Sound Knowledge: Alternative Epistemologies of Music in the Western Pacific Island World

Funded by the European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant – Horizon 2020

Starting in spring 2020, Prof. Dr. Birgit Abels will explore, together with her team, the sound knowledge of music in the Western Pacific Island World. Her 5-year project, Sound Knowledge: Alternative Epistemologies of Music in the Western Pacific Island World (SoundKnowledge), aims to rethink music in terms of the procedural knowledge inherent in and specific to music-making by exploring the latter as knowledge practices in Micronesia. This knowledge, formed in the performance of musical practice, may prove to be key to survival in the complex postcolonial predicament of Micronesia. The project will address the issues of climate change, social alienation and postcolonial trauma in specific parts of Micronesia by fleshing out the nature and dynamics of that knowledge both conceptually and ethnographically. The systematic analysis of music as knowledge will identify strategies to foster resilience in the face of these urgent crises. At the same time, it will offer a first-of-its-kind theorization of the procedural knowledge inherent in and specific to music-making.

The knowledge of music is self-referential and forms multilayered connections and ruptures with pasts, presents and futures, surrounding orders of knowledge and other sensory registers in addition to the auditory. SoundKnowledge asks what Western Pacific musical practices know and how they know it, how music-making makes this knowledge operable and how humans mobilize upon this knowledge in coping with their life-world through music. The project, therefore, explores how music functions as an epistemic form that is distinct yet imbricated within its environment, often referred to as the proverbial power of music.

SoundKnowledge provides insights into the specific knowledge of Western Pacific music in its entanglement with pressing cultural and social issues of the early 21st century. In contributing to the theoretical debate on the knowledge of music, the project probes vital questions of knowledge resources and human futures. SoundKnowledge will also instigate change: In programmatic collaboration with local institutions, the research results will be used toward the development of community action strategies.

The project operates based on three case studies and Abels’ central, synthesizing study. The case studies will explore the procedural knowledge concrete music-making practices of the Western Pacific hold with a view to three pressing social and cultural issues in the region: 1) Climate change in the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM); 2) suicide, violence and social alienation in the Marshall Islands; and 3) (post-)coloniality in Guam. Abels’ central study will synthesize the conceptual implications of the case studies and draw on and extend her longstanding fieldwork in Palau. It will trace the complex history of knowing through music in colonial and postcolonial Micronesia, and engage critically with the theoretical underpinnings, regional ramifications and methodological core issues expounded by SoundKnowledge. With this set of sub-studies, the project will open important vistas on the dynamics between the knowledge of music and the surrounding orders of knowledge the former stabilizes, destabilizes and reshapes.

More information will follow soon.

ERC Projekt SoundKnowledge Bild 1