Jonathan Sterne on Sonic Protest in Canada


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As public protests in Quebec and Montreal against various restrictions and horribly cruel laws (e.g. a 70% rise in student tuition fees and, to prevent further protests, against the right to congregate in public!), go on now for more than three months, Canadian cultural historian Jonathan Sterne reflected sensibly the cultural significance behind it in a very eluding and inspiring text about it. The protest – once again started by the students – is articulated by banging casseroles together, by clanging pots and pans, starting with 30,000 participants, now up to 200,000 drummers per march:

Despite Anglophone press caricatures that recast the protests as the product of entitled, rabble-rousing students, the casseroles transcend differences that often structure local politics–like language, class, and race–as well as gender and age, which can present barriers in music-making (especially drumming) in addition to politics. Because the instruments are simple, cheap and improvised, almost anyone can join. Because the music is deliberately non-professional, the ideals of mastery and perfection and the weighty gendered and aged assumptions about who can be a “good musician” are inoperative. The beats are easy to pick up and play in time—and if you swing a little out there, all the better. I have heard skilled drummers syncopate catchy rhythms on single drums or cymbals, but most people are content to simply move in and out of time with everyone else. (My partner and I join with maracas and an otherwise-rarely-used buffalo drum—I am a bassist at heart—though we offer guests pots and pans).

The body of protest and the bodies of the protesters expands itself and themselvves via this moving and irrefutable sonic articulation, the resonance of the banging and drumming. The often neglected presence of students and other, non-ruling classes becomes achingly audible and present. It is, again, about representation.

It truly is a great joy and excitement to read such an experienced and reflected researcher as Jonathan Sterne discussing a truly contemporary and political issue with all his scholarship and verve. And his text is vividly living proof of how sound studies even in 2012 can truly be undertaken in the tradition of critical theory & cultural studies and their genuine support of political movements and the wish to transform our contemporary societies and political as well as sensorial systems; sound studies must not be solely restricted to the often non- or anti-political, even affirmative historical narrations of great artists, developers or inventors as they are, alas, now and then performed by all-too strategic approaches.

Please do follow Sterne’s twitter account to receive his latest views on this so-called casserole-movement.