Aizuddin and Nazmi Anuar
Behind the Scenes: River of Development
Today Aizuddin and Nazmi Anuar join me to talk about Aizuddin’s FreshEd Flux episode. I recommend you listen to that episode before you continue with this one. In our episode we discuss the power of memory when thinking about development and excavate some of the layers in Aizuddin’s Flux episode.
Aizuddin Anuar is a lecturer in education at Keele University and his brother, Nazmi, teaches architecture in Malaysia.
Citation: Anuar, Aizuddin, Anuar, Nazmi, interview with Will Brehm, FreshEd, 302, podcast audio, Nov. 14, 2022.
Will Brehm 0:02
Aizuddin Anuar, welcome to FreshEd.
Aizuddin Anuar 1:19
Thank you for having me, Will.
Will Brehm 1:20
So, congratulations on your Flux episode. Just such a journey that it takes the listener on. I just absolutely loved listening to it and actually seeing it produced over the last year. I want to start by just asking you: what was it like to be a Flux fellow over the last year? What was that experience like to you?
Aizuddin Anuar 1:38
It was a very creative experience, which I felt that came at a very interesting time in my sort of academic trajectory. So, I was in the process of wrapping up my PhD at that time when I first started the fellowship. And the fellowship, I guess, gave me a kind of creative outlet to process the work that I did in a different manner than a conventional academic approach. And so, it was a very welcome opportunity to think in a different way about the work that I had been doing. And also, to reflect on the sort of personal experience of what brought me to the research that I eventually conducted for my PhD.
Will Brehm 2:15
It is quite interesting to think of how in PhDs and dissertations there’s very strong norms and conventions that one must follow, and how they, in a sense, become limiting. At some point, they actually limit you with how you want to express your ideas.
Aizuddin Anuar 2:31
Yeah, definitely. I felt like the whole fellowship was an opportunity to, I suppose, express a more creative side to the work that I was doing. Not to say that there wasn’t any opportunity to do that within the PhD, but I definitely felt like it was something that had to be curtailed in a way. And so, the fellowship really gave me an opportunity to sort of reignite that creative part of my thinking around a topic that in many ways is quite personal. But even though it is an academic topic, I felt like there was something to be made in terms of a creative contribution. And I felt like that was possible through the fellowship.
Will Brehm 3:06
Did you have any experience with audio storytelling or audio editing before doing this fellowship?
Aizuddin Anuar 3:13
Not a whole lot. But before doing this fellowship, I had participated in a digital exhibition where I wrote this short story piece that had some audio accompaniment to it, which was a recording of sounds of nature. So, there was that experience, but it didn’t involve a huge amount of editing, or the kind of production work that took place in the fellowship.
Will Brehm 3:35
I remember your application -we ask for an audio file as part of the application process. And I remember yours distinctively because you had the sound of nature playing in the background while you were speaking. And I think when we interviewed you, we asked how you put it together. And you said you just sort of pressed play on your phone or something to make the sounds you recorded and then recorded your voice on top of it. I just thought that was such a sort of a simple, yet effective way of telling the story you did in your application.
Aizuddin Anuar 4:06
Yeah. It was definitely quite cobbled together a very unprofessional way. I mean, thank God since the fellowship, that skill had developed but yeah, it was from that point just a matter of trying to use whatever technology that I had and whatever knowledge that I had about it. But yeah, definitely learned a lot more through the fellowship.
Will Brehm 4:24
And what I think is so nice about it is that the sounds of nature really continued not only from your application but all the way through your final episode. Like the sound of water is so prevalent through the whole episode, you just constantly return to this water as if you’re going down this journey on a river. So, what were you trying to convey with that sound? What was the point of using the sound of water in your episode?
Aizuddin Anuar 4:49
So, I wanted to use that motif of the sound of water particularly to represent the river because it’s formed such a huge part of not only the kind of theme of the episode in terms of development, but in terms of my personal connection to the river of my childhood. So, when I was growing up, my mother’s ancestral home is situated next to a river where her parents lived. And in order to get to her parents’ home, when I was much younger, we would have to cross the river on a boat to get to the other side. So, the river is such a huge presence in my own life in terms of growing up, and we would go down to the river to bathe, it was such an integral part of transportation. And as I grew older, the river became this cipher for development in a sense of how the color of the river changed over time, how our relationship to the river changed because we no longer had to cross the river -there’s been a bridge that was built across it. The river is becoming a source of anxiety because of increasing monsoon floods. So, the idea of the river is connected both personally but also to the broader question of development. So, I thought it was necessary to include it sonically.
Will Brehm 6:01
And the sound, it really worked. In a way, it sort of transports the listener to parts of Malaysia. And did that sound come from Malaysia? Like, is that recorded by you or by someone in Malaysia? Or did you use sort of found audio for that?
Aizuddin Anuar 6:16
So, I used sounds that were recorded in Malaysia during the time where I was recording for the fellowship. So, the sounds of it are not all sounds of actual river water. Some of them were sounds of rainfall around my house, some of them were the sound of water flowing in a drain or something with that kind of setup. But they were recorded around my house. And I remember some of them are actually sounds that I recorded during the time of my own PhD fieldwork, which took place a few years ago. And the reason I wanted to record sound at that point was to use them as sort of triggers for remembering the field while I was writing up my PhD. So, I had recorded sort of other ambient sounds around the school that I did fieldwork in – the sound of rainfall – and some of that made it into the episode as well.
Will Brehm 7:02
That’s quite an interesting insight that I guess people might not have picked up on just by listening to it; to know the sort of origins of these different sounds. Because in a way, what you’ve done is sonically, you’ve jumped back and forth in time when these different sounds are actually recorded, which mirrors in many ways, the story that you were telling about memory and about your own personal development but also Malaysia’s development going back and forth in different time periods. So, it’s a really interesting connection to the way in which the sounds are recorded and used to mirror sort of the story you were telling. From the very beginning of the fellowship, you were talking about this project with sort of this working title called “meandering methodology” and we eventually didn’t use that as the title. But how do you see meandering methodologies useful in understanding the project that you worked on?
Aizuddin Anuar 7:55
I think what eventually happened was that the episode itself hopefully becomes a representation, a form of methodology, a form of trying to…how to make knowledge essentially. And what I meant when I started the project by meandering methodologies in a sense of how the things, I wanted to follow in the course of this episode were, for me, useful entry points into thinking about development. And so it could be that a conversation with my mom, it could be a memory she told me about that I wanted to find out more of. So, it wasn’t necessarily something that was sort of planned in a traditional kind of methodological sense. But rather to sort of follow these touch points from my own sort of personal experiences, and from my connection to my family members of how that would illuminate something about development that I would not otherwise have been able to uncover.
Will Brehm 8:40
When you say the word meandering methodologies – and I think of the river that you’ve described, and the sound we hear of water – I do think of the listener going down this journey, like snaking along on the river and sort of meandering along it. And your voice is so sort of easy to listen to. And you just sort of tell us these stories, and I just feel like I’m on some boat going down this river, listening to all these different stories. It’s just so sort of peaceful, in a way. I don’t know if that’s the right word but it’s just so easy to listen to, in a way. So, memory is such an important part of this story. And I actually really like thinking about development from remembering or through memory. And it seems like it’s a gravitational force, you know. It sort of keeps pulling you back in these different time periods. So, why are you working with memory so much to tell this story?
Aizuddin Anuar 9:33
So, I wanted to work with memory particularly because I felt like it was important to try and access parts of history that I wasn’t necessarily present in. So, there were moments where I turned to my mother for stories in a time before I was born, for instance, or from a time where she grew up in the presence of my grandfather. And I wanted to trace those memories about development as a way of trying to keep hold of how development has changed ways of life across time. And not necessarily in a bad way, in some ways for the good. But sort of access those kinds of details of what those ways of life looked like. And so, turning to memory, for me, was very instrumental to be able to find ways of describing those changes that have taken place over time through development.
Will Brehm 10:26
You end up talking to a lot of your family members in this episode. We hear stories of your grandfather; he seems to be so incredibly important. We hear the voice of your mother. But we also hear the voice of your brother. And it just so happens for the first time ever on FreshEd, we actually have an extra guest on the show today, who is your brother; Nazmi. Nazmi Anuar, thank you so much for joining us today in this conversation and to just sort of add to this conversation about your brother’s fantastic podcast.
Nazmi Anuar 10:58
Thank you for inviting me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
Will Brehm 11:00
Can I ask; what was it like for you to participate in the production of Aizuddin’s episode?
Nazmi Anuar 11:06
I think when he first told me about it, it sounded like a very personal project. And in some ways, memory -because also in a way the project started during the pandemic, when we were kind of in lockdowns, and we were separated from our families. And let’s say that the place where our parents live in, we cannot travel across state lines. So, this idea of memory and distance and trying to kind of reach out and connect family members who are seemingly far away. It suddenly became quite important. And it was funny because they don’t live that far away from where I live but I think during the pandemic, the distance felt more just because you’re not allowed to kind of travel and visit them. And suddenly, distance is not just a physical kind of dimension. But then you start to also, in parallel, recall the memories of people who are no longer around. Some people, you cannot reach them, because there’s a travel limitation. Some people you cannot reach because they’re just no longer around. So, I feel that when he first described this kind of research, or this kind of project that he’s doing, for me, it felt like reaching out trying to grab hold of memories of people who are no longer around or trying to make sure certain kinds of memory -I don’t know whether to kind of in a way to verify certain kind of memories, whether they’re correct or not. Although that really doesn’t matter, I guess memories, they are the way that you remember the. But it felt like a personal thing that could be expressed in different ways. And I felt it was an interesting kind of appendix to the actual PhD research that he was doing.
Will Brehm 12:35
That’s such a nice way to think about it; how personal it is, and how these memories can be different from the same people living the same experiences but then years later, remembering things slightly differently for whatever reason. Was it hard, like emotionally? Was this a difficult process for the two of you to sort of put together this public-facing audio podcast about family history and family memory?
Aizuddin Anuar 12:57
Yeah. I felt like there was a kind of a tension between how much of the personal to be exposed in such a public way. And in many ways, the episode for me felt like a very intimate piece of family history that was perhaps in another instance meant only to be shared among family members. But I felt like it became a kind of method for me in a sense that the personal was never really far away from much broader stories. And when I think about the story of development, so much of these personal stories I feel are resonant among other Malaysians who have similar experiences of thinking about the rural space or having family members from rural communities. And so, I felt it was, in some ways, necessary to have that bridge between the personal and the larger story of development. But definitely, I felt like the whole process of trying to uncover these memories and asking questions to family members and asking people to remember things is not necessarily the easiest thing, and it takes a lot of labor I feel.
Will Brehm 13:52
Nazmi, was it difficult for you in any way?
Nazmi Anuar 13:54
I don’t think it’s difficult. Like the act of sharing itself is maybe not that difficult, but more the personal act of trying to unlock certain memories and trying to recall. I think Aizuddin was asking me about, “Do you have recordings of our grandfather speaking?” And I actually do. I have videos of our late grandfather, which were recorded a long time ago. He passed away about 11 years ago. I do have video recordings of him but it’s still very difficult for me to watch those kinds of things right. Meaning like it’s different than he is in your memory, and you think about him but then to be confronted with documents of his existence, right, which also then reminds you of the fact that he is no longer around. I think those kinds of things emotionally is very difficult for me. I’m still unable to watch those recordings. But talking about him and kind of recollecting what he was like, I think that in a way was kind of also quite emotional and also quite cathartic in a way. It makes his life somewhat more relatable to our lives now, if that makes any sense. But trying to confront the actual recordings of him speaking or videos of him. I find those kinds of things still difficult to do. Even today, like I’m unable to watch it.
Will Brehm 15:03
In this process, did you ever realize that the two of you, or your mother, have different memories? Like, you know, where they’re not exactly aligned? And did you ever like talk about that?
Aizuddin Anuar 15:13
I didn’t necessarily think we’ve talked about it, but I feel in some ways it is represented in the episode. And in some ways, it is, on my end, quite a deliberate decision to structure the episode in particular way where we, for instance, returned to this photo of Tok as the grandfather. And the three of us myself, my brother, and my mother described this photo in different ways and highlighting different details or recalling different memories. I think, of course, in terms of factual accuracy, perhaps my mother has the most authority to speak about this, because it was of her time. She was there when the photo was taken. But I felt like it was a device that shows us how memory is very specific and how its positioned according to who is the narrator of particular memories. So, the way that my mum speaks about the photo, she’s highlighting different things, or she’s pointing to a particular place, whereas the way I’m talking about it and the way my brother speaks about it, perhaps addresses different elements of the photo or recalls different memories. So, again, that notion of memory as fact becomes much more complicated. And in many ways, it’s constructed from particular places.
Will Brehm 16:23
I want to ask a little bit about some of the music that you hear in the podcast. And I think this is a question probably for Nazmi because you ended up playing a lot of this music. I guess the question is really, who is “Ahmad Black”? Who is credited with the music in the episode?
Nazmi Anuar 16:40
Yeah, that’s an interesting question. Well, I mean, I’ve always been playing music. I mean, I’m still not very good at it but it’s something that I do kind of continuously. And I think around the same time that Aizuddin was doing his research, my daughter was born. And during that time, being stuck in the house with lock down and I used to play electric guitars, which obviously is louder. It’s something that needs to be played loud, where volume really mattered. So, with the new baby being born, I was forced to pick up the acoustic guitar, which is something I’m not very -I’ve never been a fan of acoustic guitar. I’ve always felt that it’s kind of feeble, and it’s a bit like an archaic or whatever. But then circumstances forced me to confront the instrument and I think playing something so bare, it also brings you kind of face to face with the fact that with your limitation as a person who plays music. I’m not a very patient student of the guitar. So, let’s say if I’m trying to learn someone else’s song, or if I’m trying to learn certain aspects of the guitar, I just end up making up my own pieces. That’s the way that I play is that I would make up my own pieces rather than oh, let’s try to learn, you know, so and so’s whatever. So, during this process, I ended up gradually making up these acoustic compositions. Very bare; recorded with just very low tech in my room. And I guess partly, it’s inspired by -I discovered the work of this American guitarists called John Fahey, who was kind of a scholar of all kind of American music, and who was kind of putting his own spin on this kind of music. And that was kind of way back in the 60s. And a lot of his work dealt with kind of obscure rural location. He had kind of used places as kind of catalysts for his little acoustic compositions. And a lot of it had to do with rivers and locations like that. So, while I was making up my own things, I was like, well, that is kind of an interesting method. Maybe I could do something like that, but I should contextually place it in my own time and space and place. So, then I started making up this idea of compositions based on memory or based on my recollection of our kampung, our village in Hulu Pahang, it’s upriver in Pahang. And while doing that, I also did not feel comfortable to kind of put like my own name on this music. It felt like my role as an author needs to be removed. So, I was trying to invent kind of an alter ego or character that is supposed to perform this music. And then I remembered there was a memory that I thought that I had seen a photograph of my grandfather at the bottom of the photograph, he had written “Ahmad Black” as the name. And his name was Ahmad Bin Hitam. Hitam is black in Malay. So, Ahmad Black is like a half-hearted English translation of his name. So, I remember the image of my grandfather and I decided to use that name as the kind of alter ego behind this kind of compositions and these little acoustic pieces that I had written. And then I don’t remember whether I told Aizuddin about it and then he said he’s doing something similar or whether he told me. Somehow, I no longer remember how we put two and two together because I think when I was doing it, I was doing it to document something on my own part. I don’t think it was actually part of this project. But it was something that by chance we worked on in parallel.
Will Brehm 19:59
Aizuddin, do you remember how you sort of made the connection? Because it is scarily similar, right. I mean, it’s quite amazing that the two of you are working on two slightly different projects but sort of approaching concepts in a similar way. I mean, that is quite amazing, without necessarily talking. So, Aizuddin, where was the connection? How did you make that connection?
Aizuddin Anuar 20:19
Yeah, I think my brother Nazmi had sent me a series of these recordings, even before I had considered applying for FreshEd Flux. And so, I had heard of these recordings before I thought of the project. And when I was working on the project – and of course, music had become a sort of central dimension of the backbone of the episode – I remember that my brother had worked on these series of compositions, and I felt like it would be a good accompaniment to the story that I was trying to tell. And so, it sort of worked out in a way without necessarily my brother knowing about this project that I was working on.
Will Brehm 20:53
It’s beautiful. I mean, Nazmi, you might say, you’re not a good guitarist. But actually, in my opinion, it’s beautiful music that you play, and it sort of between the sounds of the river and the sound of your music is it is, as Aizuddin says, the backbone of the episode in many ways. And then yet, there’s layers to it about how memory is working from the stories you just say. So, I mean, it really just adds this level of complexity that just, I think, makes the episode so beautiful. The sounds really seem, you know, from my U.S. ears, they really sound like the blues. What’s the connection? I know, you say you were sort of influenced by a particular American musician. But when we tell a story of memory and meandering down a river, why blues? Why is this sort of a way of thinking about it?
Nazmi Anuar 21:39
I don’t want to emphasize that too much. Because I mean, again, if you were to play it to a real blues musician, they would probably think that’s not up to par. But I felt like blues was originally kind of a rural music, and it has this sense of melancholia. It’s not completely depressing or sad. It’s not very happy either. When I listen to these old recordings, there’s this feeling of longing. There’s like a feeling of trying to connect or trying to get something across. And I guess that’s the kind of feel that I was gravitating towards, rather than the more technical aspect of the music, or, like, I’m not very good with kind of the actual structure of the music. But I was, in a way, trying to not to say imitate, but to kind of connect to the same kind of emotional resonance that affected me while listening to those kinds of music, I guess it was more the mood and the feel, which is kind of somehow rural, to my ears. I mean, if you think about jazz, jazz is an urban form of music and blues is more rural. So, I felt that the music had that more rural kind of feeling. But also, it has this kind of steady motion, which you can then relate to the idea of the flow of the river. That it’s always going somewhere but you’re not really sure where it’s going. And I think if you look at blues music, or if you listen to orchestral music, there’s a crescendo, there’s a climax, with blues, it does not have those kinds of peaks, but it has that kind of very steady flow to it. And I guess that’s part of the charm. And that’s part of the thing that I’m trying to channel with this music, which is very open ended. Not really going somewhere but just kind of flowing along.
Will Brehm 23:10
Aizuddin, I want to ask you; thinking about what Nazmi just said about blues music and the melancholy and the longing and the sort of meandering and thinking also of issues of memory, which I think we’ve now discussed quite a bit: What does all of this say about the sort of academic field of international development, which is an area that you’ve studied academically. You’re now teaching probably some things related to international development; what can we learn from all the different sounds and sort of devices of memory that you’ve used in your episode to help us understand that academic field of international development?
Aizuddin Anuar 23:48
Yeah, that’s a good question, which I admit, I haven’t thought of consciously. But I guess part of I think what endures in the work of development is the sense of the temporal dimension of change in society. And I feel like memory is such an important resource for thinking about that change, particularly memory across generations that have encountered development in very different ways across time. And so, I feel like the memory of people who have experienced development is a crucial resource for understanding the more sort of granular dimensions of what development looks like, in place. I mean, of course, we can talk about development in very sort of theoretical dimensions, in a very sort of macro level thinking about development. But I think the more day to day encounters of people with development, the sort of good and the bad of it, is important to illuminate particularly to identify the differences and the convergence across generations. So, in this episode, I highlight the changes from my grandfather’s generation to my mom’s generation, to my own generation with my brother and how across those different generations, there are changes but there are also things that we would like to, in many ways, hold on to which I think is important to foreground.
Will Brehm 25:06
I think that a melancholy mood really does capture it in a way.
Aizuddin Anuar 25:11
Yeah, I mean, definitely. It is a very complicated sort of ambivalent emotional space. Because on the one hand, much of what we enjoy today, in the kind of rural spaces is credited to development. So, better public transportation, better roads, better access to telecommunication, things that that today are things that we take for granted were, at one point, very difficult to access. I think, again, back to that notion of having to physically cross the river to get to the other side on a boat to visit my grandparents’ house. To think about how that no longer is something that my brother’s children have to think about is something that’s remarkable. But on the other hand, to see the sort of changing face of the river and how the river has shifted its character from being this playground to something that we fear because of floods the other hand, it is quite unsettling. So, it’s a very sort of ambivalent space.
Will Brehm 26:07
And to sort of come to a conclusion here, Aizuddin, what’s next for you? You started a new position as a lecturer, congratulations, by the way. This is immediately after you finished your PhD. You’ve now finished the Flux fellowship, you’ve produced some really, sonically beautiful stories based on research, you know. So, what’s the future for you when it comes to doing research and also trying to maintain that creative side that you obviously have. I mean, both you and your brother have it. But how do you see it going forward in your academic career?
Aizuddin Anuar 26:41
It’s a question that I’m trying to find time to think about in the kind of rush of starting a new position. And I want to sort of think carefully about what’s next. And I do feel like working on this fellowship has given me a sense of that kind of amalgamation of that creative and the academic in a way that I feel will be fruitful going forward. It’s something that I’ve spoken to my brother about in a sense of how this episode serves, in many ways as a kind of entryway into perhaps a bigger project of storying development – not only in Malaysia, but perhaps in other parts of Southeast Asia – on how through these stories that we tell across generation says so much about development from the sort of ground up but also in a kind of temporal sense. So, hopefully there is space to think about this kind of sonic project on a larger scale and to introduce many more stories to make this a much of course, richer landscape, but also much more complicated description.
Will Brehm 27:51
Aizuddin Anuar, Nazmi Anuar, thank you so much for joining FreshEd. It’s just an absolute pleasure to talk and sort of meander with you through this journey of memories and water and Malaysia.
Aizuddin Anuar 28:09
Thank you so much.
Nazmi Anuar 28:46
Thank you for having us.
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