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The poetics of disappearance: sound archives as field sites of the Anthropocene

Eckehard Pistrick
p. 29-34

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Albania’s silenced archives

Albania’s silenced archives

Source: Photo by the author

1Ethnomusicologists move in a field where they are constantly confronted with different forms of sonic appearances and disappearances, tied to specific social situations. The very object of their study, they try to capture (listen to, record, analyse) is itself a fugitive medium, sound. Sound moves beyond individuals, communities, borders, times and is as transformable as it is fragile for different forms of cultural and ideological appropriation. Whether working with the immaterial sounds of the living or with materialized, fossilized sounds of the dead, kept in sound archives – ethnomusicologists must deal with different sonic presences and absences.

2Ethnomusicologists work in a dynamic field which is constantly transforming: they work with musical cultures which are at the verge of becoming extinct, they work with musicking humans who move, with technologies of music production and dissemination which become outdated easily, they work in soundscapes whose sonic ingredients gradually change.

3Being conscious that we are moving in such a field of transformations, disappearances and absences, which consequently produces different forms and layers of silence and that even the traces of the ethnomusicologist himself will eventually vanish, is an important insight which allows us to shift our attention from musical presences and objects to non-presences and sonic voids.

4A particular suitable space for such a reflection is a sound archive where the temporality (notably the historicity) of sound becomes tangible. The Radio Tirana Sound Archives, one of the oldest broadcasting archives in Europe founded in 1938, contain more than 15.000 magnetic tapes and 8000 shellac and vinyl records in four dusty cellar rooms in the main building of Albania’s National Radio and TV, constructed by the Chinese allies in the 1970’s. The archive, reigned by dust as the “matter of history that can never go away or be erased” (Carolyn Steedman, 2001, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History), contains music recordings which are partly well-ordered in shelves, taxonomized according to musical genres, and other parts where the archive presents itself as an anarchic disordered repository for censored recordings which were kept but never intended to be broadcasted. This impression of a repository of “that which will not go away”, or as Finnish media scholar Jussi Parikka (2015, A Geology of Media) would put it “disused, dysfunctional dead media that refuse to die”, is prominent especially in the fourth room one enters where one walks over broken record fragments, torn musical scores and heavily scratched and marked magnetic tapes. One immediately understands here the vulnerability of sound and the medium on which it is kept. Sound objects may be exposed to acts of violence, they can become manipulated and erased in its extreme.

5Following an approach focusing on sound archaeology, a political ecology of music (Kyle Devine, 2019, Decomposed: The Political Ecology of Music) and a larger geology of media (Parikka, 2015, idem) allows us to look at larger issues which relate to the link between the Anthropocene and music studies (Jim Sykes, 2022, “The Anthropocene and music studies, Ethnomusicology Review, 22: 1-11). We understand that the technological and the social were always bound together in a “technosociality” (Gary Tomlinson, 2015, A Million Years of Music: The Emergence of Human Modernity) which formed the matrix in which musicking as well as music production and dissemination took shape. For Parikka archives are additionally places where a continuum of nature and technology can be observed – recordings and recording devices were once made from the raw materials of the earth, after decades the archive turns into an “archive sauvage”, an archive which deteriorates back into its former elements and completes a cycle.

6If we understand sound archives in this way as being part of a geophysical environment, conditioned by the Anthropocene, built up, ordered and maintained by humans, containing the creative work of humans, we understand that sound archives are not deposits of the past but instead enlived places. Sounds are related to human biographies, and destinies – the archive itself has its own biography. Indeed the magnetic tape covers indicate with their extensive written comments different visual codes of biographical, aesthetic or ideological censorship: a red cross, crossed through names, or remarks such as “take care”, “not suitable for transmission”, “to be torn away” were verdicts made by the Committee of Radio Broadcasting which destroyed, annihilated or favoured musical biographies before the background of a constant diffused fear of “foreign influences”, notably that of Italy’s highly popular San Remo Festival and bourgeois sounds which were to be exterminated (Nicholas Tochka, 2017, Audible States: Socialist Politics and Popular Music in Albania).

7Moreover, we can observe here different temporalities which relate to subsequent waves of ideological cleanings. The Radio Tirana sound archives contain three different historical periods: (1) the period of the Albanian kingdom and the subsequent Italian occupation 1938-1944; (2) the period of communism 1946-1991 with changing alliances with Tito’s Yugoslavia, then Stalin’s Soviet Union, China, and since 1978 without an ally; and (3) the postcommunist period with attempts to de-ideologize the archive. In all these periods different forms of cleaning and censoring were effectuated: such ideological cleanings where effectuated on the basis of ideological markers, aesthetic judgements, biographical reasons and practically done through dislocating recordings into a separate room, to eliminate words from the texts, to cut out pieces of the magnetic tape, to scratch the surface of shellac discs, to whip out references to them from the official catalogues or to note them separately down in lists for so-called “disqet te hequra” (torn off discs).

8Evidenced by the material condition of certain tapes and the visual codes attached to them we can characterize the Radio Tirana sound archive as a power-structured place in a Foucauldian sense where sonic hierarchies are established and a taxonomy is imposed through the exercise of power. However, carefully investigating such an archive reveals cracks, gaps and inconsistencies in the constructed “pure sonic world” of socialist realism. It reveals silences and absences who talk about those who fell into oblivion or who became victims of a state policy of forgetting. And – if we look at the fourth room of the archive – despite the rigid idea of an ideological order/taxonomy, anarchy and disorder has its place within such a system effectively subverting aesthetic norms and artistic hierarchies.

9Keeping in mind the history of sound archives, its technosocial dimension as well as its human dimension guided the way I was designing my research and its outcomes. As explained before, ethnomusicologists are working constantly against the disappearance of sounds with different tools and agendas – one is heritage protection, another salvages ethnology, another digitisation, other favours the idea that it is our mission to amplifying the voices of those others who are denied any forms of sonic agency (Max Peter Baumann, 2006, Musik im interkulturellen Kontext). Apart from these reflexes often applied to sound archives also artistic approaches to capture the sensory multidimensionality of archives seem to be appropriate. My collaboration with photographer Barbara Klein and the New York based Soundwalk Collective intended to capture the sensory experience of the archive in its current state including the dust, the signs of violence, destruction and misuse. We kept in mind that listening to such an ideologically charged place must reveal ambiguities. Were we simply listening to “sound documents” from a historical distance, or were we instead complicit earwitnesses while listening to “sonic artefacts” entangled in a larger history of a Stalinist dictatorship? How could such an “informed listening” be shaped and guided, how could the condition of the sound medium and how it was treated, how could the knowledge of histories of persecution of being silenced be taken into account?

10The main idea, both on the visual level and on the sound level, was to bring to the fore the poetics of disappearance and provide raw material for a multimedia exposition, which will bring to the light the work of persecuted composers and artists during the communist regime.

11A first hint was provided by “staged photographs”, portraying the biography of the archive itself. The magnetic tapes and records were presented in Barbara Klein’s focused close-up works of dust and decay as actors with an agency, as inhabited material bodies, exposed to the elements, exposed to time. The idea behind was to present the archive as a theatre, as a place where sound history is staged and enacted. To stress this artificiality, artificial illumination was added to the corners of the archive; making visible what was never intended to be shown and exposed. In this sense Barbara Klein revealed another logic of the archive, not as a simple storage space, but as a prominent space of staged human interaction with technology following broadly Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory.

12One of the moments where this human dimension of the archive became evident to me was when the curator of the archive, working there since the 1980’s, started singing a song along with a magnetic tape of persecuted light music singer Sherif Merdani, recalling her youth memories. The sound of this song is as much personalised as she has it on her cellphone as a ringtone, singing along to it while moving around. The archival resource, her sonic memories and the technology form for her a continuum.

13The Soundwalk Collective in their sound composition took up this thread in remixing “excavated sounds” of recording machines, including the winding up sound of reel tapes in different playing speeds, with “found sonic fragments” in a work of sound archaeology. The materiality of the recordings, their fragility in terms of time and ultimately a reflection about decay and the temporal boundedness of sounds became audible in their piece commissioned for the Bavarian Broadcasting Company. While pointing at the cracks, silences and different forms of disappearance, they formulated at the same time a powerful artistic statement that no matter how power-generated such a space may be, it will always be impossible to completely extinguish and silence musical sounds, despite their ephemerality, through ideological pressure. Sound will resist and live on as a sonic memory when archives will long be dissolved.

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Eckehard Pistrick, «The poetics of disappearance: sound archives as field sites of the Anthropocene »Etnográfica, Número especial | -1, 29-34.

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Eckehard Pistrick, «The poetics of disappearance: sound archives as field sites of the Anthropocene »Etnográfica [Online], Número especial | 2022, posto online no dia 22 dezembro 2022, consultado o 28 janeiro 2023. URL:; DOI:

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Eckehard Pistrick

Institute for European Ethnomusicology, University of Cologne, Germany

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