Sounds of Belonging and Otherness

Is there a sensory area in the brain that creates a catalog of no longer perceived sounds with the label of home/Heimat? Is it possible to make that index audible again? And: What exactly are those processes of relocation / appropriation when sounds of an alien culture over time become sounds of the homeland?

Preparation – Linz

When writing the project proposal for the artist residency at the Alice Boner Institute in Varanasi, those were the kind of questions that inspired me to pay more attention to the soundscapes of my hometown Linz, Austria. As I had always been very keen on the perception of my surroundings through sounds and their ability to create emotions, I had previously participated in workshop on sound editing and audio drama production. The interlinkage between sounds, drama and therefore narrative became a topic that really interested me. Simultaneously, the question of what Heimat is and what it means to me was not something that had only been triggered by the tense political situation of refugees entering Europe, but also by my own nomadic lifestyle as a dramaturg working in theatre. The German word “Heimat” itself would need an entire paragraph to make obvious that simple translations like home(land), origin, native country will not suffice for the German concept. Rather than defining a place, it refers to a relationship that a human has towards a spatical (social) unit and how it therefore affects a person´s identity.

Sounds …

… are omnipresent. Withdrawing from them is more difficult than just closing your eyes. As noise and sounds can be so overwhelming, the brain involves in a process of selection. According to recent research, the majority of information on sounds is temporarily stored in a so called sensory storage. With the help of memories derived from the long-term memory it is then possible to examine the importance of an audible piece of information. Depending on the degree of significance, certain acoustic signals will continue to be processed, others will not. Thus the selective perception is always associated with the previous experience of an individual. Sounds, that are familiar to us, will not be recognized by the brain as such (about 90-95% of what we hear), while acoustic stimuli, which we cannot classify or which demand an immediate action, will find their way into consciousness.

"Home is where I understand and where I am understood."

Karl Jaspers, 1883-1969, German philosopher

The question arises whether a person creates a temporary memory of sounds where she lives; sounds which are namely perceived but not transferred in the brain for further procession because they are classified as "identifiable, familiar and recurring". As Karl Jaspers wrote, Heimat may be connected to one´s own understanding of the inhabited space and its social indication, it may be linked to knowledge and foreseeable behavior in others, it may be a form of subjectively perceived control of one´s immediate spatial and emotional environment. On a different level, this idea is also applicable to the sounds of the place a person inhabits. Taking the idea of the temporary memory of non-audible sounds as a starting point, I wonder if it is possible to reverse the muteness of perception and identify soundscapes that may be labeled Heimat. A journey into the catalog named Heimat should not only make those sounds audible again but also bring to light stories, impressions and feelings that are connected to them.

Sound recording

How to make something audible again? Well, I decided that my best guess would be using contrast as a method. I identified several areas/situations in my hometown of Linz that I would define as integral part of my personal soundscape labeled Heimat. I also hoped that these local soundscapes could be found in a somewhat similar way in Varanasi as well. As sounds also help the brain to locate one´s own position in regard to other objects in a spatial unit (e. g. estimation of distance), I decided on using binaural recording methods (3D-recording) for my sound data base. Equipped with two capsule microphones on my left and right ear, I went into the city and TUNED IN. I became especially fascinated by moving sounds: the passing trains in the train station, going in an out of places like supermarkets, churches or coffee shops, standing at the highway and being sound bombed by violently passing cars and trucks, listening to the calmly flowing river Danube or to the birds, trees and creeks while hiking in the woods, riding my bicycle through the busy streets of Linz or attending an orchestra rehearsal at the city theatre where I worked at that time … As I started to pay closer attention to the audible world around me, I would often reflect at home with a headache after a long day of recording, thankful for the process of sound selection my brain mercifully offered me on daily basis.

Heimat – A questionnaire

At the same time I tried to find people who would be willing to take a closer look at the concept of Heimat with me using a questionnaire by Swiss author Max Frisch which he wrote in 1971 whilst living in the United States of America. I searched for three different individuals who I assumed to have diverging ideas on the meaning of Heimat. I started off with an Austrian native who was born very close to the city of Linz. The second interviewee was an Indian who came to Austria for education and a career in dance, someone who decided purposely to look for Heimat in a different place. I wanted the third participant to be a person who was not able to go back home (as in native country) for political reasons, someone in exile. Looking at the political situation in the Middle East, I found a Syrian artist who was willing to talk to me about this emotional topic. I invited all three interviewees and recorded their voices while answering the questionnaire by Max Frisch. The intention is to mirror this process in Varanasi by finding three different people (an local from Varanasi, an expat and a person who cannot go back home) who will have either different or very similar ideas on what Heimat is to them.

Sounds of Belonging and Otherness – a theatrical audio walk in Varanasi

Prepped with a suitcase full of sounds my journey has now begun. The residency will focus mainly on a theatrical audio walk around the Alice Boner Institute. The intention is to locate similar (or contrasting) spaces and pair them with binaural sounds recorded in Austria. Therefore the visual world of Varanasi and the audible world of Linz will create a third space that merges everyday – no longer perceived – opposites of sounds and visual impressions. The abstract terms of “home” and “otherness” will therefore be available on several sensory levels: For a resident of Varanasi, she will see “home” but hear “otherness”. For a (European) foreigner to India, he will see “otherness” but hear “home”. I am curious and excited what this third space will be like and what kind of stories of Heimat, belonging and otherness will emerge from those narrated contrasts of sound and sight.

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© 2017 Inhalt von Ira Goldbecher / Fotos von Silvo Handrick, Peter Philip, Laura Su Bischoff, Wilhelm Entner



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