SoundTrak Team Panel at the Memory Studies Association Annual Conference Warsaw

In July 2021, the SoundTrak project members presented their latest work in a panel at the Memory Studies Association Annual Conference in Warsaw. The panel titled 'Sounds of War: Memories of World War II in Denmark, East Germany, and Taiwan included four presentations by the research team and discussant roles from prof. Sarah Gensburger (French National Center for Scientific Research in Paris) and panel chair prof. Stefan Berger (Ruhr-Universitaet Bochum)

A description of the panel and the specific papers is provided below. 

MSA Panel : Sounds of War: Memories of World War II in Denmark, East Germany, and Taiwan

Chair: Stefan Berger (Ruhr-University Bochum)
Commentator: Sarah Gensburger (University Paris Nanterre)

The panel presents first results of the research project SoundTrak conducted at Aarhus University and supported by the VELUX Foundation. SoundTrak explores soundscapes in the three Cold War battleground states of Taiwan, East Germany, and Denmark, comparable in size and strategic setting, through a topic fundamentally related to questions of national independence: the memory of WWII warfare, occupation, and liberation. How has the aural memory of WWII helped Taiwan, the GDR, and Denmark strive for memory independence from former and present hegemonic powers and competitors?

SoundTrak seeks to capture the communicative relevance of sound for the constitution and experience of memory communities (Michelsen/Krogh 2017, Risso 2016, Zhang 2014, Hsu 2014, Lacey 2013, Garde-Hansen 2011, Chai 2000, Xia 1998). Research about the history of sound and more specifically about collective memory and sound has only just begun. We conceptualize prominent sound events as nodes of memory (Rothberg 2009) with important multi-directional local, national, transnational, and transcultural entanglements (De Cesari/Rigney 2014). Thus, the panel attempts to document how sonic memories travel (Erll 2011) and investigate what ethical charge national and transnational memories assume (Bull/Hansen 2016).

SoundTrak is part of the aural turn in memory studies and seeks to compare European and Asian aural memory cultures, focus specifically on the memory challenges and accomplishments of relatively small societies and nations, and track and compare the transnational development of communist and capitalist aural memoryscapes. SoundTrak also explores the precise role of new media technologies and networks of exchange for processes of cultural integration and collective memory. For instance, how precisely have globalization and new digital recording techniques jeopardized or advanced the evolution of regional, national and transnational memory cultures? Are there transnationally valid sonic codes for the expression of national independence? Has globalization, despite the concomitant diversification and drastic increase of sound data, caused a gradual homogenization of sonic memoryscapes the world over?

Paper 1: Converging Sounds and Diverging Audiences: Danish Broadcasting and the Memory of World War II
Sigrid Nielsen Saabye (Aarhus University)

Though often experienced as immediate and ephemeral, sounds have the capability of creating intense and long-lasting memories for its listeners. Furthermore, radio - a purely acoustic medium - has proved to be a powerful tool for nationalistic propaganda, especially up to and during the Second World War, and remains a prominent medium for nation-building today. Yet, in contrast to memories of war communicated through texts and images, the significance of sonic memories has received little attention in academic research.

This paper focuses on the sounds that have been used to address the history of the Second World War in the radio and television programmes of the Danish Broadcasting Corporation (DBC). It provides an empirical overview of the content, type and frequency of relevant sounds, qualitatively analyses the role and functions of these sounds in different programming contexts, and discusses their on collective memory processes. Emphasis is placed on the relative importance of the sounds in terms of creating the basis for master narratives of the war. The paper also explores the extent to which and how the sounds have played a significant role in connecting national narratives with larger transnational war memories.

The paper advances chronologically, studying the distribution of sounds over time on different channels. The study is based on sources from the Danish archive, containing more than three million radio and TV programmes from the 1930s to today.

The research yields two important results. First of all, on the main channels, the soundscapes of war have gradually been homogenized and converged into a few select, stereotypical, and simplistically structured sounds of remembrance –increasingly reflecting global trends of sonic war memory. Secondly, on a structural level, the DBC has sought to accommodate narrow audience segments by providing them with more complex soundscapes of WW2 through specialized distribution channels of limited reach. The sonic memory strategies of the DBC have thus generated seemingly contradictory results, i.e., a transnational convergence of sounds accompanied by a fragmentation of audiences.

Paper 2: Contested Memories in post-war Taiwan: Sound and the Construction of National Identity
Ai Chung (Aarhus University)

Studies on sound and memory show that sounds play an important role in constructing memory on both the individual and the collective scale. Based on these studies, the paper explores Taiwan’s post-war memory culture highlighting competing perceptions of Taiwanese identity negotiated through sound.

Taiwan’s modern history can be divided into three periods: The Japanese colonial period (1895-1945), Nationalist authoritarian rule during the Republic of China (1945-1987) and the period of consequent democratization (1987-now). With reference to these three periods, I aim at showing how Chinese nationalists’ crafted soundscapes of Chinese national memory and how some segments of Taiwanese society responded by embracing sonic memories of Japanese colonial rule as sites of resistance.

In combining sound- and memory-studies, this paper provides new perspectives on Taiwan’s history and national identity construction. The study draws on the analysis of governmental documents, broadcasting programs (radio and TV) and qualitative interviews conducted with Taiwanese citizen. It covers official public memory policies as well as vernacular underground memory practices. A particularly intriguing example of sonic memory struggles in post-war Taiwan pertains to the status and attachment to Japanese culture. For some Taiwanese citizens who had experienced colonial rule Japanese popular songs remained important sites of memory, while the Chinese nationalist party (Kuomintang) tried to eradicate any traces of Japanese culture in Taiwan.

Paper 3: The howling winds of Stalingrad: Sounds of Suffering in East German Radio and Television, 1945-1989
Mikkel Weel Krammer-Haßler (Aarhus University)

This paper analyses the memory of the war on the eastern front in general and the battle of Stalingrad in particular as it was played out in fictional and documentary accounts of the battle in radio and television in former East Germany, 1945 – 1989. The paper claims that following the sonic traces of the eastern front in East German media leads to a bifurcated memory that doesn’t respect the official/vernacular divide, but opens our ears to elements of (sonic) opposition to the official SED anti-fascist narrative of the war. Not at the oral fringes of recorded history but at the center of public representation – in the mass media of radio and television.

The paper thus traces the sound of the howling, icy winds of the Russian steppe through the literature, radio and television of the GDR. The paper shows how the sound of the howling winds became a shorthand for the suffering of the ordinary (and innocent) German soldier while also numbing the political thrust of the war by reducing it to a quasi-eternal battle between man and nature.

Therefore, through the sound of the howling winds that share a representational space with the suffering of the ordinary German soldier there emerges a sonic icon – the howling winds – that carries with it interpretations and emotions that run counter to the official SED narrative of the war on the eastern front in at least two important aspects: namely, (i) that the heroic suffering and ultimate triumph of the Red Army and the population of Stalingrad was the main moral story, and, (ii) that the German 6th army didn’t lose because of the harsh Russian winter but because of the might of the Red Army and Stalin’s genius as a military strategist.

Furthermore, when comparing the sounds of Stalingrad with similar West German and Soviet sources there arises the contours of a sonic memory space that transgresses the Cold War ideological divide and instead points towards a shared German-German memory of the war on the eastern front and Stalingrad.

Paper 4: Conceptualizing Sound & Memory
Wulf Kansteiner / Andreas Steen (Aarhus University)

Music, songs, speeches, noises -- in principle, any sound remembered or imagined, any sound captured or produced by sound technologies can become a popular sonic site of memory. In practice, however, only a few select sounds become true signature sonic events thus assuming an uncanny ability to channel emotionally and narratively highly charged and condensed mnemonic content.

The immediate, visceral impact of sounds as sites of memory results from the special function of sonic information in our lives. Our sense of hearing develops ontogenetically before our other senses and is faster, more efficient, and more precise than our sense of sight. Therefore, hearing serves as our primary physiological warning system with corresponding emotional import.

Using memories of war as empirical reference point, the paper develops a number of questions and hypotheses about the interdependence of sound and memory. In 20th and 21st century media ecologies, audible stimuli have received less conscious and critical attention than visual stimuli, including written language. As a result, sonic memories can more easily ‘fly under the radar.’ Sounds constitute a communicative realm of seemingly effortless transcultural exchange, on the one hand, and arduous manipulation, subtle dissent, and communicative futility, on the other hand. We would for example expect that it is difficult to give non-linguistic sounds a reliable ideological twist and that sounds relatively easily escape memory orthodoxies causing a great deal of miscommunication and structural forgetting. What does that mean for the history of postwar memory and the concepts of memory studies? How do local, national, and transnational or capitalist and communist memories sound like? How do processes of digitization and globalization, causing both cultural fragmentation and homogenization, play out in the realm of sonic memory?