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by Katja Heldt

How Do We Listen? An Interview with New Music Curator Kamila Metwaly

Katja Heldt: You started curating Untraining the Ear in 2017. What is the concept behind the project?

Kamila Metwaly: Untraining the Ear takes place in the discursive art space SAVVY Contemporary in Berlin, which situates itself between non-Western and Western art forms and knowledge exchange. As a collective, we continuously try to deconstruct existing ideologies, canonical narratives, and the idea of the other, speaking from the position of that otherness. Untraining the Ear was the first project that I contributed to within SAVVY Contemporary, and the team consists of Beya Othmani, Abhishek Nilamber, Jasmina Al-Qaisi, and most recently Ola Zielinska. For the series, we work together with Marcus Gammel of Deutschlandfunk Kultur and Jan Rolf of the CTM festival in Berlin. The series could be considered a continuation of an inquiry into sound begun by Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung, founder and artistic director of SAVVY Contemporary, Elena Agudio, co-artistic director of SAVVY, and Marcus Gammel during the exhibition and radio project SAVVY Funk during Documenta 14 in 2017.

The Untraining the Ear series takes a slightly different turn, though. Its main focus is listening, which can include the sonic and the musical, but not exclusively auditory. The project started with the reflection on the possibilities of listening to what one might call elsewhere, and out of curiosity to understand what could that claim, the process of untraining an ear, entail? Each contribution was unravelling layers of sonic histories, acoustemology, and knowledge forms, which do not only revolve around the Euroamerican logicality in musical tradition, composition, and the aestheticization of the sonic in such constructs.

Our primary concern is the social, political and historical elements of listening; and with each artist, we raise and tap into questions around how does listening influence and inform their work and process, both conceptually and artistically. And how we, as a collective of listeners experiencing those works, must ask: What is our listening influenced by? Do we actually listen and who do we listen to? What shapes our listening processes? And can active listening become an agent for change?

We are interested in listening as a conscious decision. We meet up to listen, which implies being mentally and physically present and together, witnesses to a spectacular and endless iteration of sound, air-breathing thoughts and igniting a shared space. To a large extent, it is about listening beyond the Western canon, but it is also an attempt at subverting power. For each session, we invite and commission artists to engage with the audience's ears, share their stories, thoughts, and works on the subject and propose alternative ways of listening through their performances and in-depth conversations following or preceding their performance. We believe that for too long the idea of decolonization has been ignored by musicology (across various genres) and sound arts, and therefore this project also attempts to give space to tackle the subject of decolonizing the realm of what one might call the sonic.

Kamila Metwaly

Kamila Metwaly


KH: What does the term ‘untraining’ mean in the context of the listening sessions?

KM: The initial idea was to start an investigation into the sonic within our various modes of listening. Later on, we fell for the notion of untraining as a possibility of listening to ‘other’ sound and ‘other’ music, to investigate, inquire, deep-dive into other histories, and give space to (re)write other histories. Choosing the process of untraining results from a need for un-mixing our listening and understanding what it entails. Not only taking into account what we are listening to, but furthermore what influences how we listen. How do we (de)tune ourselves from the well-tempered spectrum of our conditioned ears while listening? Untraining also could entail another way of telling and sharing stories, and of being together, of creating contact zones.

This format was also an attempt to slow down, to contest modes in which artists become a resource, or a token, for a project within an institution and how institutions are greedy – always needing more and ever new artists to work with. Each session is the result of long-term research and following in-depth conversations with each invited artist, often leading to intensive and lasting relationships. Once we untrained our ears, we also untrained our expectations towards the artist and created space for something genuine to happen. This has made each session very different from one another, both conceptually and experientially.

KH: In your project description, you emphasize the difference between hearing and listening. What is your understanding of those terms?

KM: Yes. The difference between listening and hearing is an essential aspect of our work and mostly inspired by the work of Pauline Oliveros’s extensive deep listening practice. It is also a way to think of listening as a tool for deciphering and discerning between those two states. On the one hand, the involuntary physical hearing and on the other, the subjective and culturally trained process of listening. Pauline Oliveros states that listening is a space of focused attention. We are interested in this zone of focusing, we want to stop hearing and start listening actively and use the process of listening as a tool to activate discourse. Throughout our series and with each invited artist, we investigate different shades of politicized, socialized, and exoticized listening. Each artist offers new and different propositions or exercises through which we learn to reflect on our processes of normative listening and through which we learn to attain a more active and aware space of being.

KH: Who are the guests you have invited so far?

KM: So far, we have had eight sessions. The first artist was Tara Transitory aka One Man Nation, a Singaporean sound artist, and composer, who lived at that time, between Chiang Mai and Berlin. Transitory performed in the corridor of SAVVY, and her work extended into the gallery. She activated the whole space almost turning it into one huge vibrating speaker and pushed the audience to listen with the entire body, creating particular spatial and bodily sonic relationships between herself, the space and the listeners together.

The second guest was Audrey Chen, a Chinese/Taiwanese-American composer. In her contribution, she experimented with shifting the audience’s attention to mundane repercussions in artistic practices and explored how her listening plays an integral role for the basis of her compositions. As an artist, she alludes to sounds that she experiences every day, and consequently during her performances blurs the line between abstract and physical spaces.

For the third session, we invited Lucretia Dalt and the visual artist Regina De Miguel, who presented a transtemporal exercise, focusing on speech, voice and transcultural communication, but also exploring ways to voice life-form entanglements, respectively on topics and conflicts that traverse cultures and geographies. We also invited Dayang Yraola, the curator and one of the key researchers around the work and archives of the Philipino pioneer composer and creative ethnomusicologist José Maceda, who died in 2004. Yraola has worked and known Maceda personally, and was humble enough to share and comment on his archive, but also conduct an extensive workshop into Maceda's musical philosophy and compositional techniques here in Berlin. It was the first time we had curated an exhibition which engaged with the historicity of listening.

Another of our listening sessions paid a special homage to the French composer and electronic music pioneer Éliane Radigue. It was a durational listening session, and we invited a few musicians to engage with her legacy and perform her music over a span of three hours.

Carlos Gutiérrez and Tatiana López are from Bolivia, where they both work with the Experimental Orchestra of Indigenous Instruments (OEIN). During the listening sessions and a workshop, they told us stories about Bolivian music tradition and taught us how to build the Sikus, a traditional Andean panpipe, which was also used for a performance. They also specifically shed light on a very different history of composing contemporary music outside of the European art music tradition and aesthetic.

Jessica Ekomane Etoua is an artist that reflects on technology as a tool, the importance of referencing, archives and history in sound art and music making, and we really enjoyed the interesting discussions we had after her performance. Our last guest, for now, was Pamela Z, an American composer, sound and media artist, who is mainly known for her vocal improvisations and techniques, but also for her pioneering work in body synth. She presented a series of works spanning from the 90s to today in an exhibition entitled Sonic Gestures, and within the exhibition, she has also performed a more extensive repertoire of her works. The series is continuing, and we are all looking forward to meeting and learning from more inspiring artists.

KH: You have quite a special and diverse background: you were born in Poland, but you grew up in Cairo, and now you live in Berlin. When did you start thinking and researching about decolonization processes, and how did you start working with people of SAVVY?

KM: I am not sure if the process of decolonization has a starting and an ending point. I think it is rather a way of living and being. I could say that my earliest recollection could be related to my father’s work in experimental theatres in Poland and Egypt, which of course engaged – in practice – with the decolonization of the Egyptian theatre, which as he argued, was built upon the imperial tradition of French and later British theatre practices. However, a lot of the learning, especially theoretically, I gained when I arrived at SAVVY, by coincidence. I met Antonia Alampi, one of the co-artistic directors of SAVVY already back in Cairo, where I lived before moving to Berlin in 2017.

At that time and until today, I was deeply invested in research around a composer, pioneer of electronic music, Pan-africanist and creative ethnomusicologist, the Egyptian Halim El-Dabh, who has for too long lived in the footnotes of the Western musical avant-garde and history of electronic music. While researching his work and listening to his music, I realized how much knowledge is or was inaccessible to me. I realized how much knowledge never makes it through to those books and those narratives that create and sustain a certain scene, a certain canon. I didn't know anything about him; being an Egyptian living in Egypt my whole life, I didn't realize that electronic music could also be a history and tradition from Egypt, the Middle East, and from Africa. So I was quite disappointed, and naturally started thinking that it is also essential to challenge perceptions that we have about music.

Tape music pioneer Halim El-Dabh in Cairo, 1930s.

Tape music pioneer Halim El-Dabh in Cairo, 1930s.


In Berlin, Alampi asked me if I would like to engage with SAVVY and create this sound-based project there. I was curious about what we could do in an art space. How can sound and music exist and how can we create intersections between history, experientiality, art, and propose a critical discourse that listens elsewhere. I was of course inspired by the ideology of SAVVY and how it is committed to change, I wondered how could we do that in the category of music and sound art?

KH: The notion of ‘untraining’ claims that it is possible to train and change our process of listening. Do you have the impression that you achieve this goal?

KM: I would say that it is an ongoing quest, a hypothesis that we are invested in and with each session learn about realities that we might not have experienced before. The further we go with this project, the more we realize how difficult it actually is to achieve that claim. Maybe we should rephrase the term un-training into re-training to underline the aspect of playing with the idea of how to engage with different ways of telling stories? This change accounts not only for each individual but also for the institutions we are collaborating with.

My own interest as a curator is to ask how we as an art space can facilitate possibilities of listening. I try to break it down to the function of the listening of an institution versus listening to an institution and questioning how we embrace different possibilities of listening to a space and the space listening to us. I think the most crucial part of the project is this sort of self-reflectivity, of how listening can be a project of disruption of the normative, creating its own ecology of agencies and refusals.  

KH: So, is the ‘untraining’ directed towards a changing of institutions rather than changing the individual process of listening?

KM: In my opinion, one of the elements of the Untraining the Ear project is reflecting on how we deal with each other as curators, artists, and audiences. SAVVY does work differently from other institutions, and therefore, we also improvise and make attempts at curating or facilitating spaces of exchange. As an art space, we are not well equipped, we are not a concert hall, nor are we a music venue or facility. We don't want to be an event space which books artists, and rushes from one topic to the next, from one artist to the other, but rather maintain a conversation, a discursive programme, a strong language, and a specific regard on the world.

As a former crematorium, the building itself has a particular history with different qualities. Each space in itself carries a specific sound; it reverberates, it even listens by itself. In these surroundings we try to engage in fruitful and ongoing conversations with the artists, through which we can learn from each other. A difference from other institutions is that SAVVY is mainly funded on a project-to-project basis and not supported by the government to the extent that we can officially call ourselves an institution. Many of our team members work voluntarily or contribute their free time, passion and dedication to create publications, programmes, talks and screenings, in addition to our annual exhibition projects.

Our team at SAVVY is based on a broad collective of different individuals that also don't necessarily have a Western institutional background. We rarely share the same values of much of the spaces in Berlin. We don't share the same values of time in general, and of time concerning curating. We collaborate with various curators and producers and acquire new knowledge from different perspectives that we try to apply in the field of art and music. Most curatorial decisions are taken as a collective, and we spend much time conversing and researching, but also being extremely critical about our positions and privileges. For us, untraining and listening extends itself from the individual to the collective – from the singular into plural, as Adrianna Cavarero would underscore – it concerns the politics of listening and the politics of caring for each other, but also often crying for and with each other.

KH: Could you give an example of what you have learned from one of your artists?

KM: A good example is a collaboration which is now a friendship with Tara Transitory. With Transitory, I personally learned much about the importance of what is known as ‘backstage’ in the world of music, what happens before and after the ‘show’. I also started withdrawing myself further, as the curator in the public eye, towards gaining more focus for the intimate constellations with the artists, structuring the audiences’ experience and shaping spaces of listening.

Meeting Transitory was quite interesting: almost everything before the session was a big debate, around all the topics we discussed here. Such as decolonization, a fetishization of the other, tokenism, expectation, whiteness in sound art and festivals across Europe, the decay of such institutions, and how can we do things differently, and engage with different sensibilities. So we entered a much more interesting and yet frail space of friendship, of sharing how we feel about this world; not necessarily sharing the same struggles per se, but rather creating contact zones in which we can be honest.

Each session of Untraining the Ear teaches us about concerns and experiences and different ways of working together. With Transitory, we learned that we are more interested in the process than the actual event; it was more about practising what you preach, and it was a powerful position that Transitory has engaged with, which had a lasting influence on us and shifted the whole series into another way of curating and working with artists. The performances and concerts are manifestations of these relations, but this specific rhythm of production is maybe even more important.

KH: Talking about sharing experiences and histories, at SAVVY you have a big library with an extensive collection of books and documents from all around the world. I imagine that it is often used as a source of inspiration?

KM: Yes. Our SAVVY library, or SAVVY Doc, is what we call the backbone of our work because it contains an extensive collection of books and journals – non-Western writings that originate from all over the world. It is an exceptional place and also carries a unique history. Each book is there for a reason and carries a history of its journey into SAVVY. Many of our guests are artists and researchers, and very often before their presentations they come by, read through the books, but also quite often give us unique books that might be hard to come across in a regular library.

SAVVY Doc has also recently opened its doors to the public – the library, mainly curated and organized by Elena Quintarelli, Jasmina Al-Qaisi and Laura Klöckne, is officially open on Tuesdays for reading. One primary concern of SAVVY is to offer the possibility for artists from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America not only to perform but also to talk and to write down their history.

We want to engage with the possibility of inscribing knowledge – generally, writing history creates a position of power and privilege. In our society, writing history has fundamentally been taken away from us by Western notators. It is therefore crucial that we have books, we write them, we read them, and we share them. This archive becomes a space of performing and living the knowledge, de-objectifying the archive and the documents it contains into a living matter.

KH: When it comes to programming the series, how do you choose your artists and what is your curatorial strategy?

KM: Untraining the Ear is a collaboration of SAVVY Contemporary with Jan Rolf from the CTM Festival in Berlin and Marcus Gammel from Deutschlandfunk Kultur and their Radio Art programme Klangkunst, which is one of the series’ crucial elements because the works are commissioned both for the space and for the radio, which automatically requires a different perspective on the work. The artists not only have to think about the radiophonic [element], but also try to engage with the idea of deconstructing or challenging radio art and its production formats. Around the world, we find multiple different radio formats and various approaches towards radio art, but still, when we hear the term radio art or the German term Klangkunst, we automatically associate it with a specific timeline and a few known names. With that collaboration, we are trying to bridge that situation and are glad to be supported by a profiled institution such as de DLF and the expertise of Marcus Gammel.

Our curatorial strategy is based on sharing expertise, on recommendations, and engaging with all sorts of networks and a collective process of thinking. After working with one artist, many new ideas and interesting questions arise out of the conversations, and we always ask our guests whom they would suggest as a next invitee.

Another interesting source of inspiration is the cooperation with the DAAD – Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst and their residency Artists-in-Berlin. Every year the programme invites interesting artists from different artistic disciplines for an up to one-year long residency in Berlin. Their former head of music, Julia Gerlach, helped us to reach out to Carlos Guitérrez and Tatiana López from Bolivia, who at that time were staying at the residency in Berlin.

One of our biggest concerns at SAVVY is creating more possibilities of ‘aware listening’ in which unknown, less privileged or less fortunate artists find a place to present their work in a city like Berlin; and not only invite people that are already part of other well-known channels.

KH: Since SAVVY is, first of all, an art gallery, what difference does it make to curate a music- and sound-based series in comparison to an event of visual art in the context of decolonization? How do music and sound have the possibility to be part of the process of decolonization?

KM: Since time immemorial, we are bound to rely mostly on our visual abilities to experience, and validate our surrounding through seeing. How would we perceive our world if we relied on our ears too? I think music, listening, and sound are crucial because they give you a different history and a different perspective. With our listening sessions, we would like to use our ears to gain knowledge. I think there is a lag when thinking about sound arts in specific and contemporary music scenes in terms of decolonization. Even in countries such as Egypt, where sound is one of the prime sources of communication, most music that is being performed is in the context of a hall, the opera house, or highly classical European venues built during imperial times. I think there is more to be done; at least we need to open the conversation on decolonizing musical institutions much more openly and sincerely.

Secondly, it is necessary to challenge the art institutions in which the visual still dominates, in which the sonic is still considered as a footnote to the visual. I'm talking specifically about art galleries and institutions in which the majority of the curation is focusing on visual art. This is quite challenging because it would require a fundamental shift in thinking also through sound, it would encourage curators to create different approaches and methods in their exhibition-making, which includes different ways of exhibiting sound. To include sound does not mean to just add a set of headphones, or an isolated event, or to curate a sound art-only zone for a work. It would rather be much more interesting to engage with the experience of sound, and also the technical tools needed to embrace that experience.

During the colonization of the region, and the transcriptions of both music and sounds into Western formats such as notation systems, as well as the fixation of the written, we have been attuned to a specific mode of vision and validation of the world. It shows us the dimension of how colonizers treated sound abroad, treated musical traditions abroad and of course, how the looking also occupied the listening. In this regard, reading and writing can be seen as an elitist way of narrating and experiencing the world, notably because it excludes the sonic environment and other ways of transcending and sharing. If we think about that in the context of exhibition-making, I find it very interesting that we are still lagging in understanding sound. Sometimes I would hear a comment of someone saying that sound is not their expertise, but I think that sound is no one’s and everyone’s expertise. In SAVVY, we talk a lot about creating different rhythms for exhibition-making, of how to integrate different senses into the art space and not isolate them.

Further information about the Untraining the Ear: Listening Sessions:

Katja Heldt is a musicologist, author and music manager based in Berlin. She studied musicology in Cologne, Berlin and Montréal and her research specialized in transculturality and decolonization in new music. She writes as an author for music magazines such as Positionen, Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Dissonance and circuit – musiques contemporaines. She works for the festivals Darmstadt Summer Courses and Donaueschinger Musiktage and is project manager of the research projects DEFRAGMENTATION – Curating Contemporary Music and Donaueschingen Global.

Kamila Metwaly, born in Warsaw in 1984, is a music journalist, electronic musician and curator based between Berlin and Cairo. Metwaly founded an independent art and culture publication in Egypt, which specialized in music, arts, and cultural writings from 2004 to 2009. Later, she worked in radio and the independent film scene, maintaining a strong presence in Cairo's cultural and activist scenes for many years. Since 2014, Metwaly has specialized in music journalism for various independent Egyptian and Arab publications.

In 2017, Metwaly joined SAVVY Contemporary and is currently curating an ongoing sound project titled Untraining the Ear: Listening Sessions. She has been involved with various sound-based exhibition projects in the space, including What Has All This Got To Do With Coconuts And Rice: A Listening Exhibition on José Maceda, We Have Delivered Ourselves from the Tonal: Of, With, Towards, on Julius Eastman; and has co-curated a retrospective exhibition The Dog Done Gone Deaf: Exploring The Sonic Cosmologies of Halim El-Dabh with Bonaventure Ndikung in the Dak’Art Biennale in Senegal (2018). She has been appointed as a guest music researcher for the Donaueschingen New Music festival 2021 edition.

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