The Anthropocene and Music Studies
By Jim Sykes

Sonic Protection / Immunity
My Buddhist interlocuters in Sri Lanka would be surprised to know that many in the West feel that Western classical music is exceptional because in the Romantic period music was theorized as transcendent from society. For my interlocuters, the music they play—conceived as sacred speech so that it will be acceptable as an offering to the Buddha—is the music the gods played to celebrate the Buddha’s Enlightenment. It stands outside time and is conceived as unchanging; it is transcendent. Drummers are not the composers of this speech but the handlers of it. It was sent to them via a gift exchange in which the gods gave it to an indigenous group called the Väddas, who gave it to the Sri Lankan (Sinhala) Buddhist caste of drummers I work with, called the Berava (Sykes 2018). What makes Western classical music different, I suggest, is not the notion of transcendence but, first, how it hinges on the idea that music emanates from an inner self that is ontologically closed (not permeated, for instance, by godly or demonly possession, not stretched across time and distance via reincarnation) in which music is presumed to say something about what constitutes that inner self; and (second) a failure to recognize music ontologically as a gift that may be conceived as having nothing to do with an internal self, which is offered to and connects people with Others, from different human communities to beings like gods, demons, spirits, animals, and objects imbued with value. I suggest such a view—which emerges in any number of ways among diverse peoples—is a more globally justified understanding of music history than the Western notion of musical selves and expression that emanated from the West and then has been uniformly applied elsewhere.

It will help to consider a few examples. Consider the Iñupiaq of Alaska, who receive music as a gift from whales (Sakakibara 2009); the Temiar in Malaysia, a rainforest peoples who receive songs from nonhuman animals and inanimate objects in dreams (Roseman 1991); or the Suya in Brazil, who accept music as a gift from neighboring communities (Seeger 2004). Music-as-gift is just as evident in world religions. (...)

I suggest that once we notice commonalities across the globe that differ from the Western worldview—a widespread belief in music-as-gift is just one example—we have some basis for an alternative method for conceptualizing the world’s music history outside OWW