Editorial - Encounters With Southeast Asia Through Sound

Marcel Cobussen 


In 1996 I wrote an essay for the Dutch weekly magazine De Groene Amsterdammer called “De terreur van het oog” (The Terror of the Eye). It was a plea for the restoration of listening as a way of engaging with the world at a time this engaging was, according to me back then, still dominated by the visual. This is how the essay ended:


Where are your eyes going on holiday next year? This time of the year you can stare your eyes out: colorful brochures offer you prospects of exotic places and undiscovered tropical paradises. However, perhaps you could grant your eyes a real holiday next year and keep your ears open instead. I propose that next summer we all refrain from dragging along photo cameras and video equipment. Buy a decent recording device instead, and offer your friends and acquaintances a recording of your holiday sounds. This is not to say that sounds are better able to represent reality than pictures. On the contrary, sound’s power is based on the fact that they do not pretend or postulate they can. 


Exactly 20 years later I proposed to my fellow editors of this journal that we make a special on the soundscapes of Southeast Asia. “We” – and I am talking from the perspective of a Western person here – have seen pictures and movies of various places in that area, “we” have perhaps smelt the rich pallets of odors while visiting one or more of its countries, and for sure “we” have also noticed its soundscapes, most likely differing from the soundscapes “we” are used too. However, not very often do (another) “we,” Western scholars, offer a space to what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has once described as “the subaltern.” Sound Studies has taken into account differences between the urban and the rural, between high and low culture, between natural and artificial sounds, between public and private spaces, between male and female issues, etc., but it remains a discipline firmly rooted in the Western academic tradition, including its own canon of big names and recurring concepts.[1]


What “we” as JSS editors had in mind was to make space for some “subaltern voices,” multi-media reports on Southeast Asian soundscapes preferably coming from (local) residents or people who have spent a considerable amount of time there, to find out whether they hear differently, whether they notice different things, different sounds; to find out whether they can bring in other concepts, enrich or change the common discourses in Sound Studies; to explore and bring to our attention what they find sonically relevant.


What “we” as JSS editors had in mind was to present our readers with what sociologist Fran Tonkiss once coined “aural postcards,” not only presenting sounds as souvenirs but also bespeaking a certain “otherness” (Tonkiss 2004: 303-309).


Of course it is up to you, reader/listener/spectator, to judge to what extent we, JSS editors, and they, contributing authors, have succeeded in offering some interesting aural postcards. Regardless, with contributions from Vietnam, Singapore, Indonesia, Taiwan, India, Hong Kong, Thailand and several other countries, this twelfth issue can at least offer you a rich compilation of aural, visual, and textual samples of many soundscapes from parts of the world which are usually quite underrepresented in current Sound Studies.


Sound recordist and post-production engineer Kaho Cheung takes us on a journey through Hong Kong and Bangkok, from religious festivals to boxing matches, from street musicians to shopping malls, and from fruit markets to public transport systems, allowing us to experience the great variety of soundscapes in those two cities.


Focusing on China, Laos, and Myanmar in particular, Max Haberl offers more or less the same while being very well aware that he is a tourist, an outsider, perhaps even an intruder. Additionally, his contribution is very much in line with Fran Tonkiss’s thoughts on sonic souvenirs: how does memory affect what and how we hear recordings made during tourist trips, and, vice versa, how do these recordings affect our memories?


Indian-born artist and researcher Budhaditya Chattopadhyay has recorded and produced several sound art works containing field recordings from Indian cities as well as rural areas. In this issue, however, he explores how sonic sites are (re)presented in current Indian cinema, mainly since the introduction of digital recording techniques. The paper concludes by stating that the practice of sound in contemporary Indian cinema develops an inclusive relationship with site that is immersive in nature, thereby letting us experience Indian soundscapes.


A second sonic ethnographic account of India comes from researcher, writer, and educator Anja Kanngieser. Concentrating on Rajarhat New Town, she describes how a sensibility of listening can be combined with the analytical practices of the social sciences in order to consider social-economic and political developments from a sonic point of view. Partly relying on and partly exceeding existing theories on sound and soundscapes in everyday life and (urban) environments, Kanngieser concludes that a focus on the sonic aspects of places may contribute to a better understanding of these places, without reducing their complexities or what she calls situational specificities.


Almost all native contributors to this issue recognize the rapid changes in the soundscapes of their respective countries. This is perhaps the main topic of the article by Vietnamese Nguyn Thanh Thy and her Swedish partner Stefan Östersjö. Concentrating on areas in and around Hanoi, they tune into the continually fluctuating and dissolving borders of the urban and the rural and how various economic, social, and technological developments can be sonically traced and expressed. An interesting aspect is that their research takes place – at least partly – through artistic projects: in and through their performances, they present and reflect on the Vietnamese past and present.


Another report from Vietnam comes from ethnomusicologist Lonán Ó Briain, who is interested in the music of Vietnamese minorities. Whereas Nguyn and Östersjö’s contribution has nostalgic overtones, Ó Briain writes a critical reflection on how the Vietnamese authorities as well as (jazz) musicians from the big cities use (or misuse) the traditional music of ethnic minorities to create a hybrid mix or fusion between “authentic” sounds and present-day (international) jazz, thereby constructing a new cosmopolitan identity for the nouveau riche urban clientele. Ó Briain concludes that minority identities are embedded in a web of cultural productions over which they have little or no control. Gayatri Spivak’s concept of “the subaltern” is thus recognizable not only on a transnational plane (the Western world versus the rest) but seems to be indicative on a national, in this case Vietnamese, level as well.


Overtone singer and artistic researcher Mark van Tongeren, a Taiwanese resident with Dutch roots, takes us to a mysterious sound world in Taiwan. His paper reads as a detective story as he tries to identify a strange sound event that he heard on Taiwan’s East Coast. Through discussing issues related to the identification of sound in general, Van Tongeren ultimately comes to the conclusion that the mysterious sound must have been produced by a bird, probably mimicking anthropophonic sounds, in this case a musical garbage removal system.

Darren Moore is an Australian artist, event organizer, and researcher who worked as a lecturer in Music at Lasalle College of the Arts, Singapore from 2006 till 2015. Through his essay we get a comprehensive overview of the contemporary experimental music scene in Singapore: the musicians and their collaborations with foreign (Asian, Australian, American, and European) colleagues, the music series and festivals, the venues, the record companies, etc., set against a background of Singaporean cultural politics. The enormous amount of audio files (often complete concerts) functions as a sonic library, a sonic database, a sonic overview of experimental pop, improvised, noise, and electronic music in Singapore during the first 15 years of the 21st century – an entire collection of aural postcards.


While we are working on this JSS issue, Welsh, English, and Irish football supporters, in particular, sonically occupy French cities and stadiums during the Euro 2016, while the Icelandic fans regularly perform their collective primal screams. However, in his contribution, researcher and writer Andy Fuller shows, to paraphrase Gayatri Spivak, that during football matches in Indonesia the subaltern not only speaks, but sings, chants, and yells as well. By means of participant observation, Fuller explores the sonic rituals that create a sense of community, centered around a football team and a stadium.


Perhaps you are on holiday while reading this JSS issue but not in one of these Southeast Asian countries. Or maybe you are not on holiday at all and reading one or more articles while sitting behind a computer in the familiar environment of your office or study. However, if you let these “subaltern voices” speak to you and close your eyes while listening to the sound recordings, you just might experience being in two or more places simultaneously.

Whatever the case, with this issue we send sonic greetings from all our contributors and the JSS editors!


[1] Although I am sure more do exist, the only counterexample that comes to my mind right now is The Acoustic City (Jovis 2014), edited by Matthew Gandy and BJ Nilsen, in which contributions from artists and scholars from almost all continents can be found.


Cobussen, Marcel (1996). "De terreur van het oog.De Groene Amsterdammer, 10-01-1996.


Tonkiss, Fran (2004).  Aural Postcards. Sound, Memory and the City”. In Michael Bull and Les Back (eds.), The Auditory Culture Reader (pp. 303-309). Oxford: Berg.