Matt Rahaim: Voice Cultures and Ethical Dispositions in North India

This is an Archive of a Past Event

A sinner is converted upon hearing the voice of a saint; a courtesan's song induces overwhelming love in a the heart of an otherwise upstanding citizen; a Sufi singer calls a spiritual aspirant into rapture at a ritual gathering. A rich cluster of discourses, from 12th century sufi apologia to 20th century marketing materials, constitute singing as a matter of great urgency: Chisti prescriptions for spiritual listening, cosmopolitan Islamicate models of musical healing, yogic descriptions of sonic liberation, nationalist desires for a new moral order through music education. The power of vocal performance, in these terms, is not merely a matter of beauty or virtuosity, but a matter of patience, humility, calm, focus, self-confidence, chastity, and other ethical dispositions. Rahaim's current project focuses on the cultivation of these dispositions in a wide range of everyday vocal practices in several different interrelated musical worlds (rāga music, bhajan, qawwāli, pop, etc.) It begins not from notes, structures, or national essences, but from active, learned disciplines of singing and listening. He focuses on the widely various habits of vocal, postural, and spiritual comportment that singers learn to adopt in the course of their training, often glossed as “voice culture" -- a time-honored Victorian term of moral elevation through vocal discipline.

Matt Rahaim specializes in Indian music. His book, Musicking Bodies: Gesture and Voice in Hindustani Music, investigates the tacit bodily disciplines passed down through generations of Hindustani vocalists. It maps a discursive history of gesture, analyzes the parallel expression of melody in hand and voice, and paints a new picture of how singers physically navigate raga, space, and time in the course of performance. His current ethnographic project (tentatively called Voice Cultures: Varieties of Ethical Power in Hindustani Music) investigates various traditions of voice production in India, with a special focus on their ethical powers.