This post builds on the themed issue Dwelling in Musical Movement: Making a Home in and through Music, the world of music (new series) 8:11 (2019).

Dwelling in Musical Movement: An interview with Barbara Titus (guest editor)

by Rasika Ajotikar


RA: What sparked your interest in ‘dwelling’? How did your own musical practice and scholarship motivate you to think about the concept?

BT: As a matter of fact, my interest in dwelling was an intellectual and conceptual curiosity, sparked by a collaboration with my colleagues in Göttingen (Birgit Abels, Eva Maria van Straaten and Charissa Granger) when I was writing a chapter in their volume Music Moves: Musical Dynamics of Relation, Knowledge and Transformation (Titus 2016). They pointed me towards the anthropological and cultural-studies discourse about dwelling, home-making, uprooting and re/grounding. This illustrates for me how thinking is a social activity; I find it difficult to disconnect my interest in dwelling from theirs, even if I have my own things to say about it, which I outlined in the introduction to this themed issue.

It was only during the writing process of the introduction to this themed issue, that my interest developed beyond intellectual curiosity—in fact, it really helped me to make sense of a lot of things in my (musical) life that I had previously been unable to conceptualize. I want to highlight a couple of those things in order to provide some insight into how the writing process went, and how the contributions to this themed issue came together.

The authors of this themed issue, Rachel Beckles Willson, Birgit Abels, Anna Lisa Ramella, Thibault Fontanari and myself come from musicology as well as anthropology. Some of the contributions had been part of a panel organized by Birgit Abels and myself at the 13th International Society for Ethnology and Folklore (SIEF) Conference in Göttingen (Germany) in March 2017 about dwelling in musical movement. The theoretical frameworks we employ overlap to some extent, but are also informed by our disciplinary backgrounds in Britain, Germany, Francophone Belgium and The Netherlands, respectively. In my view, this makes for an interesting kaleidoscope of approaches to music through the notion of dwelling.

My introduction to the themed issue is meant to describe this kaleidoscope, and while I was writing it, I felt pleasantly secured, telling a story of how I thought the contributions relate to one another. I was crafting an assemblage, drawing lines between the articles, until a particular constellation emerged. It was an exertion of power in which I invested and believed—and this accounted for my feeling of security. I often have this feeling when I write and I think it emerges from the (imagined and actual) ability to re/situate a lived experience on one’s own terms, which has often been theorized in reflections of (musical) ethnography (Clifford 1988, Rice 1994, Barz 1997). This re/making of an experience depends on me molding my argument, like a sculptor. It was this feeling that led me to Catherine Malabou’s notion of plasticity. This year, she is holding the Spinoza Chair at my university, the University of Amsterdam, and I had attended her inspiring lecture about Anarchy and Philosophy. She draws attention to the very physical, material aspect of making and being, a double movement of simultaneously giving and receiving form, that leads to reorganizations (expansions, retractions) of space. This gave me the opportunity to think critically about dwelling, both in music and in writing. 

This feeling of security while writing stands in sharp contrast to what I felt during a public event I participated in a couple of weeks ago, organized by a couple of our students in Amsterdam. The initiative is called Sound in Action, and this specific event was entitled Narratives of Displacement. I shared the stage with a number of wonderful people, who could speak of displacement from their own experience, which was deeply moving and thought provoking. Godfrey Lado, a singer-poet, was there. He works through his traumas from being a war child in South Sudan by means of his performances. Yara Said, a visual artist who fled from Damascus, Syria was there. She founded the Salwa Foundation, offering work spaces and consolation for refugee artists. Lucy Little was there. She works for Musicians without Borders, offering music therapy training in post-conflict areas throughout the world. She is the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. And I was there: as the academic working on music and migration. I have travelled for as long as I can remember, but exclusively from a position of privilege. I had always known this, but never had I felt it so poignantly as on that evening. In no way did I feel entitled to speak in that panel, even though I did. I’m “dwelling” on this event in so much detail because it made me realize that being able to dwell presupposes some kind of entitlement. Acquiring this entitlement is easy for me in an academic argument, dwelling in the ivory tower of the academy, and this convenience can be employed in non-academic situations too as exertions of authority. In my book (Titus [forthcoming]) about my fieldwork in South African maskanda music, I argue that music can also do this: offering a feeling of entitlement to express yourself about something with cultural authority. This makes music a powerful mode of dwelling.

Khombisile “S’kho” Miya instructing the musicians of her band Abagqugquzeli at the Stables Theatre Durban, July 2009

RA: In the introduction, you discuss through an auto-ethnographic account, your experience of belonging/dwelling in Durban, South Africa while attempting to master a vocal timbre of the Zulu maskanda singing. How would you describe your journey into this particular style? How has plasticity (‘giving and receiving form’) unfolded in your experience?

BT: As the notion of plasticity is something I came across recently, it has helped me to conceptualize aspects of my journey into the maskandi style in hindsight. I say “in hindsight” because I can now articulate aspects of this journey that I was aware of previously on a conceptual level as well as on a sensory level, but which I had been unable to connect. The notion of plasticity enables me to make this connection. For instance, that doing fieldwork is taking up space with your body (in physical [including sonic] respect) and your presence shapes your surroundings (fellow human beings, rooms, social interactions) in all kinds of other respects. This, obviously, is a truism in ethnographic discourses, but Malabou’s description of the interactivity of giving and receiving form helps me to reflect further on my own physical presence while investigating Zulu maskanda practice in post-apartheid South Africa. And it allows me to address the many (problematic) dimensions of this interactivity that also very much feature in dwelling and musicking: the being there and taking up/shaping space can lead to new friendships, mutual enrichments, reconsiderations and (often simultaneously) to appropriation, paternalizing, and the confirmation of existing power dynamics.


RA: The contributions to this special volume as well as your introduction critically nuance the idea of dwelling as shifting sensory realities. This reminds me of sensory ethnography, particularly the contributions of Sarah Pink (2009). How do you see this volume and the discussions emerging from it take shape with regards to fieldwork and methods in cultural musicology/ethnomusicology as well as anthropology?  How/do we prepare ourselves to “go into the field” sensorially?

BT: What is important to me—and I hope this themed issue will contribute to this—is the cherishing of doubt and insecurity: i.e. those aspects that we do not associate with dwelling or home-making. All four authors explicate this doubt and insecurity, and I think we can do that because we are all somehow privileged. Our basic needs are secured—then it becomes possible to doubt. Research overwhelmingly demonstrates that our senses are “plastic”, like our brains—they are not “naturally” set to do something; their capacities change according to environments and necessities and affordances, albeit resistantly and slowly. Now, whereas the necessity for openness and the postponement of judgement is being preached in basically all ethnographic endeavours, the presence of inconsistencies, incompatibilities, resistances and frictions that emerges in ethnographic encounters could be further problematized. In my own ethnographic practice, I feel that my willingness to decenter my own certainties and convictions is enabled and fed by a very deep colonial urge to explore and conquer, to expand my intellectual and sensory territory. It is in fact a very banal craving for exoticism. This paradox—this “occupational” expansion urge, nurturing a sensory openness—is something I have tried to make palpable in my introduction to this themed issue through the concept of plasticity: the relational movement of simultaneously giving and receiving form.


RA: Could you further address and elaborate subjective positionality? For instance, from an intersectional perspective, how would our class, race, gender, sexuality, caste (etc.) locations determine the way we dwell/home and vice versa? 

BT: Please see what I said about this with regard to the Sound in Action panel I participated in about Narratives of Displacement. I am extremely privileged in acquiring knowledge, shaping knowledge and disseminating knowledge for the following reasons that intersect in a diversity of situations: I come from a family of generations of academics from both my mum’s and my dad’s side. Academia is my home in many respects. Also, my parents worked the larger part of the year in The Netherlands and a couple of months per year in Indonesia. So, for as long as I can remember I went to and fro between those countries. This situation was riddled with contradictions that exist side by side in their complexity. My dad was educating Indonesian students, my mum was supporting Indonesian dissidents in what was then a totalitarian state during the Orde Baru Suharto regime. Yet, we lived a colonial life in the 1970s and 1980s, with Indonesian staff whom we then still called “servants”. Now, I am a financially independent European white woman with the health to travel great distances. I have had the confidence—if not hubris—to decide and study a musical genre that is often perceived as belonging to those who are bereaved, displaced, demonstratively male and traditional Zulu. I’m pretty sure I had this confidence thanks to my extremely privileged upbringing, that has provided me with notions of entitlement.

All authors in the themed issue somehow articulate such incompatibilities—that may be the most poignant dimension that brings them together, and, as I outline in my introduction, these incompatibilities can be acknowledged through the concept of dwelling. And I think these specific incompatibilities are very much part of the privileged lives we (all featured authors) live, which enables us to culturally situate ourselves.


RA: You address a crucial issue about writing and/as representation. What in your opinion would be other possibilities to decolonise this epistemic and epistemological hegemony as it evidently creates ‘unhomely’ spaces for people (we work with)?

BT: This is an extremely important question and I have no articulate answer to it. The epistemic hegemony of conceptualization—that is part of the epistemological hegemony of eurogenic academia—is a hegemony because it is so advantageous to those being able to participate in it. Conceptual thought is really handy to make sense of our world, to control it, shape it, use it. The question is: who and what is enabled to participate in this sense-making, this controlling, shaping and using? And who or what decides who can participate? There are destructive legacies of colonialism and climate change because of such hegemonies, but I expect other modes of expression or shifted power dynamics to culminate in exertions of control that can be just as destructive. Knowing through music, too, can be very violent, fear inducing, exclusive. Dwelling as “a re/creation of soils of significance” can be occupational and oppressive as much as securing and uniting. “Alternative knowledge systems” in South Africa need a presence next to formal education that was so thoroughly repressive during the colonial and apartheid eras, but these alternative knowledge systems can also obstruct, for instance, the effective treatment of HIV/AIDS or the emancipation of women. I don’t think we solve inequalities of power by ditching one mode of action or expression and replace it with another. I think it is about who and what can participate in an epistemic practice. Then we’re back to relationality. And we’re back to plasticity: these epistemic practices need to change, and the slowness and the resistance of these changes needs to be acknowledged and anticipated.


RA: Could you elaborate why you describe dwelling as ambivalent? What do you think are the various possibilities emerging out of this conceptual intervention on music studies in general?

BT: It is tempting to describe dwelling as something harmonious between an individual and its surroundings. Finding resonance. Finding one’s place. But there is another side (or multiple other sides) to it: making your place somewhere is not necessarily beneficiary for your environment. Where is the distinction between living with others (including other animals, trees, our environment) in harmony or symbiosis on the one hand, and living with them in peace because you have mastered them on the other hand? I think it is easy to romanticize dwelling as something good and nice for everyone. But dwelling can be extremely destructive, it can be occupational, it can be appropriative, and in very subtle (apparently non-aggressive) ways, through paternalism or detached moralism. Music has an ambivalence in it that—in my ears and eyes—is very similar to the ambivalence of dwelling: it can bring people together and drive them apart; it can sooth and torture living beings. I’m interested in the moments where the unifying and securing dimensions overlap with the divisive and totalitarian dimensions. For instance, when I felt at home in the maskanda vocal timbre that came out of my own body, I still also violated my body a little to do it. Moreover, this was a moment in which I honoured and gave credit to maskanda practice, but I simultaneously appropriated it for the benefit of my own cultural capital. Those dimensions go together even if they seem mutually exclusive in their extreme forms. That’s why I think we should be very careful in judging or condemning them. I think it is more productive—from an academic, ethnographic point of view as well as from an ethically responsible human point of view—to stay in and with such a moment (“dwell”) for as long as it is healthy for all involved, and see/hear/sense what happens. In my view, the ambiguities of dwelling can highlight the ambiguities of musicking, and hence impact how we carry out our musical ethnographies. The double movement of giving and receiving form, presupposed in the notion of Malabou’s plasticity, might be a way of understanding (making sense) of such a moment while being in relation to all agents with whom we share the moment.


RA: You consistently refer to colonial pasts and the projection of Euro-centric/eurogenic epistemologies in your introduction. In what way would you think dwelling (in and through music) could help us to address the current socio-political and cultural inequities within and outside academia?

BT: I think notions of dwelling could help in acknowledging that we are all part of the colonial legacy that we want to criticize; we’re in the middle of it, we cannot look from a distance at it and say: “it was all wrong, I don’t do this kind of thing”, it’s too messy for such unequivocality. I think ethical judgements are only possible and convincing to those who need to be convinced if uttered from a position of doubt, not from a position of moral superiority. But then, acting from a position of doubt is a privilege, so we’re back to square one…


RA: Finally, what are your upcoming projects and are there any particular ones developing out of the theme of this issue?

BT: I’d like to end by reiterating how I began: with the concept of dwelling I managed to find words for what is a leitmotiv in my working and personal life. I am now delving into a collection of ethnographic material assembled between 1919 and the early 2000s by my predecessors at the University of Amsterdam, including Jaap Kunst. This collection encompasses sound recordings (from wax roles to LPs to mp3s), photographic material, film, and correspondence, teaching material that provides a unique and compelling collection of music and sound, movement and dance, drama and theatre, organology, etc. It also helps us investigate critically the epistemic legacies of such endeavours, the colonial gazes and hearings, the systems of inclusion and exclusion presupposed in aesthetic choices and stances by musicians, recordists, missionaries, militaries, administrations, scholars, tourists, etc. At present, there is no critical discourse situating the work of Jaap Kunst, which is urgently needed in a broader discussion about the Dutch colonial past(s) that are still so palpable in present-day Indonesia and The Netherlands. For this reason, I am working together with scholars from Indonesia to disclose and investigate this collection—it is another very exciting exploring expedition with unknown outcomes.




Barz, Gregory F. 1997. “Confronting the Field(Note) in and out of the Field: Music, Voices, Texts, Experiences in Dialogue.” In Shadows in the Field: New Perspectives for Fieldwork in Ethnomusicology, edited by Gregory F. Barz & Timothy J. Cooley, 45–62. New York: Oxford University Press.

Clifford, James, & George E. Marcus. 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pink, Sarah. 2009. Doing Sensory Ethnography. London: SAGE Publications.

Rice, Timothy. 1994. “Dancing in the Scholar’s World.” In May It Fill Your Soul: Experiencing Bulgarian Music, 3–15. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press (Chicago Studies in Ethnomusicology).

Titus, Barbara. [Forthcoming]. “Your Tongue, Your Sound, Your Song from your Inside:” Hearing Maskanda in Post-Apartheid South Africa. [completed manuscript].

Titus, Barbara. 2016. ‘“There Is That Cry Sometimes”: Negotiations and Exertions of Power in South African Maskanda Music’ in: Music Moves: Musical Dynamics of Relation, Knowledge and Transformation, edited by Charissa Granger et al., 107–133. Hildesheim: Olms.