Ben Wheeler: Culture of Physical Domains

I met Ben in 2018. Our mutual friend Kay Khachatryan (Nystagmus) participated in “Caucasus All Frequency” Fest in Georgia. It was curated by “Mountains of Tongues” (Ben’s project), in partnership with the “Aqtushetii”, a festival/residency program in a remote mountainous village in the North. A ten-day workshop and concert series featuring collaborations and knowledge exchange between musicians performing regional music from the Caucasus and experimental musicians from all over the world. I knew I wanted to meet the guy. He also had a couple of gigs in Yerevan with local artists since then.

Please introduce yourself. What background do you have and what are you doing now?

I’m Ben Wheeler, I’m a musician, composer, teacher, and ethnomusicologist. I’m originally from Seattle, Washington, USA, but have been living in Tbilisi, Georgia for about eight years now. I studied Georgian folk music at the Tbilisi State Conservatory and during that time started a project called Mountains of Tongues with my friend, the anthropologist Stefan Williamson, which is dedicated to the preservation and promotion of lesser-known musical traditions in the Caucasus. We’ve made recordings in all three countries in the South Caucasus, with a focus on the music of linguistic, religious, and ethnic minority communities, released an LP called Mountains of Tongues and multiple cassettes of field recordings, organize the annual Caucasus All Frequency Festival, which brings together experimental and traditional musicians from around the region, and I also host and produce two podcasts, Caucasus All Frequency, with Yerevan based musician Kay Khachatryan and EMIC, with Tbilisi community radio. When there is not a pandemic going on, I regularly perform and collaborate with musicians from around the region – my last show in Yerevan was with Hov and we had another show scheduled at Poligraf for the day after the borders closed, so I hope one day soon I’ll be back to perform there again.

How can you describe the region, what are the similarities and differences from the perspective of an ethnomusicologist?

I’ve encountered this question more than once and it’s always a bit difficult to answer, as I can only speak from my limited experience. From the perspective of an ethnomusicologist I can speak about the music I see happening in the present, that is, each of the countries in the South Caucasus has burgeoning club scenes, with more and more engagement from outside the region. Each of the regions has musical characteristics that do not appear to be neatly held in by political borders, ones that have overlapped and continue to do so in interesting ways. To be totally bland about it, I see more “traditional” instrumental music in Armenia and Azerbaijan and more of an emphasis on polyphonic singing in Georgia, but there are endless exceptions to that and it’s these kinds of general observations that really do a disservice to the diversity and legacy of musicians in the region.

I also think sometimes this question is asked with a subtext (and I’m not implying that you are doing so here) which is, “Can you point to instances of shared cultural heritage that serve as a counterpoint to contemporary political narratives?”. The issue is music is far too complex to serve this simple purpose; musicians who perform “shared music” may also conform to divisive and nationalistic political stances. For every instance of music “bringing people together” you can find instances of it solidifying divisions (not just in the Caucasus but globally), and expressions of every opinion in between.

As a researcher who deals with interconnected disciplines such as cultural anthropology, folklore, and conventional musicology, how would you evaluate the impact of digitalization on culture in general?

I started doing ethnography and making records and contacting musicians in the era of digitalization; every field recording I’ve ever made has a .wav at the end of it. So the impact, while I’m sure is significant, is hard to gauge, especially in regard to whether or not it has been a good or bad thing. I can say for certain I’m grateful for Tascam digital recorders, for not having had to lug analog recording gear around the Caucasus. But also, we released our first record on LP and there’s a reason for that, something significant about holding a tangible, physical object that represents a body of work. . . but as I said, these recordings being pressed into vinyl grooves were all digital files first and foremost.

Processes of merging and hybridization of cultures were much slower in the pre-Internet era. Now, many “isolated” cultural hubs have access to global cultural flux. Does this transform “authenticate,” shifting them from local to global?

First, I might disagree with the idea that the processes of merging/hybridization were slower. I think they were just something quite different. It certainly appears that everything is happening faster but I believe the form and fashion of pre-internet hybridization often took place through a blurring of lines where the start and finish were harder to pinpoint. Now, instances that are being referred to as “hybrids” (also a complex term in the sense that many assume it’s existence means the loss of the initial purity of the thing but in fact, there was no pure form in the first place, that thing that got hybridized was already a hybrid of a hybrid, etc, etc.) are so much more traceable: I would argue that the ability to track the initial iteration of what you are claiming is being merged/hybridized, allows for a kind of “thing” 2.0, 3.0, which makes it easier to differentiate than before and therefore a really different phenomenon. One could maybe argue that this ability to categorize iterations of a tradition allows for more effective forms of preservation but that has its own trappings as well (what’s the form of “proper” preservation you are referring to and what constitutes “improper preservation”?).

So anyway, the shift as more isolated cultural hubs enter into the global cultural flux may lead to some form of authentication but again, that’s an inherently powerful, tricky, and subjective term: authentic to whom and why? I find in any case someone claims something is “authentic” the question is not yes or no but why, what’s the motivation to assert that authenticity, what does it do? So there is no doubt a shift has taken place, but whether or not it authenticates is completely dependent on who wants it authenticated, in what way, by whom.

( Ben Wheeler at Embassy club, Yerevan. Photography by Tatev Hakobyan )

How does digital ethnomusicology mark existing borders in the era of meta culture? A culture where physical domains dissolve in virtual networks.

In general, ethnomusicology inevitably marks existing borders because of the necessity to label things, to categorize them in a way that is recognizable and manageable. Unfortunately, and in so many instances, these markings further entrench existing and often destructive borders by validating them, providing more evidence of their existence, and perpetuating political, ethnic, and cultural barriers they mean even be intending to break down. I’m not sure digital ethnomusicology provides a solution to this issue. I am seeing more and more releases that have stopped following the “Music of [insert country here]” formula, which I think is a positive step forward. New forms of categorization, created and conceived through the input of the community being recorded, are probably the best approach but I’m sure they will come with their own complications as well. Part of the issue is physical domains may begin to dissolve in virtual networks, but that doesn’t rule out the emergence of digital simulacrums of said domains. New networks don’t necessarily eliminate old problems, so I think digital ethnomusicology will have to continue to struggle with the same issue (along with the many, many others, i.e. its origins, its name, its practices) the field has already been experiencing.

Digital simulacrum is a great way to put so-called mirroring effect. Sometimes it is obvious that by “authentic” most western labels/festivals mean “exotic – a.k.a. not like we do”. And many artists use it as a unique selling point. That kind of sound is usually not popular or well-accepted inside the original culture as it is often accused of being “colonial”. So it becomes a two-edged sword. What is your comment on that?

I wouldn’t say it’s particularly common for an artist’s sound itself to be criticized for being “colonial” – I’m sure this happens, but maybe those accusations have more to do with the power dynamics at play, appeasing foreign ears by selling yourself as exotic. To me it appears that a majority of the time musicians are chastised by others from their community it’s because they are playing something that is not considered authentic, i.e. from another era that is, for political or cultural reasons, not seen as a “clean” period void of foreign influences, which is a whole different intersection. The balalaika in Georgia, for example, is not considered authentic by many because of its Russian origins but many Tushetians from the northern mountains adapted it, potentially because the panduri they used traditionally had steel strings like the balalaika and panduri from the lowland used gut strings, so maybe the tone of the balalaika was possibly closer (to the more “authentic”) to that of the traditional mountain panduri. Also, it was widely available during the Soviet period, so people used what they had access to.

2020 was a disastrous year for humanity. It hit pretty hard so-called “off-line” activities and business models. Culture in that regard, at least in the Caucasus region seems pretty unprotected as it lacks the established online platforms and stores to support art. What are your thoughts on this situation? How you evaluate before and after for both region and world in general?

It was and will continue to be a difficult time for in-person cultural activities. I think inevitably these practices will change form and we will see an emergence of new forms of engagement (not sure for better or worse, just something entirely different). There were multiple attempts by different clubs and organizations in the Caucasus to organize live streaming concerts for fundraising purposes, which I think works well but should be recognized for what it is: video content, not a live performance (even if it’s happening live). I don’t have a concrete answer (and I’m not sure if anyone does) but I’m guessing things will never return to exactly what they were and the future trajectory of “off-line” activity is yet to be determined.

You love modular synths, what is so special about them?

That’s a huge question actually and I could go on and on (and I do, just ask the students from my modular synth class). But to put it more succinctly, I’m of course drawn to it for the reasons many other musicians are: the ability to control and shape all these different parameters of sound and the simultaneous lack of control, the way the instrument will also decide what it wants to do and surprise you as you play it – more like a collaboration than a solo performance or recording session.

These are pretty typical answers though; the closest thing I think I have to a unique take on the appeal of modular synths is that I am aware of the fact that the construction, branding, conversation, and community that revolves around them actually reveals all kinds of distinct and local intersections of culture and place. Take for example a company like Erica Synths, based out of Latvia, which started partially by building instruments using older Soviet components, or looks into the noise scene in Yogyakarta where people there are circuit bending and mixing modular synths with gamelan. The place and history surrounding the creation of modular synth effects it’s very construction and usage. I’m excited to be a part of the emerging modular scene in the Caucasus and to see what modular instruments will be conceived here, how they will look, and how they will be put to use.

What are plans for 2021?

No idea. It’s fine though, just at home, lots of modular synths. That’s about it.

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