Thomas Burkhalter (Bern, 1973) is a cultural producer, founder and editor-in-chief of Norient (International Network for Local & Global Sounds and Media Culture), the organism that has curated the great exhibition Seismographic Sounds. Visions of a New World, opened during Transmediale and CTM festivals at the end of January and running till the 20th of March – therefore, last chance to check it out! The show is an anthropologic document of our current times, and there is also an exhibition’s namesake book, which introduces you to a contemporary world of distinct music, sounds, music videos and hints. Among other things, they prognosticate that mainstream hits and underground trends of the future will come from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Burkhalter is likewise director of the Norient Musikfilm Festival in Switzerland, and a documentary filmmaker as well. We talked with this multifaceted man about “every” aspect of music nowadays.
You present yourself as ethnomusicologist. For those not familiar with the word, ethnomusicologists approach music as a social process in order to understand not only what music is, but what it means to its practitioners and audiences, and how those meanings are conveyed. But isn't that what every musicologist would do? How can music be separated from its cultural, social, material, cognitive, biological context?
I think I call myself ethnomusicologist because in the last years I have been studying this field and I feel I'm part of a generation that wants to change it. We are more focused in cities; we try to work with experimental music, subcultures and in any places where we have other interesting things going on. So I work in different topics and I also use other methods… There are some musicologists that just study the sound, specially in the academic environment. They analyse the music score, what is innovative, what is new and so on, but they don't care about the context.
I see. They study Beethoven, his music and his scores, but they do not care about his life and how Germanic culture, philosophy, or literature influenced him. That’s weird…
Well, it is like this, some musicologists only analyse the score, not even the sound. But our new generation doesn't believe in the score, we do believe in the music. We work with musicians that maybe cannot read a score, and even if they can, it doesn't mean that they will play it 100% as it is written. The recording is the score nowadays. We try to discuss what we hear, rather than what we see. If you only analyse the score, you cannot be precise enough.
Norient is a network for local and global sounds and media culture. To what do you refer by “media”? It's a confusing term.
We use “media” in a broad sense, but basically as “medium”. I will explain myself better: audiovisual items (films, music, etc.) are produced and then distributed across the globe via different media-channels, like the internet, TV or radio. All the references people sample from are often taken from media channels –for example, films from the 1980–. This is what we call "media cultures": many types of media/mediums surrounding us – screens, devices, TV, radio or internet to mention some.
Music is considered by the popular (pop) as an emotional “game”, a product completely controlled by the capital (music labels, distribution, marketing, etc.). It engages people because of the emotions, but also because of the trends. Is there “another type music”, intellectual and emotional at the same time, beyond the reach of politics and market?
I believe commercial music is the same as independent music –understood as not mainstream, not massive market focus–. It is difficult to see who are the actors and the power behind a certain kind of music. Today, mainstream pop culture in general is dominated by capital, but on the other hand, independent artists that created alternative or avant-garde music are maybe supported by family or friends who could be connected to capital as well: bankers, big companies' managers… If you travel out of Europe, sometimes it's not so nice to know where money comes from. Even in my country, Switzerland, money often comes from corruption.
I was also referring to the fact that maybe some artists don't want to be mainstream: avant-garde, noise, synthetic sound production or music based on field recording.
Yes, definitely, this kind of music cannot reach the same public as pop music, because it is very, very different. Moreover, the purpose is different. But in any case, things are not black or white. Sometimes artists try to make music that sounds mainstream to reach the population, but they do experimental stuff as well.
There was a band, many years ago, called Corner Shop, from the UK. They were number one with their first EP in the lists in Great Britain and due to that they were invited to their first TV show. The surprise was that they were all Pakistani, but really sounded as brit-pop. They became mainstream to show that Pakistani –not just white– people living in Britain were also part of Great Britain, and that mainstream music could be done by anyone (again, not just by whites). As you see, there are different types of strategies on how to reach the public.
In the music world, what or who do you consider as outsiders? Out of the commercial circuit, independent scene and so on.
I don't know… I like people who have a passion for something, even if it's building his own computer or her own car, or making very strange music. I reckon that all these people with a strong passion for something are somehow outsiders: what mainstream consider out of the norm, strange, nerds. And all these nerds and freaks are the musicians I work with, it's alright to have a platform for all the outsiders in order to give them some visibility. This is what we do in Norient. I believe this is what counts.
It is very common for musicians to work in advertising, commercial movies or video games to earn money, to pay their bills and survive; and then they do the music they really want to do, playing in specialized festivals and so on. I have talked to some musicians that don't want people to know about their commercial stuff… Is that part of our schizoid-society, a constant divergence between what we do and what we want to do?
Yes, some artists try to hide it, I don't know why. When I work in Africa and abroad, I meet all these musicians that make alternative music, and the crowd assume they're poor and what they do is really vocational. But normally it's not the case – to do experimental music, money to support the project is needed as well. Sometimes I have been in rehearsals of alternative music bands or metal bands in really huge rich villas, and it's difficult to determine if these bands are producing the money to have this type of houses, maybe they do. Or maybe they do more commercial stuff besides the alternative one as well.
My last economic question is based on the post-internet era. I am saying “post” not meaning “after”, but in the sense that it has become the default by means of communication, and no other paradigm can compete with it. Are we also living in post-capitalism, as no other economic system seems to be possible?
In the music scene, all I can say is that everyone is trying to find a way to finance their projects and their living as an artist. It's a time of experimentation, no one knows how to make money from contemporary, arty music. The music economic system does't exist anymore, labels are falling apart, sales are gone – only mainstream music exists. Spotify takes over everything, all they publish is for free and they don't give any revenue to the musician. Facebook was very good for an organization like Norient at the beginning, we could publish in our page what we were doing so the followers were updated and our content was spread quickly. But now, they changed the algorithm – if you do not reply constantly to everyone, you get lower in the position of being shown, and you don't arrive to your followers, you need to pay and this isn't in our philosophy as a collective. Hence, basically what we do every year is to build a profile in a new social media platform. Sound Cloud is good for us now, but maybe we'll be changing soon, and we'll need to pay for using it…
Lets move to the exhibition Seismographic sounds - Visions of a New World. I am curious, what do you mean by “new world”?
Well, I've been traveling a lot in the last 15 years and I've found many musicians in different countries doing music outside of the standard circuits of Europe and the US, but it is not commercial stuff. These artists in Africa, Asia and Latin America do songs about their country: Ghana, Senegal, Lebanon, etc. We're building a network, a community that tries to experiment and wants to create music with quality, caring about content. By doing so, we try to show a world that is not just black and white, to break the idea that someone from Beirut has to sound Arabic, and someone from Africa has to sound African. They are the ones promoting a new world, one that it is not targeted in our comfortable western system. We are living difficult times with refugees, there's never been so many people leaving their countries because of war and violence since WWII. Nevertheless, more than 80% of the population worldwide wants to live in peace, without conflicts and longing to move forward with their lives. Musicians are part of this 80% – they want to show that there is another side to be seen every day.
The main piece within the exhibition revolves around six topics –music in relation to money, loneliness, war, belonging, exotica and desire–. Are these ideas what better define modern Western societies?
 Not at all. Let me explain how we arrived to the six topics. We wanted to give a complete global picture of what is going on, musically speaking, nowadays, and consequently, we launched an open call for musicians to submit tracks and clips to Norient. We received more than 1000 submissions from all over the planet. Afterwards, we did a huge excel sheet with tags such as “money, love, gun shots, war, bomb, etc.” The tags we worked with were found either in the title, heard in the lyrics or seen in the videos.
The six topics selected were the most repeated in our study. In fact, "loneliness" is the only topic we found in Europe and the US, the rest were worldwide. War, for example, was found in places where, of course, there's war; but also in places where there isn't, like the UK. Some people are fascinated by it, they use sounds of bombs in the base to make it stronger, for example. Thus, you see, it's the same subject with different motivations.
The exhibition’s namesake book Seismographic sounds - Visions of a New World features artists, sound cultures and projects coming from localities operating on the fringes of the electronic music circuit, all around the world. Could you please comment on this?
As said before, I have been studying music around the world for more than twelve years now. I don't know why people believe this topic is somehow special. I think it is a logic approach, because the world is diverse – it is not about Europe and the US anymore. It's about time to pay attention to the music produced in the world we live in, and to diversity. The book features punk in Bolivia and Indonesia, electronic music in Egypt, underground pop from South Africa and Nigeria, rap in Pakistan, Serbia, Chile and Ghana, noise music from Israel, post digital pop from UK, Neuer Konzeptualismus…
Let's talk about “exoticism" or "exotica”. In a conversation between you and Martin Stokes, called The Banalization of the Exotic, Stokes connects “exotica” to the ideas of othering, primitivism, ethnicity, orientalism and colonialism. What's your view on this?
There are many artists in Africa and other places parodying exoticism, what “we” in western culture understand as “exotica”. Yet, the downside of it is that it's easier for a musician from Africa, an Arabic country or Latin America –to mention a few– to make music with a local touch or flavour. If they don't add this “touch”, sounding completely placeless, experts become nervous. Curators suppose, to a certain extent, that an African musician should sound African, and I consider that's a really bad thing.
For example, I am in Nigeria and I am fascinated by death metal, why am I not allowed to do amazing death metal music in Nigeria? Why do I need to sound African to be considered a good musician? I actually understand this kind of thoughts as racist, in a way. Good music is made by many influences and references, and now more than ever, where you are “siting” right now is the less important aspect of it.
We have talked about the internet and the use of computers and new ways to access to music, could you please elaborate on the concept of “digital cultures”?
I do consider musicians and artists that are very much dependent on the internet and the use of open source software as digital cultures representatives. In the case of music, it is produced entirely in a computer, with free copies of software, hacked versions, freeware… This is what we call digital culture. Internet also inspires the works these cultures produce. I met many musicians in Pakistan last year, and a lot of them learn music or how to make it through YouTube tutorials. If you don't have music schools with the subjects you want to learn, YouTube has became an educational tool: experts or skilled people upload videos teaching how to play an instrument or use a piece of software to compose music.
Let's go over another of your roles. You organize a music film festival in Switzerland, The Norient Musikfilm Festival. What can you tell us about it?
Oh, it is working very well, and for us it's the best time of the year! It has a lot of support from the public. We've created a program of films that have music as their main theme, and we bring the directors along to present the movie to the audience. In addition, we program live performances and panel discussions with musicians, DJs and record labels. The 7th edition was in January, and we projected documentaries, movies and videoclips about metal, rap, punk, rock, 20th century classical music and musique concrete from around the world. Plus, the festival is celebrated simultaneously in three cities: Bern, Laussane and St. Gallen.
And, last by not least, you are also a documentary filmmaker. Are you involved in some documentary project at the moment?
Yes, I am. I am co-directing, together with Peter Guyer, a documentary about protest and music today. It is produced by Norient (me) and Recycle TV (Peter). We've already filmed some amazing local rappers in Ghana, and additionally we'll be shooting a great noise artist in Israel. I leave you the teaser for the material we got in Ghana, it is a XL teaser though (around 25 minutes), but better seeing it than talking about it!
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