Jim Sykes

Assistant Professor of Music
Room 330, Music Building

Jim Sykes holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago (2011) and held a research fellowship at King’s College London before coming to Penn in 2013. To date, his research has explored the relations between sound, personhood, modernity, aesthetics and the politics of disaster in the Indian Ocean region, with a focus on Sri Lanka. Two monographs from this research are forthcoming. The Musical Gift: Sonic Generosity in an Island Space draws on fieldwork with an array of musicians (Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian; former LTTE militants; former child soldiers; musical theater artists; rock musicians) in the shifting contexts of post-tsunami, late-war, and post-war Sri Lanka. The book theorizes how to tell a narrative of music history in a space that has become defined as a site for ethnic conflict without reifying ethnic divisions nor resorting to a naïvely constructed hybridity. Borrowing from indigenous aesthetic systems in which sounds are offered to gods for protection and healing, the book develops a theory for postwar reconciliation that seeks to avoid the pitfalls of multiculturalism by acknowledging histories of respectful communal and personal relations through offerings of sound. The second book, based more firmly on Sykes’ dissertation, is a study of Buddhism, drumming, and ritual in southern Sri Lanka.


Sykes is also at work on a new project, tentatively called Rethinking the Philosophy of Music: Music History and Decolonization. The book draws on a decade-plus worth of research on the eastern Indian Ocean region to challenge dominant notions of the definition and presumed relations between sound, persons, space, and power, questioning the role such concepts played in constructions of music history in the new nations of South and Southeast Asia during their postcolonial periods. Along with Gavin Steingo, Sykes is co-editing the book Remapping Sound Studies, and he has interests in critical social theory, the philosophy of music, anthropological linguistics, sound studies, musicologies of religion and secularism, artisanship and critical organology, and experimental rock music cultures. Besides Sri Lanka, he has done fieldwork in India, Singapore and Malaysia, with funding from the Fulbright-Hays DDRA, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Mellon Foundation and the European Research Council.

Sykes is also a rock drummer who has released nine albums and toured throughout the U.S. and abroad, with features on the Pitchfork website, Wired, National Public Radio, Spin Magazine, and elsewhere. He was the founding drummer of the Brooklyn noise rock band Parts & Labor, a member of Grooms (part of the Death by Audio collective), and currently drums for Invisible Things (with U.S. Maple’s Mark Shippy). He has been a touring drummer for Marnie Stern (Kill Rock Stars), White Magic (Drag City), and Martin Bisi (producer of Sonic Youth, John Zorn), recorded with Tyondai Braxton (Battles), and was part of the Boredoms’ 77 Boadrum project. He has an album forthcoming (called Hidden Rifles) with Shippy, Matthew Wascovich (Scarcity of Tanks), the bassist Mike Watt, and guitarist Norman Westburg (Swans). http://newatlantisrecords.com/product/na-lp-008, http://www.npr.org/event/music/411252998/invisible-things-f.


Selected Publications: 

 Selected Publications:

In Progress. Rethinking the Philosophy of Music: Music History and Decolonization.

Forthcoming. The Musical Gift: Sonic Generosity in an Island Space.

Forthcoming. Buddhist Drumming and Linguistic Anthropology: Sinhala Aesthetics in Low Country Sri Lanka

W/Gavin Steingo, eds. Remapping Sound Studies.


Forthcoming. “Beyond the Musicology of Disaster: A Sri Lankan Music History for the Postwar Period.” In Gwyneth Bravo, ed., Music of War(Routledge).   

Forthcoming. “Islands, Oceans, and Non-State Spaces: The Indian Ocean as a Site for Musicological Inquiry.” Sounds Across the Bay: Musical Transitions through Colonialism in the Eastern Indian Ocean, eds. Katherine Schofield, Julia Byl, and David Lunn.

Forthcoming, 2016. “Music of South Asia.” For Excursions in World Music, 7th edition (New York: Prentice Hall, 2016).

Forthcoming, 2016. “Sound Studies, Religion, and Public Space: Tamil Music and the Ethical Life in Singapore.” Ethnomusicology Forum.

2015. “Sound as Promise and Threat: Drumming, Collective Violence and the British Raj in Colonial Ceylon”.  In Biddle, Ian and Kirsten Gibson, eds., Cultural Histories of Noise, Sound and Listening in Europe, 1300-1918 (Ashgate). 

2015. “A Malayan Indian Sonic Geography: Sound and Social Relations in Colonial Singapore.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 46, No. 3.

2014. Review of Barley Norton, Song for the Spirits: Music and Mediums in Modern Vietnam (Illinois, 2009), and David Harnish, Bridges to the Ancestors: Music, Myth, and Cultural Politics at an Indonesian Festival (Hawaii, 2006). Ethnomusicology, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Fall 2014), 537-544.

2013. “Culture as Freedom: Musical ‘Liberation’ in Batticaloa, Sri Lanka”.  Ethnomusicology, Vol. 57 (No. 3), pp. 485-517.


2013.  Review of Music as History in Tamil Nadu, by T.K. Venkatasubramanian (Primus Books, 2010), in Studies in History, 29, 1 (2013): 137-140.