Spectral Sounds, Spectral Time: Music, Sound, Ritual, and the Ethics of Historicity in Cambodia

Jeffrey Dyer


If history is always present, what does history in Cambodia feel like? What does it sound like? Addressing these questions, this presentation rethinks the ethics of historicity and trauma in Cambodia by exploring the ways Cambodians derive a moral foundation, health, and guidance from music and rituals. In Cambodia, religious rituals and the arts embody history and remembrance, as ritually framed music, sound, and artistic performances bring spirits, ancestors, and other aspects of the past to be active participants in people’s lives. Eurocentric discourses labeling Cambodian arts “culture” or performance deprive the “performing arts” of their social and religious value, and because of this, many researchers have overlooked Cambodians’ embodied remembrance, suggesting a culture of “silence” concerning past atrocities and urging Cambodians to talk through their wartime experiences in order to heal. This presentation contests such scholarship and reframes Cambodian music and performance as ritual and remembrance, as ritual soundings shape relations with the dead and the past. This research furthers trauma studies’ and anthropology’s emerging shifts toward the diverse ways people cope with difficult memories by moving away from trauma studies’ Eurocentric foundations and psychotherapeutic biases. Instead, Mr. Dyer highlights how Cambodians have long been sensing history and maintaining stability through music, rituals, and local concepts. He proposes a new approach to Cambodian memory and history by emphasizing the ethical imperative and decolonizing possibilities of attending to the moral foundation that many Cambodians gain through religious rituals and ritually framed artistic practices.

This presentation will include a live presentation of Cambodian music.


Jeffrey Dyer is a CKS Senior Fellow and PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at Boston University. Also funded by the Charlotte W. Newcombe Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship, his dissertation rethinks the ethics of historicity and trauma in Cambodia by listening for the ways Cambodian people derive a moral foundation, health, and guidance from local concepts embedded in ritual and sonic practices.


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