Sawt, Bodies, Species. Sonic Pluralism in Morocco - Gilles Aubry. Hamburg: Adocs Verlag, 2023
Also available as an Open Access PDF
By Marcel Cobussen
When I first received a review copy of Gilles Aubry’s book Sawt, Bodies, Species. Sonic Pluralism in Morocco, I hesitated a bit before starting to read. Even though Morocco is one of the most beautiful countries I’ve ever visited, some 300 pages on Morocco? Hmm … Next to that, the first word in the title already stuck out as an obstacle: “Sawt? No idea what that means” …
Of course, I should have known better. First, Aubry is an interesting, creative, and intelligent (sound) artist, musician, and researcher with a strong track record; second, why should this emphasis on Morocco be a potential problem when taken into consideration with, for example, Anette Hoffmann’s Listening to Colonial History (mainly dealing with sound recordings from Southern Africa), Dylan Robinson’s Hungry Listening (about the position of indigenous music in contemporary Canada), or Tyson Yunkapurta’s Sand Talk (disclosing perspectives on e.g. art and culture coming from the original population of Australia)?; and third, the concept of “sonic pluralism” should have attracted my attention from the start.
To state my opinion up front: Sawt, Bodies, Species is one of the best books I have read on sound studies and sound art over the past few years. The concept of “sonic pluralism” is challenging, and a welcome concept to think with beyond the insights Aubry offers; the (six) “case studies” provide a rich and sometimes surprising assortment of the roles sound plays in Moroccan culture, art, history, daily life, and politics; and the book is beautifully designed with a reader-friendly typeface, many pictures, and QR codes providing access to several audio-visual materials.
Already on the first page of the Introduction, Aubry outlines his concept of sonic pluralism by listing a multiplicity of listening attitudes when encountering a Moroccan sound archive: one could listen to this archive as an example of preservation, as an aural souvenir, through aesthetic contemplation, as (re)presenting an idealized past, as cultural appropriation, as a digital artifact, as data for technocratic or scientific purposes, etc. Of course, Aubry hastens to add, situating oneself within a plurality of listening positions is not a completely free choice of any individual: one’s positioning is always already significantly determined by social, cultural, and historical constraints. But the strength of the concept of sonic pluralism is that it refers to the material, symbolic, affective, and aesthetic dimensions of sound, reworked by people through listening, sounding practices, and local engagements with sound technologies (p. 13 and 18), and connected to all kinds of political, social, ecological, economic, cultural, aesthetic, and gender issues. And this sonic pluralism is substantiated in the subsequent six chapters.
Chapter one – “Between Colonial and Ethical Noise” – concentrates on the reappropriation of colonial archives by contemporary Moroccan artists. During the French occupation, sound recordings became an instrument of colonial propaganda by presenting “indigenous cultures” as “the other” (p. 51). By performing the music found in these archives anew, Moroccan/Berber musicians such as Ali Faiq not only return these songs to their own people and local culture; the music also gets new meaning as it is presented in different social and historical contexts (p. 69). Thus, a living archive is created, which then also functions as a new or extra mode of knowledge production and transmission (p. 76).
Chapter two – “Listen, That’s Us” – mainly deals with the Paul Bowles Moroccan Music Collection from 1959. Of course, Bowles, an American writer and composer, could only build this collection because of the existing colonial structures and the privileges he had as a white, male, Western ethnographer: often, Berber musicians were forced to play in front of him, musicians whose names are not even mentioned in the collection, thereby denying them authorship and copyrights (p. 103). However, Aubry claims, even collections such as this one can act as a “starting point for a reflection on sound, aurality, and alterity,” especially when used as a “medium for transcultural exchange and aesthetic experimentation, rather than as a means of cultural preservation” (p. 91).
In chapter three – “Salam Godzilla” – Aubry moves from dealing with mere musical sounds to environmental sounds, in particular the (very low) sounds of an earthquake that in 1960 destroyed the biggest part of Agadir, a coastal city in the southwest of Morocco. Interestingly, he criticizes exactly the instrument that is able to register earthly vibrations, the seismograph. Aubry: “The seismograph ultimately became a dispositive for silencing the multi-sensory, local, collective, and affective dimensions of the earthquake” (p. 133). His sonic pluralism thereby receives an extra function, namely making space for those “voices and realities” that are sometimes silenced by technology or politics. For this he uses a term, first coined by Steve Goodman in his book Sonic Warfare: “Unsound,” “that part of sonic experience that refuses to be recorded, measured, quantified or domesticated” (p. 152). For Aubry, sounding is not limited to the production of physical sound; it also consists of the generation of “virtual sound worlds via affective, poetic, and bodily engagement […] despitescientific evidence” (p. 153).
Chapter four has the rather enigmatic title “A Wasted Breath Inside a Balloon,” which is the name of a sound piece Aubry created with the performance artist Ramia Beladel. Here, another manifestation of sonic pluralism is investigated, namely sound in relation to popular (Sufi) healing practices. In one performance Beladel inflates white balloons and attaches them with white threads to small white stones. In the process of inflating them to the border of exhaustion she enters into a state of emotional cleansing and a purification of body and mind (p. 166-7). The sound piece can be listened to through a QR code or a link and consists of, among others, (slightly modified) inflating sounds, environmental sounds (wind and water, but also Sufi healing rituals) and Beladel’s voice reciting a poem, partly in Arabic and partly in French. The almost exclusive use of female voices in the piece implicitly raises the question of what possible relationships might exist between those healing practices, sound, gender, and performance art.
Chapter five – “Stonesound” – deals with Aubry’s encounter with Abdeljalil Saouli who listens to stones and recognizes a particular quality in them which also characterizes their sound. Together with Saouli, Aubry starts investigating stones sonically, simply by hitting or rubbing two stones against each other, thereby receiving insights into their matter, hardness, weight, size, and inner structure (p. 211). According to Saouli this method allows them to ask the stones many questions as well as to get answers through a rich variety in pitch, resonance, density, and texture. Saouli: “Like this, I talk to the stone, I speak with it. It’s not a hit, it’s a demand to the stone, so that it tells me how to work […] There’s a whole dialogue between stones and me” (p. 214 and 218). Aubry connects his experience to the posthuman idea that non-human – and even non-living beings – have agency as well: “Humans are made by their environment as they interact with it” (p. 203). The knowledge gained by being in dialogue with these stones is not generic and scientific; it is, first of all, situated and affective.
The final chapter, chapter six, is titled “Atlantic Ragagar.” If the first two chapters dealt with sonic histories, chapter three and four with sounds in relation to “alternative” forms of knowledge and art, then chapter five and six are clearly connecting sonic pluralism to ecological issues. And, as with several parts of the preceding chapters, it seems at first that we are far removed from sound as this chapter concentrates on traditional seaweed collectors and/versus the industrial winning of seaweed and the resulting marine pollution. However, Aubry enquires into how listening can become a modality for attuning to extra-human alterities; as seaweed and pollution are not directly audible, listening should be understood as a human capacity to relate affectively to the world (p. 245-7). Aubry regards the traditional and local ways of harvesting seaweed as being able to hear “the intimate voice of the sea” expressing interspecies co-dependence (p. 263). This he opposes with “the natural voice of the sea” (re)presented by modern technology, mapping, and management of life forms. In collaboration with several locals, Aubry adds a third modality to the previous two, called “the Ragagar voice of the sea,” a kind of socio-environmental activism in which various forms of affective and material interactions with the sea and seaweed are explored, mostly through sound, singing, and listening – another manifestation of sonic pluralism.
Ah yes, before finishing this review, I owe you one last thing: What is “sawt”? Well, the answer reveals itself throughout the whole book and can therefore be considered as a kind of common thread. The most easy and obvious answer is that “sawt” is an Arabic word meaning both sound and voice. However, as Aubry makes clear in the last chapter, voice should not simply be understood as an intrinsic characteristic of someone or something. Having a voice also means that someone, a listener, has given a voice to someone or something, resulting from “the affective experience of the listening subject. In order to be considered a voice at all, extra-human manifestations must therefore resonate intimately with the listener” (p. 248). Like sonic pluralism, this idea of resonance is concerned with multi-sensorial experiences, beyond our normal understanding of listening, “allowing for alternative forms of engagement” (p. 275). Sawt, Bodies, Species indeed adds an original, versatile, creative, and erudite voice to the already existing forms of engagement with our world, with our human and non-human co-inhabitants, with every object and phenomenon with which we (can and should) interact. It is a very timely book!!!