Academic journal article Current Musicology

Barbara Lorenzkowski. 2010. Sounds of Ethnicity. Listening to German North America 1850-1914

Academic journal article Current Musicology

Barbara Lorenzkowski. 2010. Sounds of Ethnicity. Listening to German North America 1850-1914

Article excerpt

Barbara Lorenzkowski. 2010. Sounds of Ethnicity. Listening to German North America 1850-1914. Winnipeg:University of Manitoba Press.

Tuning in to German North America:Performing German Ethnicity 1850-1914

Barbara Lorenzkowski provides the following description of Waterloo County soundscape on May 2, 1871:

   The [1871 peace] jubilee was ushered in by a salute of twenty-one
   cannon shots ... As exuberant as the speeches were the ten thousand
   celebrants who clapped enthusiastically when an oak was planted...
   With revelers singing German songs and loudly cheering at
   portraits of Emperor Wilhelm I., the celebrations culminated in a
   fireworks display. (2010:128f.)

In her seminal work on the sound of German ethnicity in the Great Lakes region in the six decades prior to World War I, Lorenzkowski adds an important aural dimension to the historiography of German culture in North America. By studying past sounds of rural Waterloo County, Ontario and industrialized urban Buffalo, New York, she allows her readers to tune in to the public and private worlds of German migrants and their self-declared leaders as they practiced and performed their ethnic consciousness in the transnational borderland of the Great Lakes region.

How can our understanding of the past be deepened by the study of its sounds? Hearing is a process of perceiving the world and contributes to our daily acquisition of knowledge. "[K]nowing the world through sound," as Bruce Smith suggests, "is fundamentally different from knowing the world through vision" (2003:4). This notion can--and should--be applied to academic research; indeed, several disciplines, history included, have been experiencing a "sonic turn" In Hearing History, sensory historian Mark M. Smith writes about the increasing focus on the aural in historical research:"This intensification holds out to the prospect of helping to redirect in some profoundly important ways what is often the visually oriented discipline of history, a discipline replete with emphases on the search for 'perspective' and 'focus' through the 'lens' of evidence, one heavily, if often unthinkingly, indebted to the visualism of 'Enlightenment' thinking and ways of understanding the word" (2004:ix).

This review concentrates on the aural aspects of narrating the past, which holds one seat at the table of what Smith terms "Sensory History," which is not a field within the traditional discipline of history, but rather, a certain "habit" in "thinking about the past" (2007:4). This habit, Smith continues, has emerged from a number of distinct traditional disciplines and remains open to members of an even greater variety. Smith's comparisons to "Women's History" and "African American History" attest to the high potential of Sensory History:"What are usually considered historical 'fields' of inquiry--diplomatic, gender, race, regional, borderlands, cultural, political, military, and so on," argues Smith, "could all be written and researched through the habit of sensory history" (2007:5).

Sound Studies is one such transdisciplinary "habit" within Sensory History. In "Onwards to an Audible Past," Smith predicts a bright future for Sound Studies:

   My hope is that questions of sound, noise and aurality will not
   just infiltrate historical narratives but also change the very
   conceptualization of historical thinking and problems. Should that
   occur, history will regain its full texture, invite new questions,
   and take us beyond an unwitting commitment to seeing the past.
   Ideally, we will begin to contextualize the past within the larger
   rubric of all senses and thus free mainstream historical writing
   from the powerful but blinding focus of vision alone. (2004:xxi)

Historian Lorenzkowski presents an excellent example of Sound Studies by concentrating on the aural worlds of German North America. As with visual elements such as architecture or costume, the various sonic elements of a space (and with it its keynotes, sound marks, and sound events) can reveal a group's identity. …

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