»There is no hierarchy.«

a conversation with Budhaditya Chattopadhyay, Glaucia Peres da Silva and Nguyễn Thanh Thủy on »Soundings Across the South«

Between the 21st and the 25th of August, musicians, sound artists and researchers will meet at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin for the sonic gathering »Soundings Across the South«, co-organised by a variety of artists and researchers together with Sound Across in order to critically explore the lack of research on and representation of the »Sonic Global South«. The title however may still change, much like everything about the unusual project will be discussed until the very first day of the event, which itself will eschew the conventions of an academic symposium. field notes editor Kristoffer Cornils spoke with the project’s co-initiator, sound artist and researcher Budhaditya Chattopadhyay, as well as two other core members of the group’s so-called Steering Committee: musician and researcher Nguyễn Thanh Thủy and sociologist Glaucia Peres da Silva. Somewhat unsurprisingly however, the interviewer became an interviewee during a conversation that was as open-ended as the project itself.

Kristoffer Cornils (field notes): How was »Soundings Across the South« conceived?

Budhaditya Chattopadhyay: It all started with a discussion that I had with Sandeep Bhagwati during the last »Curating Diversity« conference in autumn 2020. Previously, we had already been talking a lot for my forthcoming book, »Sound Practices in the Global South: Co-listening to Resounding Plurilogues«, a collection of interviews with artists, composers, and sound practitioners from the Global South. During the conference, we took the premise of both the book and the conference itself as a starting point for the formation of something more concrete, scholarly, and performative. A form of activism, you could say. The conference was talking about diversity as a problem in the Western world, but diversity in this process becomes a fetish which is not adequately addressed. In addition to that, we found the lack of representation of thinkers and scholars from the Global South in many related programmes, festivals, conferences, and symposiums to be problematic. Even when they are being introduced into certain platforms and forums, often their voices are marginalised or appropriated within the Western-dominated discourse. So Sandeep and I decided to meet again and take things further in the form of a symposium.

A term that you used to describe the focus of this symposium was that of the »Sonic Global South«.

Nguyễn Thanh Thủy: In our last meeting, we were discussing this term because some people thought it may be exclusive. What about the traditional music made by minorities from Northern countries? We are trying to find a better title in order to capture the diversity that we’d like to address.

BC: The term South has a connotation of colonial subjectivity, being poorer, being dominated by powerful forces. In this sense, it is not a geographical term, but rather a metaphorical one. If we only think of the Southern part of the globe, the term’s literal meaning would only lead to confusion. As a metaphor however, it expresses disparity in power relationships and binaries. Therefore, what we can debate in this term is a duality or binary that is being challenged. We are also using this debatable term »Global South« to open it up, debating and finding new perspectives.

Glaucia Peres da Silva: I’m a sociologist and when I came across the project, I immediately wanted to be part of it because it’s very easy to criticise the world only from your desk. (laughs) I liked the idea of debating precisely these concepts and trying to do something. I was one of those who criticised the concept of the Global South, because I think that this way, you make certain groups the parameter by which the whole world is being measured while at the same time you put many other groups that are not at all similar into one category because they’re different from that parameter. What is interesting for us, however, is to do away with the idea of one group setting the rules. That’s difficult though, as we can see in other contexts as well.

KC: The three of you are part of what is called the Steering Committee. What does that mean?

BC: There is no organisational planning as such, but only an emergence which is being nurtured by the conversations we have with each other. We’re not producing an object. The symposium becomes an excuse for the conversation to start and unfold into something that we don’t know yet. But we can expect that there will be multi-layered, plurivocal conversations taking place.


NTT: We try to open the floor for everybody to voice their opinion. There is no hierarchy. What I am a little bit concerned about is that it’s not easy to do everything from scratch. We are very different people from different backgrounds with different opinions who have different positions as well. So how can we make this work? Do we remain in a sort of developing stage all the way through? Or do we create yet another system that is similar to the ones that we all have enough of? We will have more meetings in the coming months and hope that everyone will understand each other better.

BC: The primary aim was to dilute the institutional agency in organising. Institutions, particularly European ones, have a number of biases that we’d like to avoid as much as the institutional agency as such.

KC: I’m a journalist, so I am not asking for myself but for our potential readers. But yes, intrigue is the better term. I haven’t studied anything music-related, but I knew very early on that academia wasn’t for me, especially because the structures seemed so rigid to me. Your approach is very interesting in that regard. In terms of your—non-existent—organisational principle I agree with Thuy: I also think you might run into problems once you have to make decisions, if only when it comes to the logistics of flying in people that you have invited to participate. These contradictions could lead to something very productive.

NTT: I have been working in Europe for ten years, going back and forth between here and Vietnam. For maybe one out of ten projects, I will receive core funding from Vietnam. And this is also something that we encounter in this project: we’re talking about the Global South—while we’re in the Global North! That is why we’re not only talking about the music, but also the system and the structures around it. When I’m working with Western musicians, we always try to find a common ground. We accept our differences and work with them in order to solve problems. This means that there needs to be a process of negotiation very early on in a collaboration. It’s not always easy to find this common ground or even start a conversation around it.

BC: I have a question! What new knowledge can we potentially form when we engage with Global South thinkers and artists?

GPdS: I think that we’re not that revolutionary.

NTT: I think we may create a new attitude about who raises their voice. A lot of voices from outside the West have been absent and now they will maybe be heard. I’m not sure if we can build a new system, also because that is not what we want, right? (laughs) The main aim is more diversity, more voices, more ideas …

BC: … new ways of listening, sonic perspectives which are not being explored yet! From a scholarly perspective, I would argue that there are four different parameters that we can look at: 1. different kinds of temporality that we can engage with in terms of sound and music, 2. spatiality and how space is constituted outside the European canon, 3. subjectivity which can be exposed and explored, and 4. indeterminacy, chance, emergence, improvisation and the question of agency. When I was interviewing the artists for my book I was thinking whether these are the four fields of inquiry where new knowledge can be formed or where new perspectives can be uncovered.

KC: »Perspective« seems to be a key word here. A friend of mine once said something to me that has stuck with me ever since: music is never about music, but always about everything else. In this sense music, sound and all practices related to them offer certain perspectives on different types of knowledge. I think that’s also what your project is all about.

NTT: I couldn’t agree more with you! Music is about politics, structures, people, emotions, and so much more. New knowledge could come out of the perspectives that music offers.

BC: Of course it’s about perspectives instead of knowledge. I only ask this question because that’s what they ask when you apply for funding: what new knowledge will be formed in this event?


GPdS: It says a lot about the structures that we are in. They ask these kinds of questions so that after the end of the project, they have work to do and check if the results meet their criteria. This is really hard also for us researchers because if you’re serious about your research, you cannot know in advance what you’re going to find out. The same is true for our project. Of course we have expectations, but if we knew what the end result would be, that would mean that we wouldn’t be entirely honest with ourselves.


NTT: For me, being part of this conversation is already a gain.