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. His research bridges several disciplinary gaps (historical musicology/ethnomusicology, South/Southeast Asian Studies, musicologies of Buddhism and Hinduism, critical social theory/the philosophy of music) through the theoretical domains of sound studies, postcolonial studies, and peace and conflict studies, focusing on Sri Lanka and Singapore.

A forthcoming book, The Musical Gift: Sonic Generosity in Post-War Sri Lanka, brings anthropology’s longstanding discourse on “the gift” into music studies fully for the first time. The project is based on fieldwork in Sri Lanka that goes back to 2004, and is multi-sited (including fieldwork in the former warzones of the north and east) and multi-ethnic in orientation. The book builds a “post-war” Sri Lankan music history on the premise that some of the island’s music history was given by gods to people, while some songs and genres were given (rather than appropriated) across ethnic and religious lines. Without romanticizing the gift, the book strives to contribute to post-war reconciliation and brings a discourse on reconciliation into studies of music and conflict.

Two other book projects are in the works, one tentatively called Sonic Enchantment and a History of Capital that critiques narratives on the disenchantment of music through a study of labor, liberalism, and Hindu sounds in public and private spaces in Singapore; the second is an “anarchist” music history of the Bay of Bengal region that critiques ethnonationalist and European-derived philosophies of music. With Gavin Steingo, Sykes is co-editing Remapping Sound Studies (forthcoming, Duke University Press), which thinks that discipline from perspectives in and on the global South. He has received funding from the Fulbright-Hays DDRA, Wenner-Gren Foundation, Mellon Foundation, and European Research Council, and was a fellow at the Yale Institute for Sacred Music during 2016-2017.  

As a drummer, Sykes has released 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, a 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.



Selected Publications: 


Under Review. “Ontologies of Sonic Endurance: Reinterpreting Wartime Sound and Audition.”

Forthcoming. “Towards an Anarchist Musicology.” In Katherine Schofield, David Lunn, and Julia Byl, eds. Connected Histories & Synoptic Methods: Music and Colonial Transitions in South and Southeast Asia.

Forthcoming. “Sound Studies, Difference, and Global Concept History.” In Remapping Sound Studies, ed. Jim Sykes and Gavin Steingo (Duke). 

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

 Forthcoming. Special issue: “South Asian Drumming Beyond Tāla: The Case of ‘Meter’ in Buddhist Sri Lanka.” Analytical Approaches to World Music.

Forthcoming. “Rethinking the Musicology of Theravada Buddhism: An Introduction to Sinhala Buddhist Drumming.” Analytical Approaches to World Music.

 Forthcoming. “On the Sonic Materialization of Buddhist History: Drum Speech in Southern Sri Lanka.” Analytical Approaches to World Music.

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.

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