In a two-day workshop, the SONIME project team met with the international advisory board for an intensive scientific exchange

Katrin Abromeit, Eva Hallama, Johann Hinterstoisser and Mariken Egger. Photo: Liisa Hättasch, Österreichische Mediathek

After several online meetings, the summer workshop of the research project Sonic Memories - Audio Letters in Times of Migration and Mobility on July 7 and 8 in Vienna was the first physical meeting of the project team with the experts from migration research, contemporary history, media studies and conservation/restoration. 

As an introduction to the workshop, project leaders Eva Hallama and Katrin Abromeit as well as study assistant Johann Hinterstoisser gave insights into their ongoing project SONIME. A brief history of the voice letter using the example of audio letters from the Phonogrammarchiv and the Österreichische Mediathek was followed by discussions of the project's research questions: Can audio letters be conceived as "memory objects" in the context of migration, separateness and geographical distance? How does speaking and listening to letters - and the preserved voice - create closeness and sustain relationships? As Eva Hallama pointed out, the notion of memory objects highlights the materiality of letters and the process of substituting what is missing. Following on from this, she presented a psychoanalytic perspective on the voice as the earliest "sound object" that gives even the fetus experiences of absence and loss and a sense of the "other" (Maiello). Thus, the practice of speaking and listening to letters would be one that (above all) assures itself of the existence of the Other, as the voice is the only witness that the Other actually exists and is not just an illusion (Lacan).

Katrin Abromeit introduced the second set of questions surrounding the concept of "material culture." How has the available technology shaped and influenced the practice of audio letters, and what do material compositions tell us about the historical significance and use of audio letters as acoustic cultural heritage? Katrin Abromeit used the example of grooves magnified by the microscope to illustrate, among other things, how much the cut image of sound recordings on record could differ from one another and what this tells us about the producers. And she illustrated the complexity of the restoration work by showing different patterns of degradation in direct-cut records. Johann Hinterstoisser presented the FT-IR procedure to be carried out for material analysis, with which the material of the sound carriers can be identified. This is a prerequisite for developing cleaning and restoration procedures as well as determining the best conditions for long-term archiving. 

The centerpiece of the workshop was then several close listening sessions. Here, early audio letters in different languages from 1907 to 1971 that have survived in both archives from sound rolls and direct-cut records, audio tapes and compact cassettes  were listened to together. Collective listening and making associations about what was heard enabled multi-perspective observations that made, for example, media-historical, cultural or technical facets of the recordings visible and audible. Aspects such as the privacy/publicity of the recordings, censorship, self-censorship and encodings, the contextualization of the recording situation with the help of or in the absence of metadata were heard and discussed. Non-content aspects of voice, such as speaking modes, pauses, and also the design of the recording with music, singing, etc. were addressed. The character of migration in comparison to other forms of mobility became relevant, as did the challenge of collecting media from decentralized, marginalized groups.

Differences between the possibilities of recording systems and media were also audible. In comparison to the early recordings, for example, it became clear to what extent the more modern technology influenced the (self-)representation of the everyday life of persons - especially through the recording quality, the easier operability and the long recording duration of the compact cassette - and to what extent proximity and privacy seemed much more immediate. Here, the comparison to other modern technologies and their usage practices such as telephony, messages on answering machines, and modern voice messages lent itself. 

Particularly clear from these examples was once again the question: what is an audio letter? How can it be defined and characterized and also distinguished from other private recording practices, and what formal properties do audio letters share? 

Two tours through the two host institutions by Christian Liebl (Phonogrammarchiv) and Johannes Kapeller (Österreichische Mediathek) rounded off the workshop. Here, the histories of origins, the storage and usage facilities, today's digitization techniques, and the historical collection strategies of the two audio archives were presented. The latter have played a decisive role in determining whether private documents can be found in both archives, and which audio letters can be found here today, as well as which ones cannot. In addition, some of the audio letters identified in both archives were viewed together.

Inspired and equipped with numerous hints, the project leaders would like to thank their colleagues from both host institutions for their cooperation, especially Christian Liebl and Johannes Kapeller, the student assistants Mariken Egger and Johann Hinterstoisser, and the directors of the two host institutions Gabriele Fröschl and Kerstin Klenke, as well as the members of our esteemed advisory board Nadia al-Bagdadi, Federica Bressan, Gerhild Perl, Thomas Levin, Dirk Rupnow, and Stephan Puille for their constructive contributions!