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  • Writer's pictureCharlie Rumsby

Ethnographic Soundtrack

Updated: Apr 19, 2022

One thing I have wanted to do more of is experiment with sound when trying to convey the 'emotion' of ethnographic research. I was incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to collaborate with music composer Pete Myson during the ASEASUK project. You see, it is always good to share ideas with friends because sometimes they can be the beginning of something. Pete did an awesome job creating an array of sounds to go with Ben's illustrations. Check out my recent interview with Pete to learn more about the process.

Charlie: Tell us about your journey into music composition..

Pete: I've enjoyed writing music for a long time. In my twenties I played in a band called Kanzi and when we stopped working together I had a creative itch that I couldn't scratch. I'd been teaching English in a secondary school for seven years so I decided to have a break and take a master's course in music which is great - it's given me so much time to dedicate to writing and recording.

Charlie: How did it feel putting music to the illustrations for this project?

Pete: It was really nice working with the illustrations when thinking about the compositions. The illustrations do a really good job of capturing situations and emotions so as a composer it felt less like I had to come up with ideas from scratch and more like I needed the music to be a continuation of what Ben had already so nicely laid out. I'm really interested in ideas around constraint when it comes to composition. I love applying limitations and boundaries and seeing what I can do within those things so having the illustrations kind of worked to confine me, but in a nice way.

Charlie: What was it like working with an academic?

Pete: It was fun working with an academic. As I've been back at uni this year I've been in several situations where I've been asked to compose with or for academics and thinking about where music fits into academia is definitely an interesting conundrum. Lots of people are working hard to convince funding bodies that creativity and music composition are valid forms of academic research. I don't know where I sit with that. I understand that subjects like the sciences are appealing to funding bodies because there's a certain amount of measurability in the work that is being done. I'm not sure I'm too keen to try and apply those frameworks to music making though. I mean, I have no idea how one might 'measure' a music composition and I think that's very appealing for me.

Charlie: How much of your own style did you bring to the pieces you composed?

Pete: I think there is some of my own style in the pieces composed for this work. But the work has also pulled me out of my comfort zone to some extent. It was nice writing music for such a different subject compared to what I'm normally thinking about. I think I'm quite often drawn to the melancholic, there's a real need, for me in music, to draw beauty from sadness or perhaps find the beauty within sadness and so that is an area of overlap between my own styles and what I've produced here. The study and the illustrations held a clear sense of melancholy that I tried to tap into.

Charlie: What do you think music / soundscapes can bring to academic representations of statelessness / children's lives?

Pete: I think on a very basic level music can often bring life to things. There's a certain emotional level that music taps into straight away. I think it can also work as a kind of anthropology but I don't think I've done that here. It would have been awesome to engage more closely with Cambodian music, exploring traditional instrumentation or forms. I think if I'd done that then perhaps the music could also have touched upon something cultural too; but the route that I went down is definitely much more of a soundtrack, something that hopefully just gently tints the lens of the view that you have provided in your research.

Charlie: What other projects are you working on at the moment?

Pete: I'm currently just coming to the end of working on a record that I've been composing throughout lockdown. I've been very privileged to have lots of music-making facilities at my disposal and plenty of time to use them. Lockdown for me has been a period of reflection and introspection and so I think the music I've made explores those qualities. Hopefully it'll be released before the end of the year. Between now and then I'm going to take a break and go cycling :)

Pete and I have plans to collaborate again. You can listen to the soundtrack to this project and some of Pete's other brilliant creations below.

Ethnographic soundtracks, to me at least, encapsulate not just the obvious sounds of the research environment (in Cambodia the rooster, motorbikes and rain spring to mind). When using visual methods time needed to be carved out for children to draw. To create an atmosphere of concentration, I asked participants if they would like to listen to some music. That year Adele's "Hello" had made it to the smart phones of the young people I worked with. They loved it. So I downloaded the album "25" and played it whenever a visual task was being done. At one point I thought perhaps participants would rather I play something less focused on heart ache and redemption. So I changed the music to something more 'popular'. I was quickly asked to play Adele again. I remember David, 15 saying "miss, sorry can you change it back. It is soothing". Whenever I coded data, or read through transcripts I listened to the album. It somehow revived my memory, calmed me down and did something squishy inside. Music is known to connect to the unspoken. This is why I am excited to use sounds in the future.

Catherine Allerton wrote a great essay on the power of 'Sahabat': a song by the Malaysian singer Najwa Latif. She writes beautifully about the song's emotional power, and how it eased her transitions through fieldwork from the role of English-speaking parent to Malay-speaking fieldworker. Check it out.

Allerton, C. 2019. Najwa Latif – ‘Sahabat’. Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society. 43(2): 84-87. Special Section, ‘The Fieldwork Playlist’.

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