Feelings on/in Ethnographic Work
Ethnographic work is an affective experience. While anthropological research methods have often focused on cataloging ethnographic moments through field notes and interviews, most ethnographers will agree that the written word can’t quite capture what it feels like to be in the field. As a musician, filmmaker, and producer in my work alongside anthropology, I decided to explore how skills associated with my songwriting and sound engineering might further explicate the effervescent quality of what fieldwork feels like on an embodied register. Much like an ethnography, an album comes together through a process of refinement, of connecting what may feel like disparate ideas into a narrative whole. The analytical aspect of ethnographic work also bridges the hemispheres of the brain in a similar way that recording music does. The process of translating emotions, interactions, and expression through sound relies on a basic understanding of recording technology, of microphone placement, editing software, and music theory, skills that employ both sequence and affect. Without one, there is no other.
For me, writing an album that reflected the emotional and affective qualities of my doctoral field research experience in southeastern Norway gave me an outlet for further communicating how I personally interacted with the aims of my research questions. My research, more broadly, explores how Norwegian folk high school education uses learning strategies that forefront the body in order to develop equality, democracy, and social responsibility in their student populations. Voluntarily attended after high school, Norwegian folk high schools are boarding schools that offer students one-year programs with ungraded activities that are meant to prepare them for adult life. Through international study trips, community development projects, and religious services, folk high schools organize experience-based activities for their students that are designed to get them thinking about their positionalities in local, and global, relationships. Tensions between consumer behavior and climate responsibility, for example, came to the fore during a study trip we took to northern Norway in winter 2021 as students learned that the carbon emissions associated with our flight would also disproportionately impact the indigenous Sámi way of life in the region.
I wrote the song TUNDRA in an effort to translate some of my own emotions that emerged with my decision to join the students on their trip north in an effort to conduct “good” ethnographic research. In many respects, the climate crisis felt to me too vast to comprehend, a “hyperobject” (Morten 2013) that had no points of entry for meaningful engagement. In other ways, I knew that my decision to fly was consequential, that I was effectively contributing to the erosion of the landscapes of the country I planned to research, that my part in perpetuating climate disaster was also somehow significant. Much like my research participants, the value of “being there” (Watson 1999) in northern Norway superseded the ethical concerns I had for flying during both the climate crisis and pandemic. While I had explored the possibility of using digital data collection methods prior to fieldwork, I believed that my research design, which focused on embodied learning models, necessitated that I employ my own body in my ethnographic work. I chose to join my research participants on their trip because I believed, like them, that the carbon emissions associated with the trip were worth the cost, in service of the embodied experience we would share together.
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When they told us, I remember believing that
A savior would take it, sooner than later
One never came
So we would follow like the antler follows snow
Across the tundra, oh, Lord willing
We’ll make it out
Before the dust comes, before we burn down
Our provisions, we’re good at that
Because we’re a torch fire telling animals where not to go
But if we lose it, the horizon will explode
God, I hope not, I wasn’t ready for this responsibility
We were just kids
But now we’re not and the ones who are march for our sins
An inheritance, or a threshold
I shift the blame
How could I stay there, when all I wanted was the sunlight
On my skin
But I’ve been buried in my libraries and exit plans
I’ve been very good at holding myself apart
Was it I, Lord? would I deny you, would I trade
My honest worth?
When the snow goes, will we leave this hardened earth?
Will the berries still grow in my grandfather’s garden
Where I’d lay in green and think about how I wanted
My life to be
Writing and recording TUNDRA also presented me with an additional avenue for exploring co-creative methods in my ethnographic research. As part of the full-length album called HIGH LANDS that I produced with a Norwegian sound engineer who I met through connections related to my field site, the process of producing the song together expanded both my capacity for interacting with him as a research participant while also inviting him to contribute to my ethnographic outputs in a collaborative relationship. His skills prevailed where mine wanted; as primarily a singer/songwriter, I’m best at writing melodies and lyrics and as an engineer first and foremost, he’s better at orchestrating the myriad technical details necessary for ensuring takes are captured well. Our shared skills intersected in instrumentation as we both play guitar and keys (he’s better at keys than I am, and I’m more comfortable with guitars than he is, for example), but we took turns at recording and playing different instruments, pressing the “record” button for each other while we performed in the live room, respectively.
We started workshopping the songs during the winter of 2021, right around the time I traveled with the folk high school to northern Norway. In an effort to save costs on studio time, we decided to record the work tapes that we would use as blueprints for the songs prior to tracking their final versions in his studio in Oslo. While we worked on the project, we didn’t talk much about the lyrical content I had written for the music, but that’s usually the case in my experience working with engineers; their job is to capture the aural affects of the piece and lyrics sometimes seem to muddy the waters. That didn’t mean that we didn’t spend lots of time in discussion, though, talking about my research, his job, the climate crisis, Norwegian society; in between recording tracks, we drank coffees and cracked sodas, fueling the creative process both chemically and socially. Sometimes we disagreed about creative decisions, vocal treatments, or our views on what constituted good ethics when it came to traveling, but as anyone who has worked on a collaborative project will tell you, disagreements are both common and necessary. Our different perspectives made it imperative that we both exercised a bit of humility, another attribute necessary for co-creative ethnographic work as we negotiated how the songs, and the ethnography I was writing, should be conveyed.
For TUNDRA, I struggled with performing the guitar part fluidly while tracking. After several takes, multiple guitars, and even more suggestions on how to hit the notes properly, I grew weary. “I think we have to just let it be what it is,” I told him. “I don’t think I have it in me today to get it any better.” In the end, we decided to keep one of the less “perfect” guitar takes, as I felt it reflected a sense of chaotic dread similar to the one I have about climate disaster. We built on this idea, layering additional guitars, keys, and vocals meant to emulate a feeling of despair, a rhythmic trudging towards disaster, an increased chaotic dissonance with each bar. On the main guitar track we chose, there was a bit of creaking coming from the instrument that couldn’t be cleaned up, but I wanted to keep it: it reminded me of the sound of the bow of a ship, heaving under the weight of cargo it could no longer bear. After we’d laid down the guitars, keys, and vocals, and my husband added bass, there was still something missing in the final rounds of the crescendo of the song right before the break. “We need panting,” I said. “It needs to sound like I’m running from something.”
In my doctoral research experience, digital technologies contributed to the embodied expressions of ethnographic work I chose to employ rather than replace them. This meant that the ethical entanglements that came to the fore through the travel associated with my fieldwork were not ameliorated, but made visible, and audible, through the music I wrote and recorded alongside my ethnographic research. Rather than minimize the moral quandaries that were a part of my decision to travel, I decided to synthesize them through creative expression, a choice that required a certain sense of vulnerability and risk. Situating these questions within a multimodal ethnographic project, though, broadened the scope for how I interacted with my own position as an anthropologist choosing to travel, while also offering the chance to explore how digital methods like file sharing could assuage the necessity for “being there” in my future research projects. At a time when anthropology is contending with the ecological repercussions of the discipline’s penchant for travel, multimodality presented an avenue for me to reflect on my own relationship with flying as an ethnographer, while also inviting me to explore new ways of employing the body, and affectivity, through ethnographic methods that don’t depend on it.
The emotions represented in TUNDRA, though, are not mine alone. Because of the often collaborative nature of recorded music production, tracked songs also become imbued with the sound engineer’s affectivity, through instrumentation, tone, and digital treatment choices. While my producer and I made these decisions together, there’s no denying that the music’s affective qualities are the product of both of our emotional landscapes. By creating something together, we traversed a world of possibility and engaged with a sense of relationality that couldn’t have been accessed through interviews or field notes alone. We conjured something out of the ether that did not exist prior, and would never exist in quite the same way again. The process wasn’t always smooth sailing, but it was real. Human. Formidable. It required us to give in and let go, and to tap into another kind of higher plane altogether, one that couldn’t be accessed by written word alone, but through music, could illuminate our honest worth.
 Sound description: a moody, acoustic guitar track featuring a woman’s ethereal vocals, haunting piano, and percussive sounds achieved through layered background vocals, bass guitar, and reverb-drenched keyboards.
Morton, T. 2013. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. 1st edition. [Online]. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Watson, C. W. 1999. Being there : fieldwork in anthropology / edited by C.W. Watson. London: Pluto Press.