Events Listing

By Musical Means: Cultural Techniques of Disentangling in Littoral Myanmar Friedlind Riedel (Bauhaus-University Weimar) Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Location: MMaP Gallery

Tue, 15 Nov 2022 19:30:00 NST - Tue, 15 Nov 2022 21:30:00 NST

“By Musical Means:
Cultural Techniques of Disentangling in Littoral Myanmar”

Friedlind Riedel (Bauhaus-University Weimar)

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

This talk navigates the conceptual waters between two texts: the commentarial works on the Theravāda Abhidhamma by fifth-century philosopher Buddhaghosa, and the musical drama U Shin Gyi, Lord of Brackish Waters by librettist Ko Maung Gyi, which was published in 1905 and is staged to this day by theatrical companies or lay performers on makeshift stages along Myanmar’s littoral coast.

In keeping with the dramatic setting and the eponymous hero of the second text, the talk sets sail in brackish waters, a zone of elemental indistinction where mangrove swamps interlace land and sea and where heterogeneous domains of clean water and turbid water, nature and culture are quite literally fluid. In entangled worlds such as these, where distinctions and categories are not given in advance in the order of things, a basic principle of Abhidhamma thought becomes evident: namely, that it requires tools and techniques of parsing and disentangling—just like a “man standing on the ground and taking up a well-sharpened knife might disentangle a great tangle of bamboos” as Buddhaghosa puts it—to discern and distinguish fundamental entities, categories, and relations. In the musical drama, the tool at hand is not a knife but a musical instrument, the saung gauk (curved harp). Since harps operate quite differently from knifes and since techniques of music making differ sharply from techniques of mindfulness, these procedures each fashion very distinct modes of existence.

This talk takes propositions from Abhidhamma thought, ones that thoroughly destabilize the epistemic frameworks that undergird much scholarship on music and sound, as its point of departure. Close attention to the operational logic of the Burmese harp, however, complicate any simple correspondence between Buddhist thought and musical practice.