night winds,
mists, frogs, and insects.
The aesthetic apex of this "lift-up-over sounding" is
where it meets with the "flow" of poetic song, on a section
of Voices of the Rainforest called "Relaxing at the Creek.
" Here a woman named Ulahi sings three songs, in three different
song genres, all with and to the Wolu, a creek situated near her
village. Her voice develops a pulsing pattern that densely flows
with the sounds of the creek where she sits, and her songs develop
different place paths, including one that sings a long succession
of places connected to the creek she is singing in. On these selections
the performative flow of singing with water and the musicality of
singing like water connect deeply to the emplacing poetry of singing
about water. Evoking the flowing presence of creek paths, Ulahi's
songs, like the Wolu creek where she sang them, meander and flow
through Kaluli lives and memories, by linking together places and
suggesting that the flow of their names tell stories about events
and feedings. Ulabi once told me that every one of her songs (I've
recorded about 200 of them since the mid-1970's) was like a pool
on a creek. So every Kaluli song swirls, centres, circles in place,
then flows on to mingle and merge with places and voices elsewhere.
Singing about water, with water, and imagining song as water and
vocal flow_here the poetry of place meets the sensuality of soundscape
and the singing voice. This is where the "lift-up-over sounding"
of Kaluli song "flow" creates an acoustemology of embodied
The Soundscape Newsletter, Number 08, June,
1994. This article is a short abstract of his talk-slide-audio presentation
at The Tuning of the World Conference on Acoustic Ecology, held
at the Banff Centre for the Arts, Banff, Canada, in August 1993.
About the Author - Steven Feld is Professor of Anthropology
and Music, and Director of the Center for Studies in Folklore and
Ethnomusicology at the University of Texas at Austin, Texas 78712
USA (Tel. 512-471-0057, Fax 512-471-6535 [E-MAIL]
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