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Holding Court: Levi S. Gibbs

Photo of Levi S. Gibbs

In this week's edition, we speak with Levi S. Gibbs, Assistant Professor of Asian Societies, Cultures, and Languages, a scholar of Chinese performing arts.  In his most recent book Song King: Connecting People, Places, and Past in Contemporary Chinahe explores the lives and performances of contemporary Chinese singers.

What is your book about?

My book explores how contemporary Chinese singers who become symbols of regions, nations, and epochs fuse personal and collective narratives in their performances, providing audiences with compelling models for socializing personal experience in an ever-changing world.

Where did you get your ideas for this book?

I first saw a performance of the singer at the heart of the book—the “Folksong King of Western China” Wang Xiangrong—in Taipei in the summer of 1999, right after my freshman year in college. I was struck by the power of his voice and the way he captivated the audience. That fall, I did my sophomore year abroad at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, where I took a class on regional Chinese folksongs in which we were introduced to songs and singers who were said to represent local cultures across different regions of China. Twenty years later, after conducting multiple fieldwork trips, interviewing singers and scholars in and around northern Shaanxi province, reading biographies of singers from China and around the world, and engaging with scholarly fields ranging from personal narrative studies to performance theory to celebrity studies, I came to notice how elements of Wang’s life story and the ways in which he engages with different audiences seem similar to those of other singers who come from rural roots and become symbols of larger groups. Wang was born in 1952, shortly after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (1949), so his life parallels the history of modern China. For this reason and others that I discuss in the book, his life and songs provide an engaging window into a process that occurs as singers become representative icons.

What does research look like for you? What element of research could you not live without?

The research for this book began with an audio recorder for interviews and a video camera for performances. Over the course of several fieldwork trips, I traveled around northern China with Wang and his proteges, documenting their performances and interviewing them about their lives and the cultural politics involved in their professional work as singers. The latter part of the writing process involved looking for different scholarly discourses that would help contextualize the phenomena I was observing. For example, in talking about the “worlds” that Wang creates in his songs, which are populated by different characters, I looked to lyric theory, narrative theory, and even research on television culture, which involves similar engagements between audiences and the characters portrayed onscreen. I like to begin with the material I am examining—a song lyric, a performance, a story—and build a theoretical framework around it that helps us understand that material in a new or different way.

What do you think the library of the future will look like?

I really hope that they do not get rid of the stacks. I think that libraries will continue to be places where conversations happen—between friends, with books, and with online resources— but there is something special about the stacks. I often go there to find a book myself just to see what other books are around it. This may sound corny but it’s true: it is often the book you were not looking for that makes all of the difference.

What advice would you give to an aspiring scholar or writer?

The more I write, the more I think of writing as a conversation, broadly understood. First, it is a conversation on the page between you and the things you are reading about and observing, as well as a conversation with your readers. I am a strong advocate of making writing social—find a group of friends you trust to read your drafts and give you constructive feedback; this helps move projects forward. Second, while it may seem strange to say, there is something that makes writing a conversation between your mind and your body. When my head is full of ideas from writing, I find that yoga, exercise, or a long walk helps me sort through them. And, after I have been working out, I often have a lot of new ideas to write down. Strange but true.

And finally, what do you read for fun?

For encouragement and my own voyeuristic interest, I love reading about the practices and processes of other writers, which often inspire me to try new approaches. I just finished Louise DeSalvo’s The Art of Slow Writing: Reflections on Time, Craft, and Creativity, which talks about some of the challenging parts of the writing process with interesting examples from the experiences of famous writers. I also continue to enjoy reading biographies, especially those of singers and musicians. At the moment, I am immersed in Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s Mo’ Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove. One of my upcoming projects is going to be an edited volume about the cultural politics of singers around the globe.

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