A few days after finishing my piece at Cepo’ Art Center, Rahic Talif (Makota’ay Pangcah) gave me some critical feedback.
“It’s not that the waves were too present in the mix,” he said, “but it would be better if you captured the difference in the waves over time. The sound of the waves and the river when they strike against each other, head on, during a typhoon–
‘Churrrahhh! Wahhh! Heng!’
–and the peaceful sloughing of the waves on a calm day with no high tide, the river gently whisking through whirlpools. That would be, I think you know, like the sound of our malikoda, sometimes gentle and pulsing but suddenly crashing, moving forward, and inundating the entire space with our steps and songs”
Again, kaka (elder brother) Rahic told me about the ocean. Granted, O Faloco’ no Tamdaw ko Faloco’ no Taradaw was a soundwork about the meeting point of ocean and river at Cepo’ a site from which Makota’ay Pangach get their life. Still, there was more in Rahic’s observation. When I sing either traditional or contemporary popular musics in the bulo*, people often evaluate my performance according to whether it has the right “flavor,” a sensibility that people describe as maritime: “Here, you should sound more like the movement of ocean waves.” The ocean, a constant presence in Coastal ‘Amis / Pangcah soundscapes, provides not so much what Schafer (1977, The Soundscape) calls a keynote–the ubiquitous sound that functions as a ground to other elements of a soundscape–in its constant sonic action the ocean also creates an evaluatory scheme, the tides defining what Jim Fernandez calls a “quality space.” In other words, the ocean is good to sound (as we participate in musics) and also to think (as we talk about or develop stances on our own sound and that of others)
For example, in Rahic’s discussion of the malikoda–and the problem with my piece–sounding like the ocean suggests a lack of monotony within a set of limits. The waves have a definite phase structure, period, or pulse; but they also surprise. Their movement is not aleatory but stochastic. Good dancing, Rahic argues, should have this feature. But so should my piece. It wasn’t that the piece was boring–or at least I hope that’s not what Rahic meant–but that it felt a bit too measured or predictable. A bit too uniform
And yet most Coastal ‘Amis / Pangcah women and men both have experience in listening to and analyzing the ocean as they fish or gather. One way of knowing whether it is a good day for fishing is carefully to listen to the rhythm of waves: is it regular? loud, soft? the right kind of sound for the season, time of the month, time of day? Knowing the ocean this way alerts those who use safang triangular nets to fish tiny fish fry in the river mouth to know in advance what the currents might be like and the kind of safang to use. One also gets to know the ocean well enough to gather with enough certainty that the waves most likely will not surge too suddenly onto a rock where one is gathering shellfish. Men who cast nets also count waves, knowing generally the frequency of large waves to small ones. This awareness of how the waves have their particular harmony has informed the work of Pangcah installation artists, including Iyo Kacaw, whose work at the Taitung International Austronesian Arts Awards riffed on the practice of counting waves and casting nets (and included a metronome, for good measure)
In other words, knowing the ocean belongs to a category of embodied knowledge gained through life and labour along the Pacific Coast of Taiwan. Such knowledge gets into one’s body as one spearfishes, gathers, or casts nets; but it also provides an entire vocabulary for talking about sounding. I would call this vocabulary metaphor, but it’s not clear to me that Pangcah artists, like Rahic or Iyo, think of this vocabulary–if I can call it that, even; it is admittedly often wordless or ideophonic–as “outside” of the maritime realm or in another domain. So if our definition of metaphor is a trope in which one domain is mapped onto another, the claim that good singing or dancing should be maritime is not exactly a metaphor. The quality space is one of relationships both iconic and indexical, sounding like the ocean but also with it, copresent with it or conjuring it as one sings and moves
In thinking the ocean as a point in a quality space, then, I am moving past metaphor toward another set of deeply sensed and acted upon iconicity. I suspect that this is what Rahic and others mean by the right kind of flavor, when the dancing bodies of malikodaay become ocean waves, still still and surging
This thinking about Rahic telling me where I could improve “Faloco’ no Taradaw” might then inform a way that we think about an ethnography in sound. Part of the problem of such an ethnography is how we handle mediation. On the one hand, we cannot naively mix for verisimilitude, thinking that supplementing schizophonic sources by pumping in lost context. Nor can we imagine, as does recent work by the sensory ethnography lab that mounting go pro cameras onto the bodies of a variety of non-humans will give us a kind of sensory immersion that obviates mediation, launching us directly into the sensed world of human or non-human Others. The fish eye lens is a culturally situated human sense technique. The literature in anthropology on mediation–see Mazarella’s critical work on affect, for example–and a body of work in sound studies and ethnomusicology has amply criticized the near religious devotion to immediacy in some strands of media studies, the desire for something more real because unvarnished by culture. Feld’s critique of Lomax’s cantometrics, for example, pointed out the need to be aware of and work through the metaphorical and other means through which humans entrain sounds in listening communities and channel them into meaningful structures of thought and action. Good ethnography needs describe these means in some fashion, analyzing them in whatever mode (visual, sonic, textual, or some combination of these) the ethnography takes. And yet much ethnographic sound work has stepped away from this task, preferring the kind of desire for immersion or immediacy ethnographers found so lacking in ethnographic texts. How might we as ethnographers make the quality space of oceans, but also (thinking more broadly here of some more famous objects of ethnographic sound work) bells, birds, markets more audible as mediating, as quality space, to our audiences? Awareness of the ocean (or other sounding bodies or assemblages) as providing an evaluatory framework through which Coastal Pangcah develop stances on performances is not particularly novel. Bringing this awareness into the production of ethnographic sound work would, however, change our approach to sound work as a mode of ethnographic rather than mere documentary practice.
**(1) Typically, ‘Amis / Pangcah people distinguish between traditional and popular musics according to the lack or presence of instrumental accompaniment (traditional musics are sung a cappella) and whether the song has lyrics with fixed semantic content (traditional musics generally have vocables but no “words”). (2) The bulo is a name for an indigenous village or community. Sometimes it is translated as “tribe.”