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A shellac record created by Wilhelm Doegen, featuring the poem Über den Äther by Friedrich Hölderlin and the Russian folk tale The Vampyre, both recorded by Vilma Mönckeberg on 23 February 1929. © SHF

June 21, 2018

A Repository of language and a font of insight

by Sebastian Klotz

The Sound Archive of the Humboldt-Universität is an internationally unique collection: roughly 7,500 shellac records plus 180 wax cylinders, gelatin, and aluminum discs as well as 150 magnetic tapes document 100 years’ worth of recordings of languages and dialects from all over the world.

The gramophone and disc records– these two, late-19th-century inventions by the German émigré Emil Berliner gave the Anglicist and linguist Wilhelm Doegen (1877–1967) an idea: to record voices from all over the world and use them in teaching foreign languages. And so, in 1920, Doegen established the Sound Department at the Prussian State Library, which was the nucleus from which evolved the present Sound Archive at the Humboldt-Universität.

The core holdings of the Sound Archive, however, were obtained in an initiative directly associated with World War I: A project launched by Doegen in which the inmates of German prisoner-of-war camps, who came from all over the world, were recorded while speaking and/or performing music. To this end, a secret, interdisciplinary commission was set up, the Royal Prussian Phonographic Commission. This was chaired by the philosopher and psychologist Carl Stumpf (1848–1936), who also served as founder of the Berlin Phonogram Archive.

Kurt Reinhard, who served as director of the Phonogramm-Archiv from 1952 onwards, worked with an audio-tape recorder to record and investigate the sounds in their respective context. © Ethnologisches Museum – Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/Dieter Christensen
While the Phonogramm-Archiv was more traditional in its preference for wax cylinders, the Lautarchiv’s Wilhelm Doegen was an early exponent of the more robust and better-sounding disc records. © Lautarchiv der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin

The fact that the sound recordings compiled by the Commission were created under the highly problematic circumstances of a prisoner camp makes the collection a sensitive one. This said, they document over 250 languages and dialects and form the bulk of the recordings which were transferred into the Sound Archive after the war’s end.

The work done by the Phonographic Commission reflects key research ideologies and convictions that in fact are a thorny issue. The challenge for us today is to explore them in a scientific manner and to place them in their proper critical context. This will take years of teamwork together with representatives of the cultures of origin. Thus far, this has only been done on a selective basis, with respect to the Phonographic Commission itself, for example. Another important task will be to get to the bottom of these historic recordings by placing them in the context in which they were made and used, while also clarifying any legal issues involved.

A peculiarity of sound and phonogram archives is that their recordings have a direct, emotional impact on the listener. But this does little to clarify the “meaning” of such recordings. Another problem is that such “meaning” is not static but changes over time. Thus, audio documents cannot be controlled, archivally speaking, since they constantly escape the function originally assigned to them in the catalogue.

Precisely this evolving process of understanding the recordings is essential to exploring the Sound Archive today. In other words, the Archive invites us to learn and train the act of hearing. It allows us to embark on an auditory encounter with the world and its forms of cultural expression that opens up entirely new perspectives for us. Music and the spoken word are more than communication media serving a specific purpose or ephemeral entertainment media – they are embodiments of entirely unique forms in which societies and cultures describe themselves. Against this backdrop, the Sound Archive in the Humboldt Forum has made it its mission to play an instructive and mediating role in close coordination with actors from other cultures, with the other collections, laboratories, and exhibition events. This makes the Archive an important resource for teaching and research, one with deep roots in the history of science of Berlin and the city’s cultural history, its scholarly ideals and global relationships.

Sebastian Klotz is professor for Transcultural Musicology and Historical Anthropology of Music at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. He serves as the university’s co-curator of the Sound Archive, which is scheduled to relocate to the Humboldt Forum in the Berlin Palace in 2019. Professor Klotz is also co-director of the exhibition [sound]Listening to the World.

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