remembered soundscapes, with apologies to murray schafer

today i fell for nostalgia. while harvesting a field edge by hand, i felt sad never to have heard the sound of harvesting before the arrival of the combine: although one might hear work songs today, nostalgia whispers that certainly they must have been more beautiful in their original setting of agricultural labour. that is a sound that i will never hear.

nostalgia troubles me, as it does many anthropologists. nostalgia is best an object of anthropology, i would say, and not its motive. yes, my critical chops tell me that i should criticize nostalgia relentlessly, particularly when it reaches its kudzu strength tendrils into my own thinking; however, the charms of nostalgia often threaten to seduce me. my own nostalgia stems from a curiosity about sounds that disappeared decades ago, but about which a few around ‘atolan can still tell me or hum out a melody. unlike those anthropologists who lament an ever disappearing object, i wonder about what has been gone just long enough to have disappeared but remain within living memory. on the one hand, i don’t want to find myself among the kind of soundscape studies that reject industrial soundscapes outright. i think that there is much in our sonic world today of value. so i cannot place myself in murray schafer’s nostalgia drenched company. the idea that somehow contemporary soundscapes are less valuable than non-industrial ones doesn’t match my experience

still, my experience of going to harvest rice today does make me vulnerable for a kind of nostalgia, which i would like to articulate here

for those of you who haven’t experience with harvesting rice, it is a mechanized process with a bit of human scythe work. in order to give the combine room, we need to harvest a few small strips–about the width and length of the combine–by hand. otherwise, as my friends tell me, most of our work is just to drink beer mixed with paolyta b as we watch the combine mow and thresh the grain encumbered stalks. today, as we put back the paolyta bottle, the age mate whose field we are harvesting tells me that back in the day a field this size probably would have taken five or six people two days. before industrialized agriculture, the work of transplanting rice seedlings and harvesting were often tasks completed cooperatively through labor exchanges among age mates or extended family. we cannot overestimate the difficulty of the work. my age mate reminds me of the difficulty and insecurity of agricultural labour in one of his jeremiads about taipei people. they are always wondering why he and many other taitung farmers do not plant organic rice. for one, the number of pesticide and herbicide spraying cherimoya gardens around ‘atolan mean that one could never certify as organic anyway. still, before industrialized agriculture, those old people had to do all of the work by hand. they would have to work the field every day. how is he to do that when he has several fields in several locations, not to mention other work to do? allocating some labour to machines means, of course, that he can do more work, leaving his 20 year old son free to go to college in taipei. he has little patience for farmland buying taipei people who fantasize about the pleasures of agricultural work. the only work they have ever known has been at a desk.

still, the sound of the combine mowing and threshing does seem to lack the sonic richness of pre-industrial agricultural work. over the sound of the pacific ocean in the distance, one would hear the calls of frogs and insects, birds chirping as they try to steal some of the grain, the sound of scything, and weaving around all of these sounds the work songs of those harvesting. the articulation of the work songs would, of course, index the physical movement and tempo of the work. and so, my question is whether a performance of the work songs today in the context of a concert, recording, or even a gathering of friends around a table, can ever approximate a performance of these songs in their context of composition. this question still vexes me if i switch from a notion of “music in context” to “music as context,” for, if the songs were contexts in which people performed collective agricultural labour–the way these songs are understood by people around ‘atolan who say that of course people sang while harvesting rice because it lessened their fatigue–what does it mean when that context is an empty one, one in which people sing and listen rather than working? there is a sonic difference between work and “tradition.” salvage and preservationist approaches generally miss this difference. thus schafer’s nostalgia might be more than garden variety: work on historical soundscapes would capture this difference in sound, or at least alert us to the gap between song as a context in which one works and song as an element of a performance of traditional music. but isn’t it this gap that incites my particular nostalgia? perhaps. will i ever really hear the work songs, then?

i think about this question as i grasp a bunch of rice stalks, pull the scythe in one motion toward me, shift my weight, and repeat four times, then turn to place a bundle of stalks along the side of the field. looking across the field ahead of me, i am pretty sure that no one wants to return to doing this work entirely by hand. and yet the rhythm of the work makes me wonder about a sound that i will never hear.

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