“Musik als Erinnerung” [Music as Memory] was the title of a lecture series held by the Department of Musicology and Performance Studies this past winter. Experts from multiple research disciplines invited by Melanie Unseld and Nikolaus Urbanek addressed various phenomena of “music as memory”, drawing on interdisciplinary discourses pertaining to research on memory as well as devoting attention to specific features of music as such.

Music, commonly viewed as the most ephemeral of art forms, is always subject directly to being forgotten—for its disappearance is guaranteed by the very nature of its aural manifestation. It would appear to be for precisely this reason that memory plays a great role in the musical realm—with numerous practices and techniques of remembering music having been developed that range from oral arts of memorisation and transmission to various systems of notation and techniques of writing, drawing, recording, etc. Here, it is what is preserved for whom and for what kind of re-listening that establishes identity—for it is always the case that practices of remembering also tell of relevance and significance, of repression and overwriting. Conceiving of music as memory touches on matters including numerous fundamental questions that concern music listening and music-making, identity and self-formation, canonisation and repertoire, and archiving and cultural memory, not to mention forgetting, fading into silence, and loss. Since the writings of Maurice Halbwachs, cultural studies, humanities, and social science disciplines as well as the neurosciences have witnessed the formation of a field of interdisciplinary research on memory that can and should be drawn upon and built upon where specific features of musical phenomena are concerned.

Memory in Music

Modes of memory-informed listening play an important role in numerous musical cultures in a way that transcends temporal and aesthetic boundaries: refrain, rondo, reprise, sampling, mash-up, variations, Leitmotif technique, call-and-response. This concerns composing techniques as well as music-making practices—improvising, performing, sampling, collecting, etc.—that often relate to the singing and music-making body and become palpable in musical memorisation techniques of their own that may extend beyond oral traditions.

Storage Media and Storage Places

The ability to remember music requires the existence of a storage medium. Specific storage media entail various different modes of music-related remembering, which raises the question of what music can be remembered using what media in what way. Concrete places of storage are museums, archives, libraries, databases, and numerous other entities that (re)produce the mental codes of remembering societies in ways that radiate a special identity-forming, self-making and -stabilising power. This gives rise to systems of knowledge that come to serve as foundations of canonisation processes and of phenomena relating to cultures of commemoration. Present, missing, lost, and/or abandoned storage media and locations have a great influence on what we (do not) hear and on what music surrounds (or does not surround) us.

Music as a Source of Collective Memories: Identity and History

Musical experience represents an important factor in the formation of human identity. Individual musical memories (understood as elements of subjective listening biographies) seem to remain deeply rooted even in cases where dementia has begun to erase other forms of memory. Music can thus be considered an important impulse for self-formation processes. At the same time, it is a determinative medium that possesses a high degree of identificatory potential whenever emotional communitarisation and collective identities are in play. And, last but not least, music history can participate in fundamental questions of history and memory. From oral history to source criticism that takes issues of memory into account, from a postcolonial perspective or along the lines of gender history: historiography addresses numerous phenomena whose relevance to music history needs to be probed in a specific way and associated with the specific nature of listening-based knowledge. As diverse as the questions that one can pose regarding music-related phenomena of remembering (and forgetting) are, so closely are they linked with key questions of temporality. Music—often conceived of as a temporal art—can represent widely varying concepts of temporality, allow temporality (or temporalities) to be experienced, and/or react to perceptions of time as well as do much more. Here, the phenomenon of remembering not only reaches back into the past but also constitutes itself in the present, or more precisely: in the respective present moments.

The lecturers heard in this series were Ariane Jeßulat (Berlin University of the Arts), Tobias Robert Klein (Humboldt University of Berlin), Martin Zierold (Hamburg University of Music and Theatre), Marie Louise Herzfeld-Schild (mdw), Carolin Stahrenberg (Anton Bruckner Private University, Linz), Anja-Xiaoxing Cui (University of Vienna), and Ralf von Appen (mdw); their presentations were followed by a concluding round table discussion between Kerstin Klenke (Austrian Academy of Sciences), Benedikt Lodes (Austrian National Library, Department of Music), and Rebecca Wolf (Staatliches Institut für Musikforschung, Berlin). A publication containing the individual lectures is planned.

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