Acoustics of Empire

Frances Densmore recording Mountain Chief (courtesy of wikimedia)

Acoustics of Empire: 

Sound, Media & Power in the Long 19th Century

Conference dates:

7-8 December, 2018

9 am to 5:30 pm

Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge

The conference is open to visitors and registration is mandatory.

Register here until Monday, 3 December 2018

In recent years, music and sound studies have increasingly turned attention to questions of empire and postcolonial thought, raising new questions about the forms and circulation of cultural, technological and military power as manifest in and through sound. However, with a few notable exceptions, most of this scholarship has focused on the 20th century, an era of pronounced decolonization and more obvious forms of sound technology that have drawn recent scholarly attention. Inversely, sound and media studies have made 19th century histories of science and technology a central part of their canonical repertoire, but largely overlooked the ways in which these technological developments emerged from contexts of empire.

These lacunae result not only from the difficulties of accessing relevant materials, which often span multiple languages (of both colony and colonizer), but also from the particular histories of music studies as a discipline, in which historical musicology has largely attended to European music in the past and present, while ethnomusicology has used ethnography to primarily explore contemporary music making in a range of non­western contexts. As part of the larger ERC-funded project, “Sound and Materialism in the 19th Century,” we will be holding “The Acoustics of Empire” conference in December 2018. We hope to cultivate a conversation among scholars of sound, media and empire with the aim of continuing the work of decolonizing historical sound studies, while also bringing sound more centrally into postcolonial studies.

Significantly, we see this as part of a broader conversation that is already converging around these themes. Audible Empire: Music, Global Politics, Criqitue, a 2015 volume of essays edited by Ronald Radano and Tejumola Olaniyan, raised many similar questions within the context of musical practices predominantly in the past century. The forthcoming volume, Remapping Sound Studies, edited by Gavin Steingo and Jim Sykes, extends that focus to sound, rather than (just) music. In focusing on the 19th century, we hope to reconceive what constitutes sound and sound (or audiovisual) technologies beyond the scope of mechanical, electrical or digital reproducibility. At the same time, we simultaneously hope to collectively draw on archives of sensation, bodily practice and cultural techniques to augment forms of historical and literary studies that may have inadvertently elided such narratives in attending so closely to the pervasive (and critical) questions of power and politics.

The project “Sound and Materialism in the 19th Century” has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No.  638241)