For twenty years now, Norient and I have been trying to get closer to cultural phenomena and movements in and around music. In this personal essay, I will suggest thirteen principles that seem important to me when writing about music, examining it in a documentary film, screening it at the Norient Festival, or exhibiting it. These principles have been cultivated through my experiences as an anthropologist, music journalist, founder of Norient, curator of the Norient Festival and various events, audiovisual performer, and former member of various funding boards. I am not claiming that these principles are exhaustive. However, what they do advocate for are in-depth, long-term, and self-aware research; fair collaboration with researchers from different disciplines and with journalists and artists from different places and of different genders and generations; endorsing artists, attacking stereotypical ideas of cultures as fixed entities, showing solidarity with people in war and crisis, and finding ways forward from the challenging demands of identity politics; searching for multimodal formats of representation that open up spaces for complexity and plurality; and consequently trying to create new ways of telling stories to keep reaching new people and audiences—and not handing over the power to define things to big companies and players.
1. Go Deep
Going deep is principle one for conducting strong, rigorous research, good curation, and high-level journalism. How do I get closer to music, closer to musicians, and closer to phenomena and moments in and around music? That is what I keep asking myself throughout all my endeavors. I spent two crucial years in Beirut in 2005 and 2006. This experience led to my PhD, my first monograph, Local Music Scenes and Globalization: Transnational Platforms in Beirut and to the edited volume of The Arab Avant Garde: Musical Innovation in the Middle East. In my attempt to understand things better, I interviewed over 100 musicians and non-musicians from different backgrounds. Since this early research, I have developed and refined an approach that looks at music from three main methodological perspectives: (1) examining the practice of making and producing music; (2) considering a musician as a human being in their personal, social, economic, and political environment; and (3) learning about music as a product circulating in music, culture, and media markets.
The principle of going deep links my and Norient’s research to ethnomusicologist Veit Erlmann, who suggests that we should “analyze the ways in which histories of cultural, social, or political contexts are inscribed into music.” If we do not go deep, we risk telling superficial stories. We risk giving a platform to the artists who are best promoted or who shout the loudest on social media. We risk following the market, rewriting and ruminating on pre-existing stories, theories, and approaches.
Principle one leaves us with a question we must address in project after project: When is the right moment to publish, release a curated program, or speak about something? In our fast-paced world, this is not an easy question to answer.
2. Form Long-Term Connections
Forming long-term connections is principle two. It is fruitful to stay connected after a project has wrapped up: to catch up with the people you worked with and find out how they’re doing.
In London in 2019, I interviewed the same musicians I had interviewed twenty years prior for the film Buy More Incense—British-Asian Musicians in the UK (2000). I had contacted them now and then in the intervening years, and meeting them again felt akin to a reunion of old friends and colleagues. The immediate depth of the conversations surprised and touched me. The musicians’ openness led to interviews that would otherwise not have been possible—I plan to publish them as podcasts in the near future.
Maintaining long-term connections means you will understand how a scene changes over time, how one generation thinks and acts differently from the next, and how musicians deal with the ups and downs—how, for example, they tell stories differently when they are at the top of the charts compared to years later. Through long-term observation and connection, your mixtape, playlist, or curated program becomes more informed and layered. Meanwhile, we must also stay open to upcoming artists and continue to be surprised.
3. Stay Independent
Staying as independent as possible is principle three. When curating and researching, I try to distribute my dependencies broadly. I try not to depend on one person, artist, or agency.
I spent half a year in London in 2019 on the invitation of the Landis & Gyr Foundation. During this time, I felt very strongly that the independence of research and curation was more under threat than it had been in the early years of my career. Artists’ management—and the artists themselves—have become very wary about their image, branding, and self-promotion. This is partly because the internet means that everything that is published could potentially reach anyone, and partly due to the loss of trust in journalism and, at times, academic research, too. Consequently, nuanced research seemed to have become an inconvenience.
In 2021, a label owner in Switzerland told me that journalists should pay artists to give interviews (and his artists were closer to underground than mainstream). He argued that artists reach more people in less time through ads via social media, meaning that an interview for an article in a newspaper, magazine, or journal that “no one reads” was a waste of the artist’s time. They would rather publish their own press releases, thereby keeping control of the narrative. Management companies and agencies are also trying harder than ever to control who gets booked where, and what gets published. In 2016, the management of a European electronic artist prevented us from releasing and screening a documentary. This was because of the presence of a chained dog in the footage; the artist was against domesticating animals.
Hence, principle three, staying independent, is currently being challenged. Working as a journalist, scholar, and curator will become increasingly difficult in the future.
4. Be Aware That You Influence Your Research
My presence as an interviewer, researcher, or curator has influenced what musicians and people tell me, as well as what I hear and see (and get to see). Understanding this (and trying to minimize the “damage”) is principle number four.
In 2006, I found myself in Beirut in a crisis of representation, as the humanities call it. I did not trust my own voice or assessments. Many of the musicians I spoke to said that their musicality was shaped by listening experiences from their childhood during the Lebanese Civil War. Was this what they thought I wanted to hear? I thought back to my first field trip to London in 1998. An Indian student, a Norwegian student, and I conducted separate interviews with the same second-generation Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi musicians. Comparing notes, we found that their answers to us could not be more different. This was amusing at first, but ultimately disturbing.
In Clash of Gods (2016), a theatrical production that I co-directed, I played a white, male, middle-class god. In long monologues, I suggest to the audience how the world should be seen and heard. In the final scene, I die on stage while a quote from sociologist Jenny Fatou Mbaye blares through the speakers. During an interview, I had asked her, “As a privileged white man, what can be my role in researching and curating contemporary music from the African continent?” She responded with the following: “I think your role can only be a humble one. Take the back seat and feel privileged to take that back seat. Enjoy the view while recognizing all the luggage that you may bring with you. And if you have ways of making things visible, ask how you can be of use. You’re not driving here. And you’re lucky to be enjoying the view. Be curious. Be open-minded. Have your eyes wide open, your ears wide open. So don’t try to come with good intentions, because those good intentions are loaded with history, genealogy of violence and authoritarianism that goes beyond you. So yeah, take the back seat and feel privileged to enjoy the view.”
It is important to be aware that we hear and see the world depending on who we are—and this is principle four.
5. Work in Multilocal and Multidisciplinary Teams
One way forward is to work in multilocal and multidisciplinary teams—principle five. We should not carry out our research alone. I strongly believe that we need to find new ways to collaborate and think about curation and research differently.
While in Beirut in 2006, I decided to conduct reception tests. I sent tracks that were part of my research to listeners in Europe, the US, and the Arab world, knowing that different ears would offer new interpretations. The listeners were musicians, ethnomusicologists, musicologists, and music journalists. Later, I included some of their responses in my book.
I had founded Norient four years earlier, in 2002. Looking back, I remember already having doubts about my journalistic articles and broadcasts on the alternative music scenes in London, Belgrade, Istanbul, and Cairo. I had asked myself, “Did I represent these artists correctly? What did I miss?” With Norient, I wanted to create a blog (as it was called back then) to host the writing of many people, starting with freelance music journalists from Switzerland and Germany. Then, slowly, Norient became a more international space including international journalists, fellow PhD students, and artists. My goal was to publish articles—for example, about underground music in Beirut—from a variety of people with different backgrounds, positions, and perspectives. This goal remains important to this day. In 2022, Norient released City Sounds Beirut, a collection of articles, podcasts, video stories, and photographs produced by artists and writers from Lebanon, and curated by Lebanese writer Rayya Badran. Between 2014 and 2015, the team at Norient (comprised of Theresa Beyer, Hannes Liechti, and me) co-curated the first Norient exhibition called Seismographic Sounds—Visions of a New World (2015), which toured various European cities and culminated in a book of the same title. In total, 200 artists, scholars, and journalists from 50 countries contributed to this truly multilocal and multidisciplinary project. The exhibition and book introduced audiences and readers to the contemporary world of music, sounds, and music videos.
Principle five—working in multilocal and multidisciplinary teams—opens horizons, creates new networks, and sometimes builds friendships. It can lead to very strong research and curation. I strongly believe in this, and I keep trying to find new, different, better ways to collaborate and co-work with others.
6. Look After Yourself
International collaboration is often time consuming. It can be frustrating if people do not match. If communication is not extremely clear, misunderstandings can follow. The process can take a lot of energy. These potential downsides bring me to principle six: look after yourself.
In 2016, Norient had taken up so much space that I had no room for my own creativity. I had become an administrator of too many voices. I was close to burnout. International collaboration had taken its toll. Researching and curating with Norient or for other projects, I was continuously sending out hundreds of emails and messages, calling and re-calling people, and discussing ideas, workflows, and fees. If no one answered, I would search for alternative ways, stay positive, and keep moving forward. Meanwhile, though Norient is full of potential, it was and is financially fragile. Without any structural funding or dependence on a university or other player, we finance our publications, curation, and research through funded and commissioned projects, memberships, curation, and presentations—and many unpaid hours. Hence, if you are an artist, scholar, or freelancer working in the creative field, principle six is to look after yourself.
A lot of these questions were central to the documentary Contradict which I filmed with Peter Guyer in Ghana between 2013 and 2018. I felt connected to the musicians in the film and their struggle to build a better life (while being aware that my own experiences came from another context). The musicians in Contradict demand a new role for themselves in their societies, and for Africa in the wider world. We followed these musicians through phases of euphoria and depression, watching them take three steps forward and one or two steps back. This raised questions such as, “What is the value of creativity and artistic production in today’s world?” Knowing so many young artists who have quit music, I wonder how cultural creation can survive. Creation requires time, deep thought, and concentration, and creative works often don’t shine after the first few attempts.
7. Help to Decentralize Power
Since 2021, one of Norient’s biggest steps has been not only to work with contributors, but to invite them to curate or co-curate our events. Principle seven is to decentralize power and authority. It is about letting in more eyes and ears to offer new perspectives: for too long, gatekeepers in international projects have been predominantly from the West, and male. We have pursued this path with the Timezones podcast series (2020, ongoing), the publication Sonic Traces: From Italy, and the Norient City Sounds series, which have been curated by people from Africa, Asia, and Europe who are outside our core team.
A further step is being taken through the Norient Festival (formerly the Norient Film Festival). Founded in 2010 by Michael Spahr (video artist and co-director of editions 1–4) and myself, the festival aims to present deep stories, research, and thought from across the globe through captivating, experimental, and sometimes challenging films, AV performances, concerts, DJ sets, video lectures, and other digital formats. After the 10th edition, I decided to hand over the curatorial direction and decision-making to an international and multidisciplinary group of people who have been, since 2022, the artistic directors and new faces of the festival. The group works internationally from various cities in India, Lebanon, the UK, Germany, Kenya, Colombia, and Switzerland.
With ethnography, at its core, still being a colonial approach, we must keep thinking and reflecting on how to rewire power relations.
8. Pay for Research and Creative Work
Principle eight seems clear: creative work should be paid. This, however, is less and less the case. Internet radio stations and music magazines (even big ones) often make use of freelancers’ work for free. The question is: Is that exploitation? Or is it voluntary work, as in an association, without which the world would be a poorer place?
With Norient, we try to pay according to our means. We raise fees when we earn more. We pay better than most of the established Swiss newspapers do today—which to me is kind of shocking. In the early 2000s, the feuilleton of the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung would pay me 1500 Swiss francs for one page; today, it is around 400.
9. Endorse and Open Doors
Principle nine is about endorsing artists. At its best, Norient has been able to recognize artists and trends early, and it has helped to open doors many times. For example, Egyptian artist Mahmoud Refat started recording the sounds of Cairo on his mini discs in the early 2000s. In a journalistic feature, I wrote: “With his recordings of the everyday sounds of Egypt, he presents his homeland unfiltered, unadorned—differently.” Today, Refat owns the label and music studio 100Copies. He produces artists working in the popular music style Mahraganat, made by rappers and producers from lower-class suburbs. While the Egyptian authorities try to crack down on the genre, mainly because of what authorities consider frivolous lyrics and the use of words like “khomor” (alcohol) and “hashish” (cannabis), Refat sold the catalog of his label to the US music company Reservoir Media, along with UAE-based PopArabia, possibly making a lot of money.
There are many other examples. Queer New Orleans rapper and bounce artist Big Freedia performed at Norient Festival 2013 and has since featured on superstar Beyoncé’s 2022 single “Break My Soul.” Meanwhile, Gabber Modus Operandi from Indonesia, who directed the film 2021: Malam Berkah for Norient Festival’s 2022 edition, collaborated with Icelandic pop star Björk on her latest studio album Fossora.
There are many similar stories. I include them here to indicate that independent curation and research initiatives that are ahead of trends in the market can build—and themselves have—value. It’s an important argument that can be deployed when politics and the public put pressure on funders to finance initiatives catering to bigger audiences—or when they expect a clear and direct benefit from academic research. Good research and curation can help talented artists progress, build a career, and sometimes change the lives of their loved ones.
10. Show Solidarity When Needed
In 2022, war broke out in Ukraine in full force. At Norient, we used our position to draw attention to solidarity actions via Bandcamp. We wanted to demonstrate support for the artists living in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, and other places. To show solidarity, whenever needed, is principle ten.
Solidarity seemed important, too, during the wars and crises in Syria and Lebanon. Musicians, artists, and thinkers live in these places, people like you and me. This might be a political core of my curation and research. The name Norient was meant as a play on Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), in which the author uses a continental interdisciplinary approach to trace the relationship between the act of writing, cultural politics, language, and power. Norient stands for no “Orientalism,” and it seeks to look at diversity and cultural practices from up close, rather than through presupposed differences. The name was further inspired by the UK Indian and Pakistani musicians I met at the end of the 1990s, who complained about and made fun of the stereotypes with which they were constantly confronted (See Thomas Burkhalter, “East Isn’t East,” and the film Buy More Incense).
We are gatekeepers and advocates. I believe in what Lawrence Grossberg calls the position of a “political intellectual.” In his book, Cultural Studies in the Future Tense, he offers a vision of contemporary cultural studies that embraces complexity, rigorous interdisciplinary practice, and experimental collaboration. He argues that it matters what we say and do as intellectuals “because bad stories make bad politics.” Tim Ingold proposes that it is about learning from others and gaining insights into other perspectives, experiences, narratives, and motivations for “getting under the skin of the world.”
11. Find New Approaches to Identity Politics
Principle eleven is one of the most challenging tasks ahead: to take seriously and move forward from the claims of identity politics. A new generation, many of them millennials, call upon us to wake up, criticizing musicians, writers, scholars, and other creatives for cultural appropriation—and sometimes trying to forbid and “cancel” their works. One of the main arguments is that writers are allowed to write about phenomena from their own “culture” only—or, for instance, that musicians from Switzerland cannot play Jamaican reggae.
Although I do not agree with this argument, I agree that other claims made by this movement are important. I believe that in Europe (or in Switzerland, to argue from my own position), we never got a grip on how we relate to people, groups, and cultures from the so-called Global South. We fought important battles at home for women and LGBT+ rights and social welfare. However, we took less seriously the questions of Swiss money in the colonial past and postcolonial present. And we mostly looked at the non-West through differences. This was, in fact, another reason why I founded Norient in 2002. Norient was meant as an attack on world music. I was critical of Swiss bands wearing African fabrics and playing African music with their djembe and kora instruments. I felt that they reinforced stereotypes. I left many concerts, at times upset by this, but I would never have dreamed of getting a show canceled. This is what happened in my neighborhood, Lorraine Bern, in 2022 (and in other places, too). In a concert 200 meters from my house, a Swiss Reggae band was asked to leave the stage because some audience members felt uncomfortable with the white male band members’ Rasta hair. I think this goes too far. I prefer to leave the concert space myself rather than stop a band from playing.
According to the Oxford Dictionary, the term cultural appropriation “describe[s] the taking over of creative or artistic forms, themes, or practices by one cultural group from another. It is in general used to describe Western appropriations of non‐Western or non‐white forms, and carries connotations of exploitation and dominance.” The presence of exploitation and dominance is crucial, and explains why attacks on artists and scholars can go too far. Often, artists render homage to another culture when they play music from another culture. That they do so superficially at times makes it legitimate for us to criticize them, but not to cancel them online or throw them off the stage. Attacking books, music, and deep thought on the topic of cultural appropriation, or indeed attacking their authors and “canceling” them online, does not bring the world forward. It risks playing into the hands of right-wing politicians and dictators and could heavily backfire. It does not help overcome prejudices or fight racism. In fact, it risks segregating people.
However, many demands made by advocates of identity politics are legitimate. We need new ways of dealing with today’s world. We need more Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in power—in cultural institutions, in the media, and at universities. We need to offer spaces for a multitude of voices and expressions, and give power to aspiring curators, journalists, scholars, and artists. This is what we are trying to do with Norient.
12. Publish in Fitting Formats
In 2020, we staged the fourth relaunch of the Norient website. We renamed it Norient Space “The Now in Sound,” signaling that we want to speak about our contemporary world through music, sound, noise, and silence. Norient became a curated audiovisual gallery aiming to provide space for scholars, researchers, journalists, and artists from many disciplines and backgrounds around the world, both young and established. I strongly believe that dialogue between different generations can be fruitful—and I see it happen rarely. Together, a young scholar (who is close to underground artists) and a professor (who is close to theory and methodology) might create stronger work than either of them could alone. The same applies to collaborations between curators, journalists, and artists.
The Norient Space consists of audiovisual media pieces (we call them snaps), articles, podcasts, photography, video, and film. We further plan to offer an academic archive for researchers and universities, including master and PhD theses from students. The content is held together with an index, giving it more the feel of a collage than a classic magazine or journal. This makes it possible to read and listen to topics such war, counterculture, and sampling across different geographies and musical genres. The collage approach helps avoid, to use Clifford’s words, “the portrayal of cultures as organic wholes, or as unified, realistic worlds subject to a continuous explanatory discourse.” I am convinced that only a patchwork of perspectives can offer real, deep insights into today’s world.
Publishing our research and our curation in fitting formats is principle twelve. What kind of representation will do justice to a phenomenon? The aim is to publish in formats that appeal to different senses and remain deep and multilayered. They should open spaces for plurality and multiple imaginations, embracing complexity, chaos, and contradictions.
Since 2020, I have asked myself: “Can interviews be transformed into music? Can interview statements become song lyrics, verses, and choruses?” Under the band name Melodies In My Head, I started collaborating with musicians on tracks that incorporated their interview statements, their music, and sounds from me and Bern-based musician Daniel Jakob. I also experimented with these ideas in Norient’s Timezones podcasts series, the first three episodes and prototypes of which were created by me, Svetlana Maraš from Belgrade, and Suvani Suri and Abhishek Mathur from Delhi. The vision is to bring ethnography, art, and journalism closer together and tell stories in new ways. It is also a next step in trying to collaborate more closely and fairly with artists from different places. Everyone involved will receive a share of any profit made by the published track.
13. Try to Reach People
These audiovisual stories, podcasts, writings, and curations should not be superficial and flat. They should be inspiring and attractive in order to connect with readers and listeners. Trying to reach people is principle thirteen. With Norient, we try to spread mixes, podcasts, texts, documentaries, and projects across many channels to reach people of different backgrounds and in different contexts.
I feel part of an international community. With Norient, we campaign for the value of creativity and creation in this world—for music, journalism, and research. We want to support and learn from each other and to tell new stories of our time through in-depth research and strong curated programs.
A Personal Summary
Today, I strive for a balance between my artistic projects, my research, and my role at Norient and the Norient Festival. I spend two days a week helping to move Norient forward. The project is a constant struggle that requires me to be active and on my feet. It brings me into contact with the younger generation, and collaborating with younger researchers, curators, and journalists affords me huge potential. The articles, playlists, podcasts, and publications collected, researched, curated, and published by writers from different places offer me and others great and inspiring insights into our contemporary world.
My goal is to maintain a stable platform on which people can improvise, take risks, and create—a platform where aesthetics, positions, and practices collide or come together. It is a long-term approach. I strongly believe that our contemporary world needs visionary thinkers and artists and strong, independent, nonprofit platforms presenting their work and their thinking to the public. Only together can we defy algorithms and filter bubbles, telling new stories that are heard far and wide.
This article is published in a longer version in Politics of Curatorship – Collective and Affective Interventions, eds. Monia Acciari and Philipp Rhensius (Bern: Norient Books, 2023).
Dr. Thomas Burkhalter is an anthropologist/ethnomusicologist, AV-artist, and writer from Bern, Switzerland. He is the founder and director of Norient (Norient.com), has co-directed documentary films (e.g., Contradict, Berner Filmpreis, 2020), AV/theatre performances, and is the author and co-editor of several books (e.g., Local Music Scenes and Globalization: Transnational Platforms in Beirut, Routledge, The Arab Avant Garde: Musical Innovation in the Middle East, Wesleyan University Press). Currently, he is working on his new music project Melodies In My Head, and on the podcast series South Asian Sound Stories with musicians from the UK, Bangladesh, India, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan.
 Veit Erlmann, “Ideologie der Differenz: Zur Ästhetik der World Music,” PopScriptum 3 (1995): 6–29; 10, accessed August 18, 2022, https://www.musikundmedien.hu-berlin.de/de/musikwissenschaft/pop/popscriptum-1/world-music.
 Rayya Badran, Norient City Sounds: Beirut (Bern: Norient.com, 2022), accessed September 15, 2022, https://norient.com/beirut-adrift.
 Contradict, directed by Thomas Burkhalter and Peter Guyer (Recycled TV & Norient, 2020), accessed September 15, 2022, https://norient.com/contradict-ideas-new-world.
 Raphael Kariuki and Kamwangi Njue, Norient City Sounds: Nairobi (Bern: Norient.com, 2022), accessed September 15, 2022, https://norient.com/nairobiconscious. Rayya Badran. Norient City Sounds: Beirut. (Bern: Norient.com, 2022), accessed September 15, 2022, https://norient.com/beirut-adrift.
 Thomas Burkhalter, “Leise Musiker in einer lauten Stadt: Unabhängige Musiker im 16–Millionen Moloch Kairo,” Norient.com, August 17, 2003, accessed August 19, 2022, https://norient.com/stories/musikszenekairo.
 Thomas Burkhalter, “East isn’t East,” Norient.com, August 15, 2000, accessed September 15, 2022, https://norient.com/stories/eastisnteast.
 Margaret Drabble, Jenny Stringer, and Daniel Hahn, “Cultural Appropriation,” Oxford Reference, accessed August 18, 2022, https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/acref/9780199214921.001.0001/acref-9780199214921-e-1528.