niklas zimmer – thinking aloud through the archives that sound

Along with Niklas, I attended a fascinating workshop at UCT last month – these are his reflections:

From August 22 to 24 this year, the Archive and Public Culture research initiative hosted a workshop, led by research fellow Dr Anette Hoffmann, under the title ‘sound/archive/voice/object.’ True to the trans-disciplinary spirit of APC, the range of academic positions present was heterogeneous, but beyond that, this workshop attracted a significant set of participants from beyond the institution: over three days in the much-loved Jon Berndt thought space, the voices of radio activism, sound art, turntablism and composition for film and theatre cross-faded with those of ethnomusicology, social anthropology, fine art and historical studies.

Dr Hoffmann’s carefully staged set of daily readings, gentle chairing and inspiring listening experiences of samples of ethnographic phonograph-recordings from Berlin’s Lautarchiv enabled us to begin thinking through the subject of sound in all its complexity. While ‘visual culture’ with its associated tropes has become commonplace, the same cannot be said for ‘sonic’ or ‘aural culture’ – the need for understanding sound (historically, psychologically, physiologically, etc.) is immanent, particularly when dealing with records of human subject research in the archive.

‘… sound is a product of the human senses and not a thing in the world apart from humans. Sound is a little piece of the vibrating world.’ (Jonathan Sterne)

As with other investigations into reproduction technologies developed in the 19th century (such as photography), a detailed understanding of the political, scientific and cultural drives that gave birth to them in the first place is key to surfacing relevant, contemporary perspectives on the audio archive. Studies into sound – and in particular the ethnographic voice recording – have so far remained in relative specialist isolation. In contrast to this, studies of visuality – and in particular ethnographic photographic portraiture – have been gaining interdisciplinary popularity. Beyond the misalignments of comparison between the two, and despite the multitude of overlaps between the orders of the eye and the ear, it becomes clear that the realms of the aural (or sonic) and the visual do require different sets of analytical tools.

‘The vocabulary may well distinguish nuances of meaning, but words fail us when we are faced with the intimate shades of the voice, which infinitely exceed meaning. (…) faced with the voice, words structurally fail.’ (Mladen Dolar)

Passive hearing and active listening involve a complex range of affective and cognitive processes which are incomparable to those associated with any other sense (other than perhaps touch) – any discussion of differences in technology for the capture and representation of aural as opposed to visual phenomena can only be secondary to this. In the shared process of active listening at the beginning of each workshop morning, the group sensed its way into some of the qualities of sound, particularly those of the speaking voice. We discovered that we are able to hear much more than we tend to trust ourselves to. The ethnographic and linguistic phonographic recordings of prisoners of war in WWI Germany from the Humboldt University’s Lautarchiv in Berlin revealed to us as listeners a small, but powerful glimpse into the potential of a different way of working with archival material. Because the transcripts and translations of the recordings were withheld until after the first listening-through, we relied on our own emotional and intellectual inferences in order to engage the questions that these ‘sound objects’ from the past carried into our present space. Listening engages us in a different way of knowing, as Dr Hoffmann pointed out, and ‘if the process of enunciation points at the locus of subjectivity in language, then voice also sustains an intimate link with the very notion of the subject.’ (Mladen Dolar)

Generally, the bigger paradigm of any research interest will at first tend towards sacrificing the individual voice to generalisation and dissection rather than a ‘regime of care’ as Prof Hamilton would remind us: sounds, in particular human voices on record are always re-presented in a web of power-relations, some of which are near-impossible to address, let alone shift. This becomes most paradoxical in thinking though the subaltern speaking position in the archive, where not only the act of recording has been an act of violence, but where the act of listening itself can be an act of othering and continued silencing. In view of this (in sound of this?), the best possible approach to reaching the necessary ‘audio condition’ from which to push at the limits of subaltern positionalities in the archive seems to be continuum of analysis, a reverence paid to the minutiae of humanity in the material. This was a recurring moment, a leitmotiv in our three days of sound studies: only a wide range of disciplines working together can actually achieve the description of the necessary aspects (aesthetic, ethical, cultural, historical, political, psychological) from which to consider a relevant engagement with the archive that sounds.

the beautiful music all around us: field recordings and the american experience, by stephen wade

The Beautiful Music All Around Us presents the extraordinarily rich backstories of thirteen performances captured on Library of Congress field recordings between 1934 and 1942 in locations reaching from Southern Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta and the Great Plains. Including the children’s play song “Shortenin’ Bread,” the fiddle tune “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” the blues “Another Man Done Gone,” and the spiritual “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down,” these performances were recorded in kitchens and churches, on porches and in prisons, in hotel rooms and school auditoriums. Documented during the golden age of the Library of Congress recordings, they capture not only the words and tunes of traditional songs but also the sounds of life in which the performances were embedded: children laugh, neighbors comment, trucks pass by.

Musician and researcher Stephen Wade sought out the performers on these recordings, their families, fellow musicians, and others who remembered them. He reconstructs the sights and sounds of the recording sessions themselves and how the music worked in all their lives. Some of these performers developed musical reputations beyond these field recordings, but for many, these tracks represent their only appearances on record: prisoners at the Arkansas State Penitentiary jumping on “the Library’s recording machine” in a rendering of “Rock Island Line”; Ora Dell Graham being called away from the schoolyard to sing the jump-rope rhyme “Pullin’ the Skiff”; Luther Strong shaking off a hungover night in jail and borrowing a fiddle to rip into “Glory in the Meetinghouse.”

Reflecting decades of research and detective work, the profiles and abundant photos in The Beautiful Music All Around Us bring to life largely unheralded individuals–domestics, farm laborers, state prisoners, schoolchildren, cowboys, housewives and mothers, loggers and miners–whose music has become part of the wider American musical soundscape. The book also includes an accompanying CD that presents these thirteen performances, songs and sounds of America in the 1930s and ’40s. By exploring how these singers and instrumentalists exerted their own creativity on inherited forms, “amplifying tradition’s gifts,” Wade shows how a single artist can make a difference within a democracy.

Musician, recording artist, and writer Stephen Wade is best known for his long-running stage performances of Banjo Dancing and On the Way Home. He also produced and annotated the Rounder CD collection that gave rise to this book, A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings. Since 1996 his occasional commentaries on folksongs and traditional tunes have appeared on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered.

For more information, go to

Video Produced by The Prairie Production Group
509 S. Country Fair Drive
Champaign, IL 61820

Videography and Editing by Sam Ambler


global anti-fracking day is tomorrow, 22 september – get involved!

Andreas Spath, for News 24:

“On the same day that the South African government decided to lift the moratorium on fracking, the European Union’s environment directorate released a comprehensive 300-page report that identified the controversial method for mining natural gas in underground units of shale rock as a “high risk” to human health and the environment because of its potential to contaminate and deplete water resources, cause a loss of biodiversity, degrade air and land quality and trigger earthquakes.”

Earlier this month, the South African Cabinet endorsed the lifting of a moratorium on prospecting for shale gas, imposed in February last year in line with a report by government’s multi-disciplinary task team, which recommends only “normal” geological exploration, excluding fracking, be allowed, until the extent of the gas reserves are established.

Read this article from SACSIS if you don’t know the history of the fracking debate in South Africa, and this article from Science News if you need more scientific information on how fracking (shale gas extraction) affects the environment and people in its vicinity – which in South Africa’s case, would be the delicate, already arid Karoo.

Send a message to our government on Global Anti-Fracking day, September 22nd 2012, by joining other South Africans who are opposed to fracking, when they CALL FOR A PERMANENT BAN ON FRACKING in South Africa.

In Cape Town, we will meet in front of the gates of Parliament, corner of Plein Street and Roeland Street at 10h30. Bring your anti-fracking banners and posters! The event is open to everyone and supported by several organisations, including Earthlife Africa, SAFCEI, Southern Cape Land Committee, Environmental Monitoring Group, Coalition for Environmental Justice, Treasure the Karoo Action Group and others.

The speakers at the protest will be Muna Lakhani (ELA), Barry Wuganale (Ogoni Solidarity Forum), Thembeka Majali (Million Climate Jobs), Bishop Geoff Davies (SAFCEI), Mpumelelo Mhlalisi (CEJ), Priscilla de Wet (First Indigenous Women’s Movement) and Jonathan Deal (TKAG). Don’t miss it!

In solidarity with our protest, the SCLC are encouraging local Karoo communities (farm workers and dwellers and small-scale farmers in the Chris Hani, Cacadu and Central Karoo District Municipalities) to wear the Black Thursday Land Campaign T-shirts on the day. They will be distributing anti-fracking brochures and raise debate in the areas where they live.

In Prins Albert the trees will be wrapped in black fabric, with black wreaths on shop windows. Please contact Lisa Smith for more information and to see how you can get involved:

In Joburg, Earthlife Africa JHB will host a discussion on ‘Fracking and the implications for water in South Africa’ at the Greenhouse Project 14:00 – 16:00. Contact for more information.

Find the Global Frackdown activist toolkit HERE.


pamella dlungwana – sweets for thohoyandou

I was seven and she was six. She had came to visit, spend time with her big sister. I was too busy to spend all my days with her. She loved to play outside, roam the rivers and catch frogs and fireflies like she did at home with our sister and brother but that wasn’t my scene. She tried to teach me games, skipping rope, umagalobha and amatshe but I sucked at every one. I always wanted to be inside, alone. I felt bad, not being able to join in on her fun and so everyday I’d come home with a sherbet, a lollipop, something she could squeeze from a wrapper and eat in the dark. Ayanda would rush to the gate to greet me in the afternoon or I’d find her at the bus stop waiting to walk me home, her arms open for a hug. I thought at first that she was after the sweeties in my jumper but discovered that she was excited to have me back. This devotion was new to me. I didn’t know how to hug her back or say simple things like, “I’ll miss you” or “I love you too.”

In the evenings as she washed getting into her nightie I would tell my sister stories. I would lie to her and she would laugh. When I was attacked by a waif of a girl who took me for everything, I told my sister I had met a giant on my way home. I told her he had fangs. I said I’d fought him till he broke down and told me he had a sick child and so I decided to give him everything I had. She thought that I was brave, that I was kind. She told me this as she pressed toothpaste onto the brush, I stopped her before she could wet the brush, reached into the front pocket of my jumper and pressed two socks of sherbet into her wet palm. I leaned in and kissed someone else, for the first time in my life.

Today my sister is at the dentist. I can imagine her panic and fear but I’m glad she’s old enough to brave it on her own.

fabio selvatici – hope

Fabio Selvatici – “Hope”
2010, from The Obscure Series

Born in Ferrara, Italy, in 1987, Fabio Selvatici is completely self-taught. Although his surrealistic images may appear to be ultra-realist paintings, they are actually intricately beautiful photo-manipulations. He uses traditional means such as acrylics and ink over previously digitally-altered images.

On his official website, Fabio says, about his use of both traditional and digital media, that “the combination of these techniques allows me to create effects of visual impact that act directly on the physicality of human subjects depicted, emphasizing them in a Gothic, deliberately grotesque and extreme style, invoking the inner drives of the human soul, the travails of the psyche and their inadequacy in relation to the claustrophobic environment that oppresses them.” (thanks to Golden Wolves for this information in English.) 

Explore Selvatici’s work further on his official site (in Italian).