Archival silences

Show notes

The new season of Sonic Interventions engages with Asian (diasporic) perspectives and opens with a conversation of Prof. Dr. Doris Kolesch, Dr. Layla Zami, and Emma Lo with artist-scholar Dr. meLê yamomo. In this first episode, they discuss sonic relationalities and archival practices. Learn more about his work, such as 'Echoing Europe’, the Decolonial Frequencies Festival, and DeCoSEAS.

meLê yamomo

In conversation with

meLê yamomo

meLê yamomo is an Assistant Professor of New Dramaturgies, Media Cultures, Artistic Research, and Decoloniality and author of Sounding Modernities: Theatre and Music in Manila and the Asia Pacific, 1869-1946 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). He is the co-project leader and principal investigator of the European Joint Programming Initiative Cultural Heritage (JPICH) project Decolonizing Southeast Asian Archives (DeCoSEAS), and laureate of the »Veni Innovation Grant« (2017-2022) funded by the Dutch Research Organization (NWO) for the project »Sonic Entanglements: Listening to Modernities in Southeast Asian Sound Recordings« (2017-2022). meLê is the winner of the Open Ear Award, the most prestigious composer’s prize in the Netherlands, and one of the 2020 KNAW Early Career Awardee by the Netherlands Royal Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is also currently a member of the Amsterdam Young Academy. meLê is also resident artist at Theater Ballhaus Naunynstrasse where his creations Echoing Europe, sonus, and Forces of Overtones are on repertoire. meLê also curates the Decolonial Frequences Festival and hosts the Sonic Entanglements podcast. In his works as artist-scholar, meLê engages the topics of sonic migrations, queer aesthetics, and post/de-colonial acoustemologies.

Decolonial Frequencies Festival
Echoing Europe
Sounding Modernities

Recording of the Philippine Constabulary band, 1910 (USCB Cylinder Audio Archive)
Wax cylinder recording of Oggayam sung by Perfecto Balagani, recorded by Jeno von Takacs in Kalingga, Philippines 1934 (Berliner Phonogrammarchiv)
Sri Margana listening and singing along with Raden Mas Jodjana (Berliner Lautarchiv)

Cover, Ballhaus Naunynstrasse and Zé de Paiva
Portrait, meLê yamomo

Podcast Info
Dr. Layla Zami, Postdoctoral Researcher in Performance Studies
Emma Lo, PhD researcher in Theater Studies
Freie Universität Berlin, Collaborative Research Center Intervening Arts
(SFB 1512 Intervenierende Künste, TP B05)
Funded by
German Research Society (DFG)
In Cooperation with
FU Berlin, Institut für Theaterwissenschaft
Eufoniker Audioproduktion

Show transcript

Layla Zami: Hello and welcome to our Sonic Interventions podcast produced here at the Collaborative Research Center, Intervening Arts. My name is Dr. Layla Zami and I am a postdoctoral researcher and interdisciplinary artist here at the Research Center where I work in Project B05 focusing on Sonic Interventions.

Layla Zami: We hope you enjoyed listening to season one, which was presenting mainly African American voices from artists and scholars based in New York and Chicago. In this season, we will be in conversation with artists and scholars from the Asian continent and the Asian diaspora. I am handing over the podcast production actually for season two to my colleague, Emma Lo, who is a doctoral researcher here at our center.

Layla Zami: Emma will interview artists in Berlin, Germany, and Yogyakarta, Indonesia. And we are excited to hear their thoughts on sound, listening, and intervention. Today, our conversation features Professor Dr. meLê yamomo, a wonderful researcher, theater maker, curator, and composer, living between Amsterdam and Berlin, who is an Assistant Professor of Theater and Performance Studies at the University of Amsterdam.

Layla Zami: He will be in conversation with Professor Dr. Doris Kolesch, who is the head of the Performance Studies Department at Freie Universität in Berlin, as well as with my colleague Emma Lo, whom I just mentioned, and myself. So, welcome, meLê, it is a pleasure to have you here, and I would like to start by asking you to please introduce yourself.

meLê yamomo: Thank you very much for your very kind invitation to have me here in your program, Layla. And Emma, who is also here by my side, and Doris on the other side of the table. I am meLê yamomo. I am, as Layla mentioned, an assistant professor of Sound Studies, Performance Studies, Media Studies, and decoloniality at the University of Amsterdam.

meLê yamomo: I wear several hats as a scholar, as an artist, as a curator. As a scholar, I research about sound and sound archives. And particularly at the moment, I am working on projects that are interested in restituting some of the colonial archives, sound colonial archives that are stored in archives here in Europe.

meLê yamomo: I run this through the projects, Sonic Entanglements and Decolonizing Southeast Asian Sound Archives. One project is funded by the European Research Council and the other one is with the Dutch Research Council. As an artist, I produce – I am a theater maker and a composer where I work a lot with sound and thinking about the decolonial possibilities of listening, of sound making, and creating community through sound making.

meLê yamomo: And I am also curator of the festival Decolonial Frequencies. Produced at Ballhaus Naunynstrasse, where I work with different artists of queer background, artists of color, where we think about possibilities of sonic utopia beyond the Eurological aesthetics of music and sonic organizations.

LZ: Thank you. So I would like to ask you a first question before I'm handing over to my colleagues.

LZ: I had the pleasure to witness your piece Echoing Europe last year at the Ballhaus Naunynstrasse in the Decolonial Frequencies Festival, which you are curating. And I remember the beginning, we were asked to wait, basically as people in the audience, we were made to wait and the beginning was very much about silence, also.

LZ: And it had me reflect and think about temporality, basically. I have been wondering if it was a strategy in that piece to kind of challenge maybe how a conventional piece might start in the theater. And it was interesting to witness how the audience was getting a little bit uncomfortable with the silence and then disrupting that silence.

LZ: And then you have the announcement that the museum's director is not available. And that you will be doing the show. So I was just wondering if you would want to expand a little bit on that.

MY: Silence is a central part of my research and my artistic practice. And Echoing Europe allowed me to reflect and work on my own questions of silencing – silence and silencing, particularly in the context of archives. And for that matter, really how our theater and music institutions operate, like what voices are silenced on the one hand, but also how do we deal with silences, silences in the archive, silences in a performance. Because on the one hand, to think about sound studies, to think about sound culture. Most of the time we think about the sound production, but less about the moment when sound is not being produced, right?

MY: But at the same time, I think we also have to think about the notions of how, who are allowed to speak? Which bodies are allowed to speak? And therefore, in doing so, which bodies are not allowed to speak?

MY: (Music)

MY: In this performance I was already reflecting a lot about how I would like to start the piece. And it was a very conscious decision to start with 18 minutes of silence. There is no script in this piece, but rather a score. And in the score, there is written 18 minutes of silence. So the entire house actually has programmed the lights and the sound to not do anything for 18 minutes.

MY: There are two things with this, from a very personal perspective, point of view, when I was working on this for myself, I was reflecting on how one, archives are silent, because these sounds – to me, sound archives are cemeteries – these sounds that we collect have been removed from the communities, from the bodies to which they are supposed to be communicating with.

MY: And therefore, without these bodies, they just become silent objects. But on the other hand, I was also reflecting on how, in this performance, I situate my body next to these materials, to these archival materials that I have encountered, materials that come from my own culture, but are sitting in archives here in Europe.

MY: And I was thinking about how, in my journey, in researching about them, how specific bodies, including my own body, is not even allowed to speak about these materials. So, I think at the center of this performance, I was trying to also involve the audience to think about, in this silence, what voices do you hear?

MY: Whose voices do you hear is speaking about these materials? Despite my Brown body from Southeast Asia next to the Southeast Asian recordings. It is perhaps a German musicologist voice who's speaking in your head. So by allowing silences, we hear something anyway. That our bodies will produce voices in our heads.

MY: So that's, in a way, part of the dramaturgy that I am building. But you are right, I think what is fascinating is that at the end of each performance, there would always be somebody in the house. Including the Intendant Wagner Carvalho, who would every now and then come to me and do an ethnography of what he would have encountered in this 18 minutes of silence.

MY: And some of them would include some students, often white boys, who would do starting clicking their tongues (clicks with his tongue), or they would use their palms to hit maybe their bodies (exemplifies), or hit their cheeks (hits his cheeks) in an attempt to fill up the silence. And then I would also speak, for example, with friends who are women friends or friends of color, particularly women of color friends, who I would talk about this later on and they would say that that is interesting because I see this as I a particular person's discomfort with the silence, but I do not feel that because I am always put in a position of silence anyway.

MY: And here it becomes almost a laboratory in which each body's relationship to silence is allowed to play out.

LZ: Thank you. That was very, very interesting to hear from your perspective. Yeah, thinking about silence as an intervening force is actually one of the key questions within a research project. So I would like to hand over the mic to Professor Kolesch, and I'm sure that she has maybe questions for you on that, related to that.

Doris Kolesch: Thank you very much, meLê and Layla. I would like to continue with the silence and reflecting on the silence because when we think about intervention and acts of intervening – and Layla mentioned that our project is called Sonic Intervention, so we are interested in the dimension of intervention by voices, by sound performances, by music and acoustic things –

Doris Kolesch: so, when we think about intervention, it comes to our mind “visual image”, something “spectacular”, something “theatrical”. But I'm also interested in the kind of not so spectacular, the subtle forms of intervention. And my intuition is that voice and sound and music might have of a potential of differently intervening.

Doris Kolesch: So could you elaborate a little bit on silence or quietness as forms of intervention for you as a composer and a musician? And in what could these silences intervene?

MY: Um, when we think about sound as a sensorial experience, it operates differently as opposed to, say, the visual, wherein when we are looking, we are always quite separate from the things that we are perceiving, and I think this is part of these – not just an epistemology, but from this epistemic understanding, there's even a hierarchy that has been constructed since the medieval ages. We could even trace this back to Plato and Aristotle's understanding of the hierarchies of the senses, in which usually it is the visual that is usually at the top.

MY: An entire history and epistemology of knowledge making in Europe is, has been based with the eyes at the top of this hierarchy with the assumption that visuality is an objective sense, that we could make an observation and you could make a conclusion simply by looking in a distantiated way, that we imagine the objectivities, that is, that there's this distance. Because as soon as we listen, as there is already a relationship being built, that when we call, when we speak, we are addressing another body. And, as many sound scholars have already argued, um, listening is touching from a distance. Sound waves pass through and that, if I say, and I call you Doris, there is immediately a relationship that is being built, that I am touching you from a distance.

MY: And this, I think, interferes. And therefore maybe intervening as a term that you're trying to say with these objective project, this objectification of the project of European epistemologies. So I think sound in itself is already an intervention into the knowledge making, but also the knowledge production and what it entails to produce such a knowledge that is very, as you said, ocular centric, that it requires the eyes and that it requires the technologies of the eyes, including reading, for example, which requires the ability to absorb knowledge only through the eyes.

MY: But there is also the aspect of silence, which you mentioned, and I think there is an important aspect to silence as an intervention. And there are many things, but I think one thing that I would point out specifically today is how silence could be a moment of holding space, right? Silence could be used as a weapon, which means the silencing of others.

MY: But if we think of silence, sound, unlike the visual, where you could put many things on a screen or a wall or a canvas, all you need to do is to look, you have a space through which you could see different elements that are occupying certain space. But with sound, sound is a temporal phenomenon that if you put too many sounds all at the same time, you might not hear one voice that is covered by yet another voice we need.

MY: So silencing is also a temporal moment when you do not sound something. So that would allow another voice, um, to emerge. And so I go back now to this proposal that. Silence, despite the imperial notion, for example, that it could be a weapon of the silencing of a certain body, but it could also be used as an intervention when you hold space that for us, for example, who have privileges, who are actually, who could be here and speak about certain topics, that maybe the act of not speaking is an intervention so that other voices could emerge.

DZ: You already sketched the differences, or some differences, between seeing and listening. And I wanted to unfold another important aspect that I hear in your scholarly work as well as in your artistic work, that it is not enough to concentrate on the phenomenology of sounds. It's not enough to concentrate on hearing and listening, because hearing and listening is always imbricated in social contexts, in hierarchies, in epistemologies, in social norms.

DZ: So, my question would be, how are you trying – as a scholar and as an artist – to address or maybe even undo and unlearn these acoustic racial colonial epistemologies that are, that also come with sounds, with music, with voices.

MY: I will respond to this Doris with a short explanation of theoretical framework that I proposed in my book “Sounding Modernities” which you already mentioned earlier.

MY: I proposed the concept of the sonus, and for our listeners, um, I will give a very short, in a nutshell, version of this concept. I argue that when a body hears a sound, there's a relationship that emerges, which I call the sonus. So a sonus is the relationship of a hearing body towards a specific sound. I thought about this theoretical framework because in my research, I was thinking about how, as you said, like there are certain disciplines, certain knowledge systems, including Theater studies, for example, musicology – where there, I call these disciplines imperialistic in a way that they have an empire of knowledge production that they are intended to produce, which means that oftentimes the sonus, so not only the sound, not only are, not only are these disciplines there to collect or to define what should be the canons of which sounds, um, systems of which sound culture, what sound products should be included in the canon.

MY: It is also sometimes a discipline that insists on how bodies should relate to the sound. So what sonus should we be taking from them? And to me, here lies epistemic violences that I have experienced myself. Growing up in the Philippines, a former context of colony and having to attend conserva– the conservatory of music and art school where even in the Philippines, we have to listen to Ravel, we have to listen to, um, Mozart, to Wagner, and that, um, my Brown queer body is trained to only understand or listen or to accept a particular sonus of these canon and that um, I might be marginalized or I might feel almost dehumanized sometime if I do not have that sonus.

MY: And to me, my starting point in my research is to define how the sound production, and how it relates to our body as a starting point. By creating this framework, I have now been reflecting, for example, on historically and how this transpires. I will tell one short story of how I've used this in my book.

MY: Particularly when we think about how random the sonus is, that it is also intertwined with history and with time, that in the 19th century, or actually, you know, in between the 16th century during period of colonization, and I think it is the same until now, and in the case of the Philippines, oftentimes, the soldiers who are representing the empire are also the colonized subjects.

MY: So the military in the Philippines, for example, the locals at that time were called Indios because they were the Spanish Indians. So the military are also Indios. They will be taught to play specific repertoire of music, oftentimes waltzes, marches, also opera music, which are European music. And during the battles – we probably don't know that now – but in the 19th century, in the middle of the battle, you would actually hear the military band playing music.

MY: (Music)

MY: In the 19th century, the Spanish colonized Filipino bands would go into battles against the local Muslims in the Philippines. They would be playing Verdi, for example. They would also play, they might even play Strauss in the middle of the battlefield, but at some point the desire to decolonize, the desire to create their own nation emerged in around sometime in 1896.

MY: And so, so when this group of Indios, this group of the emergent Philippine nation thought about this, they've decided that on a specific day, on a specific time, they will rip off their registration form, which are called cedula, the registration form to the government, the Spanish government, to declare that they are not anymore Spanish subjects.

MY: Many of these people who did this were also military men. And so, in this particular moment, when they declared their independence, two groups of military started fighting each other. Both have the same Brown bodies. They're wearing the same uniform, they were actually shooting each other with the same weapon, and they were playing the same exact repertoire.

MY: But, with just a split of a second, when the idea to become a nation emerged, was decided upon, these two same bodies and repertoire suddenly represented two different things. One is still performing the empire of Spain, and the other group is now performing the imagination through sound of a Philippine nation.

MY: And I will do a very quick flash forward here that two years later, the Americans actually took over. In a way the Philippines became – when the Spanish lost the American Spanish war, they had to give up three of their territories, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Philippines – so, by default, the Philippines became an American colony, and Americans don't know what to do with us.

MY: And so, the Philippine Republic stayed for a while, performing again the same repertoire representing the Philippines, but then the Americans came and started fighting. And when the Philippine military were caught by the American military, they were again asked at this point to say that you cannot be a country.

MY: You need to stop performing, uh, Philippine nation. We could now put you to jail for doing this, or you could play the same music for the American empire. So again, within two years, the same Brown body, same uniform, same instruments, same repertoire performing a different sonus again. So here we see how the body's performing sound, and the sound itself is a battlefield of ideologies, of political intentions, and that these epistemic violence could happen really at this sound level, on how we police the bodies, on what sound it produces, but ultimately how the body should listen.

DZ: Thank you very much. I now hand over to my colleague, Emma Lowe, for our last questions.

Emma Lo: Thank you, Doris. meLê, you have been engaged with sonus in a number of different projects over the last years, um, one of them being an ongoing transnational project called DeCoSEAS, in which, part of this project, you've invited colleagues from across Southeast Asia to come listen to and engage with European colonial archives.

Emma Lo: Could you talk a little bit about your experience engaging with these archives, listening to these archives in this group, and how you all have responded to the archives or exercised a right to speak back and respond?

MY: Thanks for the question, Emma. Um, maybe I'll... I'll give another example of how sonus was very present in the idea of reanimating the archives, because you have several points here that you're asking.

MY: We are thinking about reanimation of the archives, and I think we're also thinking about, I would say, reclaiming agencies of specific communities. Towards the archive as a collection, and possibly also a question of restitution.

MY: (Music)

MY: But at the same time, I think you are questioning as well, how we might in this particular time, through this agency, reperform the archive even. So how do we resound it to the post- and hopefully also to the decolonial bodies that might interact with these very historically laden colonial materials. So I would maybe respond to this with like three projects that we did, and I try to keep them short.

MY: Going back to the sonus, one of the things that I did in 2019 is when the Berlin Phonogram Archive, um, welcomed us to enter the archives – so I'm talking about the Berlin Phonogram Archive and also the Lautarchiv der Humboldt Universität –we visited these archives and I use part of my funding to invite, organize colleagues from Southeast Asia to enter these archives and to listen to the materials and to think about what we should do with these materials.

MY: One particular recording is a recording from 1927 from Java. I have been listening to these materials already for some time, but I am not Javanese, I am Tagalog from the Philippines who– and I don't understand what these materials actually contain. So I think there's this thing about here that, that I, this tokenism sometimes that could transpire of me being a Southeast Asian, that I could not speak of an entire region.

MY: I could speak of the specificity of who I am, but I would like to use my positionality to connect to the region from where I come from, to invite colleagues with their specific embodied knowledge to enter the archives for us to, again, to reconnect with these archives and open them up for what is inside.

MY: I've mentioned earlier that I consider archives as cemeteries, because the sounds that we collect there, have been removed from their bodies, and in a way, my interest is to find these reconnecting of bodies. And a colleague from Yogyakarta, Sri Margana –a professor of history, but who also happened to grow up with a grandfather who is a dalang, a shadow puppet master, so he knows the repertoire of this particular performance culture – came with us and listened with us to this recording and somewhere along the way started singing along with us, singing along with the recording.

MY: (Music)

MY: So his body almost became a medium through which we understand what is happening in the recording because the recording finally reconnected with the body to which it is intended to resonate. Here is a good example of how the sonus of this recording is resonating with the body of Sri Margana. And I think from this starting point, one or two years later, we got funding from the Berlin Senate to, um, to organize Decolonial Frequencies Festival.

MY: And this thinking was at the center of my curatorial vision in the Decolonial Frequencies that I am asking the question of how can new frequencies, how can new decolonial frequencies emerge? – in Berlin, in different sonic practices, through the connecting of the different sonae, of the different bodies, of post migrant bodies, of queer bodies that, that here in Berlin, that are not allowed to resonate because of specific priorities that specific cultural or musical institutions, um, policing certain sonae. And therefore, how could we create a space so that it would allow different sonae to emerge.

MY: And when we talk of diversity, of how new policies as an aspect of decoloniality with a diversity in the culture seen now, it's not just a diversity of sound, no, it's not just a diversity of what music, of what dramas, of what pieces are allowed, but rather to me what is important is a diversity of the sonae, the diversity of how sounds might interact with different bodies and that through these sonae we could comfortably sit side by side as citizens of the city of this continent.

MY: Allowing the multiplicity of not just sounds, but sonae to resonate with each other.

EL: Thank you so much for sharing your time with us today, meLê. Thanks also to Doris for joining us, and to Layla for initiating this podcast, and for the friendly passing of the baton for Season 2. Many thanks to Stefani Gregor and her team at Eufoniker for producing this podcast, and thank you for listening with us.

EL: Stay tuned for further Sonic Interventions.

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