Listen, that's us! A sound ethnography on the reception of the Bowles collection

In 1959, the American writer and composer Paul Bowles spent four months in Morocco recording traditional music performances all over the country.


  • Lead school Bern Academy of the Arts
  • Institute Institute Practices and Theories in the Arts
  • Research unit Auditory Cultures
  • Funding organisation SNSF
  • Duration 01.02.2016 - 31.01.2020
  • Project management Prof. Dr. Andi Schoon
  • Head of project Prof. Dr. Andi Schoon
  • Project staff Prof. Dr. Andi Schoon
    Gilles Joseph André Aubry
  • Partner IFCAR Institute for Contemporary Art Research
    Universität Siegen, Lehrstuhl Multimediale Systeme
    Sound Studies Lab, Universität Kopenhagen
    Centre Jacques Berque
    European Sound Studies Association (ESSA)
    Institut für künstlerische Forschung (!FK)


In 2010, the «Paul Bowles collection» was digitized and repatriated from the Library of Congress in Washington to the American Legation in Tangier (TALIM), where it is now accessible for consultation. Bowles was not an ethnographer, but an established writer and composer with an expressed interest in sound aesthetics and avant-garde music practices. As an American expatriate living in Tangier since 1947, he had long experience with Morocco and a clear opinion about Moroccan music and society. Such ideas had an impact on Bowles's recording practices and are thus also present in the collection. By returning the recordings to their places of origin and discussing them with local musicians, we want to explore modes of transcultural and aesthetic listening, whose significance applies to current debates in the broader field of sound studies. Our main research questions are: How can the Bowles collection be described as a specific case in the history of listening and recording practices? What can be learned about traditional, transcultural and aesthetic listening practices by researching with this collection in Morocco today?

Course of action

The research is designed in three stages. The first research stage is concerned with an analysis of Bowles's listening and recording practices that were involved in the realization of his preservation project. This includes tracing back the recording process via the study of Bowles's notes in the collection, followed by a comparison of his recordings with others using similar technology within the broader field of scientific, commercial and artistic recordings of his time. This stage will result in a historico-cultural interpretation of the Bowles collection in terms of specific listening modes. The second stage is interested in the memories and responses which can be elicited today by returning some of the Bowles recordings to their original recording locations in the Amazigh regions of Morocco. Lobley's method of «sound elicitation» will be applied in order to evoke such responses with local traditional musicians and contemporary witnesses from 1959. The listening sessions will also be an occasion to explore with the participants the possibility of transcultural listening experiences.


The third and last stage of the research will consist of a series of artistic sound experiments, to be made in collaboration with three selected Moroccan artists, together with local participants. Based on field recordings of traditional music performances and other situations related to social aspects of traditional cultures, this approach will be an attempt to enact, render and externalize specific aspects of traditional and transcultural listening cultures explored during stage two. This additional method of sound elicitation will lead to the collaborative realization of a number of short artistic productions which will be further interpreted in terms of collaborative knowledge-production.