Jim Sykes (Ph.D., Chicago) is Associate Professor in the Department of Music. A drummer and anthropologist, he works broadly across music and sound studies, South and Southeast Asian studies, and critical social theory. His first book, The Musical Gift: Sonic Generosity in Post-War Sri Lanka (Oxford, 2018), won the Bruno Nettl Prize from the Society for Ethnomusicology. With Gavin Steingo, he is co-editor of Remapping Sound Studies (Duke, 2019), which reimagines sound studies from the global South. The volume Sounding the Indian Ocean: Musical Circulations in the Afro-Asiatic Seascape (co-edited with Julia Byl) is due out in 2023 from the University of California Press. Sykes’ essay “The Science of Music is About Relations” is forthcoming in the edited volume The Science-Music Borderlands on MIT Press. In these works and other essays, he has written about music histories shaped by (and challenging) war and ethnonationalism; musical exchanges with deities, demons, and ghosts; colonial histories of musical migration; and anthropological theories of ontology, gift exchange, religion, and violence.
Sykes is currently working on a multisited ethnography and history of “the musical otherwise” in the wake of global capitalism, secularism, and the Anthropocene. The project—tentatively called Musicianhood: Enchantment and Displacement in a History of Capital—draws on longstanding fieldwork and experiences living as a musician in three global cities profoundly shaped by migration, globalization, and gentrification: Singapore, Berlin, and New York City. From climate activist drum ensembles and quietly-protesting Spotify workers to Hindu ritual drummers playing at temples located on the grounds of oil refineries, the book provides not just a critique of the normative ontology of musical labor that Sykes attributes to histories of Christianity, colonialism, and neoliberalization; the study also shows how the musical otherwise persists in places deeply hostile to it. Intended for popular and academic audiences, the book argues that challenging normative notions of musical labor has a role to play in building a philosophy of sustainable living necessary for confronting the Anthropocene.
In the 2000s, Sykes was the first drummer of the Brooklyn noise rock band Parts & Labor, and later a member of Grooms (part of Brooklyn’s Death by Audio collective), and more recently Invisible Things (with U.S. Maple’s Mark Shippy). Some musicians he has toured and/or recorded with include Marnie Stern, Mike Watt (Minuetmen, Stooges), Norman Westberg (Swans), White Magic (Drag City), and Martin Bisi. He was part of Boredoms’ 77 Boadrum project and shared bills with numerous indie musicians such as St. Vincent, Real Estate, Kurt Vile, War on Drugs, Quasi, Titus Andronicus, Tune-Yards, Beach Fossils, and many others. Besides solo electronic music he promises he will finish while on leave, his current project is a double-drum and electronics trio called Semiotic Primate, based out of Berlin.