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, drumming, personhood, modernity, and the politics of disaster in the Indian Ocean region, focusing on Sri Lanka. His forthcoming book, The Musical Gift: Sonic Generosity in Post-War Sri Lanka, explores, first, how drumming acts as a gift in Sinhala Buddhist ritual contexts. The book, however, is a broader history and ethnography of music in Sri Lanka that tracks the plight of various “musical givers” in the shifting contexts of post-tsunami, late-war, and post-war Sri Lanka.

Sykes is at work on two new book projects, the first tentatively called Music History and Decolonization: Rethinking the Philosophy of Music. 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 that Western “philosophies of music” played in constructions of music in the new nations of South and Southeast Asia during their postcolonial periods. The project in turn draws on construals of these phenomena indigenous to the region to “decolonize” music there and in turn challenge some canonic approaches in the philosophy of music. The second project, tentatively called Sonic Enchantment and a History of Capital: Tamil Hindu Drumming in Colonial Malaya, is based on postdoctoral research on/in Singapore and Malaysia. It tells a history of Indian music in Singapore that branches out to consider the relations between Tamil drumming, Hindu religiosity, plantation labor, urban development, and postcolonial nation-building in Singapore, Penang, and the Little India neighborhood of Brickfields in Kuala Lumpur.

Along with Gavin Steingo, Sykes is co-editing the book Remapping Sound Studies (forthcoming, Duke University Press). He has received funding from the Fulbright-Hays DDRA, the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Mellon Foundation and the European Research Council. Dr. Sykes is currently a research fellow at the Yale Institute for Sacred Music during the 2016-2017 academic year.  

As a rock drummer, Sykes has released nine albums and toured heavily, with features on the Pitchfork website, Wired, National Public Radio, Spin Magazine, and elsewhere. He was the first drummer of the Brooklyn noise rock band Parts & Labor, member of Grooms (part of the Death by Audio collective), and currently plays in 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: 

In Preparation. Sonic Enchantment and a History of Capital: Tamil Hindu Drumming in Colonial Malaya.

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

The Musical Gift: Sonic Generosity in Post-War Sri Lanka (under review, Oxford University Press).

 W/Gavin Steingo, eds. Remapping Sound Studies (under contract, Duke University Press).

Forthcoming. “Is Sound Studies Secular? Sinhala Buddhist Efficacy and the Audio-Visual Litany.” In Remapping Sound Studies, ed. Jim Sykes and Gavin Steingo.

W/Gavin Steingo. Forthcoming. “Introduction: Remapping Sound Studies.” In Remapping Sound Studies, ed. Jim Sykes and Gavin Steingo.

Forthcoming. “Islands, Oceans, and Non-State Spaces: Indigenous Aesthetics and the Ethics of a New Comparativism.” (tentative title) Paracolonial Soundworlds: Musical Transitions through Colonialism in the Eastern Indian Ocean, eds. Katherine Schofield, Julia Byl, and David Lunn.

Expected 2017. “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).

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

2015. “Sound Studies, Religion, and Public Space: Tamil Music and the Ethical Life in Singapore.” Ethnomusicology Forum, Vol. 24 (3), pp. 380-413.

2015. ‘Towards a Malayan Indian Sonic Geography: Sound and Social Relations in Colonial Singapore’. Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. 46 (3), pp. 485-513.

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.