Words by Jillian Fulton
an abstract understanding of the musical experience.
Music: the intentionally crafted sonic element that’s able to heal us, to connect us, to create understanding between us, and able to help us feel empowerment, vulnerability, and nostalgia. Listening to pitches perfectly in tune or in harmony allows for affectual, physical responses in our beings such as chills, hairs on our arms standing up, and tears streaming down our faces. We react to music in physical and spiritual ways that we cannot always understand or explain – music moves us, and it also moves around us.
I’d like to take you on a walk through what I believe are some of the different processes by which music mobilizes people by winding, weaving, and wrapping itself around urban and rural emplacements; music connects people in a constant process of production, whether it be of a song, a track, or a moment.
Since I believe that music’s production tells a story and sends messages, I will walk you through mine – a story about the way that I came to think about music and how I am currently conceptualizing what ‘music’ is and does for people – a process that I am still in the middle of, that I am still encountering, and that is always in movement and subject to change.
"I must also point out that many individuals do not have these privileges"
My experience with music and soundscapes has taken me on a physical as well as a spiritual journey around the world. Currently, I’m in my living room in mid-town Toronto in the middle of winter, sitting silently at my desk, listening only to the crackle of the fireplace in the background while outside the snow is lightly falling to the ground, calmly insulating me in my home. Although my immediate world seems quiet and still, if I pay attention, I can hear the different layers sounding within the silence. Thinking about this concept on a grander scale, my attention turns to the sounds of silence not only in my current surroundings, but also the silences of the subaltern. Sound, in this case, creates mobility for some and immobility for others.
My movement through music started when I was a child, with the piano; I can remember my first experience with my hands being able to phenomenologically float around the keys without any thought. In my adolescence, I eventually found myself stale, craving new musical experiences. In my early twenties I began an ongoing exploration of music cultures around the world by traveling to different places and taking courses and lessons, finding myself coming home each time as a better musician.
I was able to better improvise on various instruments and to tell my own musical stories in new ways. My `oud professor once told me that playing a taqsim, or improvisation, is like telling a story. You must be patient with it, you must let the notes sing, and you must not rush – I always wanted to rush, especially in performance contexts when the fear of my audience becoming bored would produce anxiety. Letting each note resonate, however, gives mobility to the mood that I am setting, to the music culture I am expressing, and to the story that I am telling; if I give each note the time that it deserves, I can better pass on my musical story to my audience.
Learning different musical systems and instruments and weaving myself around different musical societies and networks has greatly aided my ability to tell stories, whether it be through words and writing, or through more sonic and sensory musical dissemination. Because I have had the privilege to move freely around the world and acquire knowledge that directly informs the way that I approach my craft, I must also point out that many individuals do not have these privileges, including many of those who have graciously influenced my way of being in the world and the way I deliver my ideas.
Music is known as one of the most powerful platforms for conveying messages, whether they be political, love-related, or otherwise. It can connect people in different locations through the different types of social infrastructure that are available to us, as well as its powerful ability to connect to the emotions of human beings. How incredible is it that music can move across so many different cultural spaces through the internet, through travel, and through the discussions and sessions that follow the initial contact that is made? I think it’s interesting to look at our socio-musical landscapes as different types of scapes that connect us with each other in different ways, making the world a smaller place. I like to think of these grids as the ‘orchestration’ for where the artists’ production and pop-up events happen, as well as the various locales of the communities who follow the music.
Electronic music communities specifically include complicated social networks that take different shapes and forms throughout the cities and spaces they inhabit. These communities produce musical movement where events are hosted in fixed spaces at fixed times, but also where the music ebbs and flows with the rest of the events that the cities are hosting, as well as with the people who carry it with them throughout their days.
Walking through the city – any city – if you close your eyes, you hear the live soundscapes of wherever you’re located. You can smell the restaurants, the tires, and the scent of rain on the concrete. And you can hear the rumble of car engines, the bells or voices within worship spaces, and the chatter of people walking by.
Driving in our cars and while stopped at a red light, we might even be able to spread our sounds to the ears of others if we roll down the windows and turn up the volume loud enough. Music, in this way, creates social networks that are beyond our immediate understanding, swirling with us through our commutes, sending tracks and playlists to friends over the internet, finding more tracks through the algorithms that each website has created for us, where technology is able to tell us what we should want to listen to next. This virtual, intangible world is absolutely crucial to the way that we share music and to the way that we get our own music out into the universe if we are the ones producing it.
But although it’s not necessary to purchase the tangible anymore – like the experience of purchasing vinyl – we tend to still enjoy it. The tangible item is in itself a network: the material object of music has passed through many hands, been played on many record players, and maybe even sold and repurchased numerous times. Music, as we know it, is weaving throughout our world – immediate and global – by the way that we pass it on to each other, further mobilizing artists and listeners alike, sharing culture, traditions, and what we believe to be stories of beauty and joy, sadness and despair.
You can also hear the city mapping of who is living where and why. These sensory moments inform the way that we think about music in different locations, the way that we define the sounds of different cities in different parts of the world, and in turn the way that we collect soundscapes and use them in our own musical productions today, whether it be for ambient use, for dance music, or anything in between. These sensory moments also inform what we believe doesn’t fit in particular geopolitical locations, for example, the sounds and musics of many diaspora communities – groups of displaced and emplaced peoples who are trying to ‘make home’ somewhere new.
"We must listen and think about what is missing and why..."
Although I am currently in multicultural Toronto, where the sounds of many different peoples can be heard, there are many places in the world where some music cultures do not fit their social environment, as perceived by the people who inhabit the space. This experience can lead to music practice and performance becoming more private, or taking place in more secretive settings, but it can also lead to collaborations and fusions, to the creation of new musics that mould and fit to different environments, adapt to new social situations, to new instruments, and to new people.
The fusion of traditional acoustic music genres with electronic genres tells its own story by transporting the listener to a different time and a different place. The music that is sampled in some of these electronic genres is often music that was composed generations ago, collecting the stories of those who have performed it live and through recordings throughout the ages. Standing on a dance floor, whether you are physically in the location where the music you are hearing was produced or whether it is taking you spiritually or nostalgically to another landscape, music connects people and creates mobility through sonic understanding, or acoustemology, as anthropologist Steven Feld coined it in 1992.
Acoustemology allows us to understand our sonic environment, and sometimes makes us feel confused by sounds we haven’t much been exposed to. Although sometimes we might make assumptions based on what we think music should sound like from particular areas of the world, music’s current mobility introduces us to artists who are creating more and more new sounds with a wide variety of influences and inspirations.
Not only are we connected through sound itself, but through many differently shaped social networks based on the social infrastructure of our locations; each shape – plots, webs, scapes, transfers, grids, and whatever other shapes you can think of – hosts different soundscapes and mobilizes music in different ways for listeners.
Fusing musical genres together is something that we are only capable of doing because of mobilization. This is a relatively new aesthetic [to the modern world] and can only be done through the contact that artists are having with each other and with each other’s music. With the musical encounters that artists are having globally, these fusion genres are telling a new story that hasn’t yet been told about the way that our world is constantly moving and changing. Entangled in these stories are the lives, experiences, and archives of each of the artists and genres that have collectively informed the practice that is incorporated into the fusion today. And as much as we are listening for the beautiful encounters that artists are having, we must also listen to the gaps – the fusions that aren’t taking place – and try to understand why they are there and why something is missing.
While musical movement mobilizes, the political environment of today’s world is also very immobilizing for many artists as well as music appreciators or music lovers. Just like you are able to read this article now, someone somewhere has a block on their web browser, or doesn’t have internet access at all.
Like stirring a wooden spoon through a pot of rich stew that has been brewing and simmering, all of its elements present and the aromas dancing through the steam and the air, we must taste it to see if any ingredients are missing. As a parallel, we must practice active listening to hear and appreciate the different journeys that each track and genre takes us on; we must listen and think about what is missing and why in order to have a greater understanding of the way that the world is not only expanding but also contracting.
Conceptualizing music and its capabilities has brought me from falling in love with genres, to wondering where certain fusions are, to thinking that others are problematic in their politics, to falling back in love, whether it be with new sounds or rediscovered sounds. Active listening is an important tool that we must use in order to hear all of music’s layers as well as its gaps.
I invite you to listen actively and deeply to the political statements that are being made through these fusions and through their absences. And I invite you to continuously fall in and out of love with different tracks and genres, and to think deeply about their purpose and (im)mobility.
Jillian Fulton is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at York University. Her work explores underground dance music scenes in Toronto, Montreal, and Morocco. Her primary area of research, located within the Arab world and its diasporas, explores sensory anthropology, ethnomusicology, and performance studies through theories of sound and space, nostalgia and memory. She completed her M.A. in Ethnomusicology, and also holds a B.Mus in piano performance and B.Ed in primary/junior education. This interdisciplinary exploration has guided her academic work as well as its extensions into her ethnographic articles for Husa Sounds (Montreal), and musical performances with Kisantel (Toronto) and Afro Haus (Toronto). For more information about her projects, find her on social media @chebakhadijah or email her at email@example.com.
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