A phonographic appendix

One of the goals I try to meet in my thesis is to experiment (modestly) with phonography as a qualitative research method. Apart from a chapter explaining the logic behind listening as an ethnographic methodology, I also put together a phonographic appendix to deliver into my examiners’ hands and ears my understanding of the field.

Clearly I was compelled by the research material (music performance) to use documentation that executed–performed, you could say–the embodied, transient qualities of the former. Also, phonography seemed appropriate for a geographical analysis geared towards the investigation of the relationship between sound and space/place.

The appendix consists of seven field recordings of performances by overseas Filipino musicians. The selection is meant to represent the different stages (lobby/lounge, club, pool deck), venues (hotels, cruise ships, theme parks), and destinations (Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore, Penang) that I visited on the field. I tidied up some of my field notes to contextualize the recordings. I kept each recording to five minutes, a number I repeatedly tested on myself as a workable length for sonically “soaking” the listener in the song and the feel of the place. It’s also more than enough time for people to read through the field note.

The point of the appendix is to try out a relatively unexplored and potentially fruitful epistemological inway into the study. Briefly, my research looks at listens to the similarities and differences between theme parks, cruise ships, and hotels as kinds of music performance spaces. Susan Smith (2000), following Jacques Attali (1985), says that we must think of performance venues as economic, political, and social spaces in which music is produced by and produces power and meaning. I look at two main features which demarcate these three venues as distinct socioeconomic spaces of performance:

  1. They (re)produce a form of professional music performance defined by the daily live performance of mainstream popular music for the venues’ customers. This music has the primary function of entertainment, configured as a kind of service: musicians perform songs that consumers know and/or like, and interact with them as guests and not just customers. These venues configure the creative labor of music performance as the work of entertainment-service.
  2. The transnational labor market for this occupation (in terms of processes of hiring and remuneration) is racially segmented, favoring white and black musicians from Western countries who look, sound, and feel more “authentic.” Yet for a variety of reasons, it is predominated both numerically and geographically by Filipino musicians, especially in land-based venues in Asia. (It’s a more heterogeneous labor pool in cruise entertainment, but Filipinos are a sizable niche.)

The overall point I want to argue is that (1) and (2)–the kind of musical product of live music entertainment, and the demand for high-skilled yet hyperflexible musicians who must, at times, contend with conditions of subordination typically operative in low-skilled migrant occupations–constitute creative industry at the margins; in other words, a peripheral creative industry.

What does this peripheral creativity sound like? Is it less creative? Less original? Less “quality”? Our answers to those questions reveal our biases about what “real” music is, and how it should or should not be done. They also reveal, perhaps, our need to critically attune to the larger structural formations which shape our ways of hearing and valuing music as labor.

One thing I hope the recordings make clear is that music–wherever, however, and why-ever it produces/is produced–engages with us on multiple levels. It reels us in, puts us in a definite here-and-now in a way that visual and textual representations can’t. Whether my attempt at phonography succeeds in doing this in a productive way is up for the examiner (and you) to say. But the effort was worth it very much.

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