Yana Stainova on her book, Sonorous Worlds: Musical Enchantment in Venezuela

Interview by Ahona Palchoudhuri


Ahona Palchoudhuri: I’d like to begin with a particularly moving ethnographic instance from your book in which Demian – who I sometimes like to think of as the protagonist of Sonorous Worlds – shares with you the news of his grandfather’s passing and of how listening to Mozart’s Requiem allowed him to come to terms with his loss, and first shed a tear. During the course of your book, you explore through Demian what you call the “Life Behind the Music.” This isn’t life only in the sense of personal history – but instead, a musical vitality that comes alive in the experiences of wonder and enchantment that the embodied reception of music enables. What is the relation between music and life that Sonorous Worlds poses?

Yana Stainova: What a wonderful question, Ahona, thank you. The way you pose it makes me think about the work of Veena Das and Stanley Cavell and I wish I could go back and expand on the concept in the book! The way that I summon the term life in the book is multifaceted. On the one hand, it describes how the specific life experiences and flights of the imagination of each of the musicians imbues a piece of music with unique meaning. This allows me to disentangle the practice of classical music in Venezuela from a narrow definition of a colonial imposition that turns players into automatons. But, as you point out, the way I think about the life behind the music goes beyond a person’s biography. I was inspired by the post-humanist philosophical tradition to which enchantment belongs that made me pay attention to the vitality of matter beyond the human which makes sound possible. As a purely physical phenomenon, a musical instrument sounds because it vibrates. The material it is made of — wood, brass, silver — begins to vibrate in response to the breath or touch of the player, setting the air around it to vibrate as well. These philosophical intuitions were elaborated on by my interlocutors, who frequently referred to their instruments as being alive, jokingly calling them a girlfriend, a best friend. They also referred to music itself as being alive, as having a life of its own. These reflections led me to think about music and life as born out of a complex and dynamic relationship between the player, the instrument, and the musical piece itself. Life, then, is about socialites and forms of communication that extend beyond the human and beyond language itself. 

Ahona Palchoudhuri: Enchantment emerges in the book as the modality in which you experience your fieldsite most intensely. But you also ask us what it might mean to deploy enchantment as a feature of one’s research design. What form of ethnographic method did enchantment offer you?

Yana Stainova: As I observed my interlocutors experience enchantment, defined as a state of being fascinated by an activity one loves, I allowed myself to experience enchantment together with them: through playing music, being touched by their music, and believing in their dreams. It was very important for me to distinguish experiences of enchantment from a momentary fascination that can subsequently be tamed, rationalized, and neatly explained. I wanted to carry this experience in the field with me as a method, theory, and modality of writing. With this, I also aimed to blur the boundaries between these activities, to acknowledge them as essentially part of one another. I have observed that much scholarship studying people in precarious situations tends to portray their lives almost entirely in the vocabulary of these larger forces they are battered by, be it as symptoms of or resistance to structural violence. What I observed through a focus on musical practices were realms of aesthetic experience and the imagination that were in excess of the structural forces that gripped the lives of residents on the urban margins. Being enchanted, for them, was a conscious choice, a desire to find respite from the violence of everyday life. Enchantment for me emerged as a philosophical orientation, one that privileges the more fragile forces of dreams, hopes, and leaps of the imagination nascent at the backdrop of structural violence.

Ahona Palchoudhuri: There’s a set of liberties that one can take or assumptions one can make about the people one has practiced music with over the years– in the sense that you have shared habits of thought, a joint grasp over mood, and know how to fill in for one another and act on each other’s behalf. One might think of this as a musical kinship of sorts. How do social and musical relationships intersect? Are there social relationships that are essentially musical? 

Yana Stainova: What distinguishes music practice within El Sistema from other classical music traditions in the West is that it is almost entirely collective. From an early age, the students take classes together with their peers, and the more experienced students teach those who are just starting. I think about the bonds and communities established in teaching through the concept of the gift. Demian, the book’s protagonist as you call him, described teaching music as “a gift of the soul, a gift that stays with this person.” Rather than a reciprocity that returns the gift to the original receiver, the teacher, I describe teaching as an impulse that propagates the sonorous gift outwards, to other students. A similar phenomenon takes place at the level of orchestral practice. El Sistema orchestras, especially the most advanced ones, rehearsed and performed as a collective almost every day over many years. The collaboration, listening, and interdependence between members of an orchestra is essential for bringing a piece of orchestral music into being. This was most clearly illustrated to me during a concert where one of the instruments did not sound due to a technical problem. This disturbed the delicate balance in an orchestra and elicited other instruments to make up for the silence. In moments when the interdependence was at its best, it led to very moving performances that left the performers in tears and evoked standing ovations from the audiences. Both the highs and lows of musical collaboration led to deep bonding and camaraderie between the musicians but also, predictably, to tensions and irritation. The latter were frequently symptoms of the hierarchical setup of an orchestra. What I found striking about these musical communities is that they encompassed musicians from different socio-economic classes and even political convictions in a deeply polarized country. Musical collaboration allowed for a community to emerge where previously there was none, where one was not possible. The artistic and aesthetic collaboration at least for a moment made differences between musicians less important.

Ahona Palchoudhuri: One might understand Sonorous Worlds as a study of where it is that one might locate the political potential of music, if not necessarily within its demonstrative engagement with dominant political forces. You show us how the aesthetic labor underlying the practice of music elicits, on its own terms, a capacity to aspire and a fight to thrive. In doing so, I think you ask a really difficult question of how it is that music affords, and even nurtures, a spectrum of political positions –some of which might even seem apolitical. How would you describe the relation between this political energy of music and the Venezuelan state, as you experienced it during your fieldwork. In what ways did these energies also remain outside the reach of the state?

Yana Stainova: Many of the musicians I spoke to at El Sistema stayed away from discussions of formal politics. They tried to convince me that music is apolitical. Of course, as an anthropologist, I found this to be impossible to get on board with. However, these conversations led me to locate the political potential of music elsewhere, spilling beyond the realm of formal politics. For example, I was able to appreciate that, as mentioned above, collective musical practices allowed people to forget, for a moment, the deeply fragmenting impact of political divisions in Venezuela and build communities beyond political divisions. I also came to see more clearly that nestled in the daily labor of classical music practices were dreams for the future that went beyond what was dictated as possible by the socioeconomic constraints these young people grew up in — poverty, everyday violence, and state repression. The labor of learning to play a musical instrument was the labor of conjuring dreams deemed impossible and slowly working towards them. The labor required of me as an anthropologist was to witness, document, and learn to believe in those dreams. Each of the musicians’ unique dreams and imaginative horizons all coexisted within a piece of music, making it impossible for the state and the institution to impose a single unified meaning on it. These “dancing energies” generated in collective music practice were unruly and spilled beyond – in excess of – imposed meanings and political categories. 

Ahona Palchoudhuri: Demian asks at some point: “I wonder what you are like when you are not an anthropologist?” What particular insights, genealogies and genealogies does anthropology lend to the study of music? 

Yana Stainova: The way you phrase that question casts it in a light I hadn’t thought of before! Previously, I had considered it in terms of whether it’s possible to switch off being an anthropologist. You are asking me to think about what the substance of being an anthropologist is for me. What anthropology has given me is a set of sensibilities that would be impossible to list now. Foremost amongst them is intellectual curiosity, a desire to remain open to different points of view and, importantly, to having my mind changed by people and ideas I encounter in the field. For example, I was born in Bulgaria on the eve of the revolutions that brought about the fall of communism. I was raised with stories about how communism violated people’s freedoms. I arrived in Venezuela with skepticism about socialist ideas. What I have learned from anthropology is to linger with, rather than attempt to resolve, differences of opinion and orientation. When I encountered interlocutors who staunchly believed in the Venezuelan socialist government, even when it was slipping into violence, I tried to remain open as to why they continued to be so committed to this idea and to try to understand how political and historical circumstances shaped people’s opinions. To exist with these differences, I relied on what we had in common: a love of music and prioritizing education. From anthropologists I admire, I have also learned about allowing oneself to be vulnerable and exploring the types of empathy and connection with others that can emerge from that state. Finally, I have been deeply influenced by anthropologists, like João Biehl, Kirin Narayan, Sienna Craig, Carole McGranahan, Katie Stewart, who are also creative writers and poets and whose attention to the beauty of language marks their scholarship. This freedom to bend genre and write in ways that are evocative of aesthetics and emotion has proved essential in thinking and writing about music, an art form that is itself “beyond words.”

Ahona Palchoudhuri: What is your next project about?

Yana Stainova: My next project is about joy. I explore this topic through fieldwork with Latinx women and queer communities of artists in East Los Angeles, some of whom are undocumented. The focus on joy emerged organically from my fieldwork. People I encountered in the field spoke of their capacity to thrive and experience joy despite — and even in response to — the injury and violence to which they are subjected in everyday life. What is particular about the joy they articulate is that it is almost always experienced and generated in community. This differs from the individualistic and neoliberal conceptions of joy that have become entrenched in contemporary culture. I study how these communal conceptions of joy and the spaces that nurture them manage to exist within and in tension with neoliberal forces. 

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