Q & A with Amanda Harris, co-editor of Music, Dance and the Archive

Amanda Harris is a Senior Research Fellow at Sydney Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney, and Director of the Sydney Unit of digital archive Pacific and Regional Archive for Digital Sources in Endangered Cultures (PARADISEC). 

Headshot of Amanda Harris.

Where does your love for music and dance come from?

Perhaps a simple answer is from my grandmother who lived with us when I was small and who was my first piano teacher, and from my aunts who danced throughout their lives. The more complex answer is that music and dance are such rich modes for understanding the world, and this is something I learn more about all the time. As a historian, I see the ways that histories of song on this continent and of music making and music institutions illuminate so much about our bigger shared stories. Sound can carry culture, history and stories of place through time in embodied forms that enrich the visual and paper sources we’re used to thinking about. I love the ways that sound and movement allow us to hear and understand history in different ways than just reading and writing.

Your research focuses on gendered and intercultural musical practices. In what ways do these practices intersect in your work?

I’m interested in hearing voices that are often excluded from music histories or cultural histories. My early scholarship was focused on women composers, and I was intrigued by the way that histories of music quickly adjusted the story of musical cultures to leave women out. Several of the women composers I studied had highly successful careers as composers during their lifetimes, with their works performed frequently and by major companies, but then after their deaths, histories were written featuring the male composers of their era as though the women had never existed.

In histories of Australian music, there are also erasures. Australian musicology has had a very strong narrative about “Australianist” art music where many non-Indigenous composers have used Aboriginal-themed elements in their works, without involving Indigenous people in any way. And yet, the range and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander song and dance practices on this continent is bewildering. I want to write histories of music in this place that listen to those practices and keep them at the heart of how we define the shape of music histories here.

So, these are the kinds of themes I’m interested in – how can we listen more closely to the stories of the places we’re in, and to the voices of people in them? And, through this listening, what conventions in our music and cultural histories might need to be reimagined?

Music, Dance and the Archive brings together experts and practitioners in various fields (e.g. performance, curation and academia) to explore the reinvigoration, democratisation and decolonisation of the archive. How important was it to include perspectives from a variety of disciplines?

It’s exciting to see the new directions that open up when you have people talking to each other from different disciplinary perspectives. One of the things about music and dance is that the separation we have between them in a Western intellectual or creative discipline is difficult to sustain outside of Western art music, or Euro-American dance modes. In many Indigenous cultural practices, music, dance (and body painting, story, place, artworks) are barely able to be separated. And in this book we also bring in another discipline through our interest in archival studies. Linda Barwick and I have worked closely together building and running the PARADISEC archive for many years, so we’re thinking about archives from practical and technical perspectives as well as thinking about using archival collections in our research.

Most exciting in the book I think is the way some of the contributors take this idea of “the archive” beyond a physical or digital collection of materials to something much more expansive. And this is the kind of thinking that can result from interdisciplinarity. In our introduction we draw on Alice Te Punga Somerville’s conceptualisation of a “sea of archives” in which “Indigenous texts might be carved, oral, written, sung, woven, danced”. And in the book’s chapters there are other wonderful examples, such as Rosy Simas’ exploration of her Haudenosaunee body as “an ever-evolving archive” of cultural memories and practices. And Chi-Fang Chao’s suggestion that “embodied re-enactment of history” through Taiwanese Indigenous Theatre can resist or represent official archival accounts of Indigenous performance.

What can Indigenous research methods, from Australia and around the world, reveal about the limits of colonial archiving practices?

In conceiving this book, we planned to think about the ways music and dance records are important archives of culture, and to highlight the valuable records of song and movement held in archival collections. However, the more we engaged and discussed the ideas with the scholars and creative artists who have contributed to the book, it became clear that the book’s themes would be about the limitations of archives for embodied cultural practices, as much as the potential of engaging with archives. One important Indigenous research method is relationality – the understanding of the interconnectedness of all living things, place, language, song and ancestors – and so many of the ways the contributors engage with histories of culture stored in different kinds of archives are about bringing them back into relation with living practices. Keeping records safe in an archive has value in this context – it can allow access to records of the past that can be made sense of in the present – but colonial archives also hold only fragments of cultural practice, and engaging with colonial records often means confronting painful and difficult histories, and stripping back imposed interpretative layers. As Jakelin Troy, Linda Barwick and I write in our introduction to the book, bringing Ngarigu song records out of the archive into embodied relationship can enable a sense of ownership of hidden artefacts of cultural life that would otherwise remain just ink on paper.

What did you find surprising during your research for Music, Dance and the Archive? Or from the research of the other contributors?

One of the delightful surprises is to see the shape that collaborative work takes in really innovative forms of academic writing. Jack Gray and Jacqueline Shea Murphy’s chapter is a kōrero – a dialogue to address and speak truth. In their back and forth, they weave together creative and academic understandings of the placement of Jack’s ancestral house Ruatepupuke in a Chicago museum. In the warm and generous language of their dialogue, we get a glimpse of the collaborative and reciprocal relationships that have shaped Jack’s creative engagements with his wharenui.

Some of the other co-authored chapters also feature interweavings of the different voices that have brought the chapter to life. In their chapter, Jodie Kell and Cindy Jinmarabynana write about the Diyama (cockle shell) song. Their work is not just in the writing, but they have performed together for several years in the Ripple Effect band. So through this chapter we see how Jodie and Cindy bring old versions of this song from the archive into an all-women rock band, opening up possibilities for including women’s perspectives on An-barra culture through performing the songs in innovative new settings, as well as through their conversations and writings about this process.

What are you working on now? How might readers follow and support your work?

At the moment I’m finalising the manuscript for a big new edited volume – a Cambridge Companion to Music in Australia. Clint Bracknell (also a contributor to Music, Dance and the Archive) and I are editing this together and aim to create an inclusive account of music-making on this continent that places Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander musics at the centre of things. The book also takes in a range of musical genres, styles and practices. We’re expecting it to be out early next year (2024). Later this year, I’ll start working on my new ARC Future Fellowship project, building a team of collaborators to work on the project: Resonant Histories of Musical Encounter in Australia. This continues the theme of understanding Australia’s cultural past, colonial history and Oceanic location through music and sound.

Most of my recent writing is available Open Access, and links to my work and that of some of the collaborators on Music, Dance and the Archive are on a new project site, along with visualisations of some of the research that came out of this project: https://www.reclaimingperformance.info/publications/. From time to time I also share updates on new work via Twitter as @AmandaHarrisSyd, and links are available through my University of Sydney profile: https://www.sydney.edu.au/music/about/our-people/academic-staff/amanda-harris.html.

Music, Dance and the Archive is out now. Order your copy here.