From Sound to (Sonic) Affects


Magnifico’s and Janša’s foray into musicology does not only speak about music, its lyrics, meaning, and representational quality, but also about sound and its affective intensity as a means of expression. Magnifico juxtaposed the alleged mirth of Slovenian folk pop – which he did not differentiate from folk music and attributed to the “Slovenian character” – with the proverbially sad and melancholic Balkan sonic pathos. 


Therefore, the question remains: Is the border between the north and the south of the Balkan peninsula (or, in some overtly nationalist interpretations, between “the Balkans” and “the non-Balkans”) drawn through sound and its affects, too? If, as Sara Ahmed claims, affects are “sticky,” or rather, if affect “sustains or preserves the connection between ideas, values and objects” (Ahmed 2010: 29), the question is what sticks to a specific sound? How do the rhythmic sounds of Slovenian folk pop music, transcribable approximately as [pum per dum], translate into joy or merriness and values (persistence, orderliness, and optimism) that are culturally perceived as somehow specifically “Slovenian”? In the same manner, the augmented second and minor scales, commonly found in sevdalinka music have been commonly perceived as elements of melancholy, longing, love, and passion. This is precisely how affects connected to music stick; rather than being simply somatic and autonomous, they necessarily also possess a social dimension. Ethnomusicological research suggests that the aforementioned ethnocentric interpretations of Ottoman music as sad have a logical explanation that has to do with different modal systems and uses of harmony (Pennanen 2010). It is true that the use of the minor chord in sevdah, for example, can be seen as melancholic, while the major chords in folk pop can signify happiness and joy. The intriguing question is, then, not only how particular sounds are attributed with particular social characteristics, but why particular sounds stick to a particular differentiation in the form of ethnic, cultural, subcultural, or national territory.[8]


Recent work in cultural geography can be useful in understanding the “processes and practices by which sound actually makes space” (Revill 2015: 1). Authors like Simpson (2016) and Revill (2000; 2015) refer to debates on sound’s elusiveness that connect it to the concept of affect. The physicality of rhythm, timbre, pitch, and so forth, have a visceral impact, inscribed on the body that is affective in a pure sense – an intensity prior to perception and interpretation of emotion, e.g. feeling happy or melancholic. However, as unmediated as sound seems at first, several authors warn that it is socially and culturally mediated in several ways. Georgina Born, for example, identifies four planes of social mediation of sound: the first plane is inhabited by performers, their audience, and their interactions (that produce affect). On this plane “music produces the intimate microsocialities of musical performance” (Born 2013: 32). The second plane alludes to Anderson’s concept of imagined communities and the ways music contributes to forming collectives and identifications. On the third plane “music is traversed by and refracts wider social formations” like class, race, gender, ethnicity, among others; and the fourth plane is that of institutional mediation that supports (or not) musical production, reproduction, distribution, and transformation (Born 2013: 32).


Similarly, Revill claims that “sound itself has an important and active role to play in the organisation of social, economic, and political spaces” (Revill 2000: 597). Through the examination of English music in 1880–1940, he shows how sonic characteristics inform “moral geographies of landscape, nation, and citizen” (Revill 2000: 597). The pastoral aesthetic codes which inform music of said period and mediate the relationship between nature and culture also ground “a set of moral judgements defining sounds and the social practices they represent as legitimate and illegitimate in place or out of place” (Revill 2000: 598). Sound and music thus play an important role in constructing specific notions of subjectivity and (national) spaces, as well as borders between them (Smith 1997).


Finally, as we have argued, affect sticks as sonic stimulation that is translated into cultural interpretations and aesthetic judgements that close off the affective potential of music. We could easily find counterevidence that would dismantle the dichotomy of joyous folk pop and melancholic Balkan sound. Descriptors, such as “joyful” or “funny” provide a highly reductive perspective on the complicated soundscape of different Slovenian regions. For instance, the diatonic accordion (the preferred instrument in folk pop and a symbol of Slovenian identity [Mlekuž 2015]) does not have the capacity to produce the sounds of music characteristic of the Eastern region of Prekmurje, which is heavily influenced by Hungary. Therefore, the musicians from this region frequently use the cimbalon as their instrument of choice (Kumar 1972). The same could be said of the Bela Krajina region in southern Slovenia, which is a lot closer to Balkan musical traditions than to folk pop and could easily be interpreted as “melancholic.” Therefore, the simple division of the Balkan peninsula into its northern and southern poles, the former represented by the joyful beats of the Slovenian folk pop waltzes and polkas, and the latter by slower, melancholic Balkan sounds, is problematic on (at least) two accounts. Firstly, it greatly narrows down the affective potential of various musical traditions and favors a hierarchical perspective on them. Secondly, these traditions are territorialized: made to represent a nation, its identity, and preferred affects. Happiness and order appear to be the ideal of the “civilized” peoples, while melancholia is presented as the affect of “Others.”

Himzo Polovina: “Emina.” One of the most famous examples of a sevdalinka, Emina was a 1902 poem about longing for a beautiful woman in a garden by Aleksa Šantić. Later, it became a popular song performed by a number of singers, the most famous version probably by the renowned Bosnian musician Himzo Polovina. 

Marko Banda: “Drmač.” A folk song from the Prekmurje region, performed by a traditional Prekmurje folk ensemble at the Godibodi music festival.