“In the current situation, every concert in Ukraine is more than just a concert. No matter where it takes place – in a bomb shelter, a hospital, a school, a volunteer center – it is always a kind of empowerment”; these were the words of Julia Nikolaevska, the programme director of the Kharkiv Music Festival, a few months ago.1 They capture a specific and unfortunately ongoing sonic history of occupation, and one could add many more instances without hesitation in these troubling times.
In this sense, the collection Sonic Histories of Occupation: Experiencing Sound and Empire in a Global Context has received a degree of topicality, for which the editors Russel P. Skelchy and Jeremy E. Taylor certainly might not have wished. Conversely, reading their volume sensitizes readers to the sonic dimension of warfare past and present and confirms at least one observation that runs through almost all contributions: occupation is usually not listened to or approached through the ears but rather the eyes.
The prospects of doing so are at stake in this collection, which features one introduction by the editors and nine contributions of a very interdisciplinary team of authors: How do we listen to histories of occupation, to what ends, and why should we anyway? Answers to these questions depend, of course, to some extent on the definition of the concept of occupation. The editors choose a broad one that includes imperialism and colonialism as well as conflict and war. In other words, potentially any social constellation in which one group might (or claims to) be dominated by another, with or without violence, is covered. Special attention is paid, among other questions, to issues of sonic control by the occupying force, sonic responses to occupation, and the sonic dimension of colonial history more generally. In their introduction, Skelchy and Taylor situate, in a scholarly and very informative manner, their pioneering endeavour in a growing interdisciplinary literature at the crossroads of sound studies, colonial and imperial history, and more general historiography on occupation.
The broad definition of occupation, the search for global contexts, and the interdisciplinary composition of authors, however, take a toll, resulting in a largely arbitrary compilation of spaces, periods, topics, and approaches. To begin with, Iris Sandjette Blake shows how French vocal scientists’ ideas of an allegedly universal “vocal apparatus” were deeply linked to France’s mission civilisatrice (civilizing mission) and colonial occupation in Algeria. Maya Cunningham, in her study on hash arbour practices of African Americans during and after slavery, argues that such secret religious gatherings produced both survival silence and empowering sounds and, in doing so, turned into acts of resistance against white slave masters. Sophia Geng delves into the rich documentation on internees’ experiences during their imprisonment at the Weihsien Internment Camp in Japanese-occupied China in 1943–1945 to reveal the active community-building, the resilience to the daily routines of the prisoners of war, and moments of protests against the Japanese forces through diverse musical activities.
Fiona Magowan and Jim Donaghey – methodologically drawing on community-based participatory research from a project in cooperation with the non-governmental organization Musicians Without Borders that focused on sonic reconciliation in Northern Ireland – highlight the online tool StoryMaps as a promising alternative to linear historical storytelling because of its capacity to generate links between past and present soundscapes and to produce multidirectional memories beyond the binary concepts of occupation or decolonization. Kevin Sliwoski – in his sonic analysis of daily life at the US naval base in the Philippines, Subic Bay, and the neighbouring town Olongapo City during the 1950s and 1960s – complicates the “loud town, quiet base narrative” and reveals the actual scope of American occupation and militarization in this American-Philippine contact zone. DJ Hatfield traces sonic histories of multiple occupation through selected frog voices, school chimes, and songs of Cepo’ Pangcah – perhaps better known as Amis people, an indigenous Austronesian ethnic group home to the eastern coast of Taiwan.
Dimitri Smirnov, by closely listening to the novel The Day Lasts More Than a Hundred Years, written by the Kyrgyz author Chingiz Aitmatov in 1980, emphasizes the role of the Russian railway in what he calls the “sonic occupation” of Central Asia since the late nineteenth century. Back to the Philippines under US occupation, Skelchy shows how the architectural transformation of Banguio from a military hill station into a popular resort city was deliberately accompanied by auditory design plans that effectively ousted local soundscapes unfamiliar to the ears of US expatriates. Finally, Tan Sooi Beng highlights the emerging diversity of musical sounds in early twentieth-century British Malaya, which she construes as both a hybridization of Western and local genres and a “counter-discourse to the dominant colonial culture” (p. 220).
Structuring the contributions into three parts (equaling here the three previous paragraphs) with foci on (1) voices during, (2) sonic memories of, and (3) responses to occupation is only of limited help to counter this huge diversity – despite the editors’ commendable efforts to bring them into a conversation through brief introductions to each part. Some contributions only peripherally touch upon the section themes, whereas others address more than one of them; especially, the delineation of parts 1 and 3 seems rather fluid. Of course, these problems occur more often than not in edited volumes and by no means diminish the generally high quality of the individual chapters.
Despite the huge diversity, I missed one aspect that might have been too obvious to address: the role of military music in constellations of occupation. The book cover shows a Chinese boy scout, blowing into his trumpet, in Japanese-occupied China during the Pacific War. Regrettably, the reader is left in the dark about the context of this picture and the possible involvement of Japanese military music authorities. Anyway, military music could play an ambivalent role during occupation, beyond the dichotomy of imperial control or local resistance. The military casinos of British and American GIs in occupied West Germany, which often served as a driving force for the local appropriation of timely popular music, are a case in point.
Finally, as a historian interested in everything that sounds, I am still wondering about the prospects of listening to past occupations. Put another way, to what extent sonic histories are able to modify established narratives of occupation remains an open question. The volume demonstrates in many ways that sonic histories add another, usually interesting, layer to them. Thus, its authors, largely non-historians, may hopefully inspire the craft to look more carefully for the historical agency of sounds during conflict situations and to pay more attention to the sonic dimension of history in general.
1 Julia Nikolaevskaya, „Ihre Konzerte geben uns die Kraft, weiterzuleben.“ Warum in der aktuellen Situation ein Konzert in der Ukraine mehr als ein Konzert ist, in: VAN, 12. Juli 2023, URL: https://van-magazin.de/mag/kharkivmusicfest-nikolaevskaya/