The Right to Polished Sound: Age and Class in the Viennese Balkan Music Scene 


Ondřej Daniel



Balkan stereotypes have been reclaimed as proud self-caricatures, particularly in diasporic culture. This phenomenon has been widely studied in popular culture and especially in the cinema of the 1990s. One classic use of this strategy is in Emir Kusturica’s 1995 film Underground with its scenes loudly overlaid by Goran Bregović’s soundtrack. The film’s crude and primal jouissance contrasted with the characteristic restraint of audiences at the Cannes festival where it received the highest prize. Underground succeeded in amassing “Balkan” motifs in a loud hedonistic spectacle that some saw as an offensive commercialization of cultural stereotypes. At the same time, as Serbian political commentator and journalist Zoran Ćirjaković (2004) has noted, this aesthetic captured something that many non-Balkan audiences had long seen as missing from their own cultures.


This study explores the musical sounds that link contemporary Vienna to the countries of the former Yugoslavia. For this purpose, I uncover a layer of South Slavic sounds in the Austrian capital and analyze two musical contributions to the city by migrants from the former socialist federation. I consider Vienna’s residents from the former Yugoslavia to be a distinct acoustic community and analyze two of their sound objects in relation to age and class of their producers and consumers. While various sound objects connected with the Balkans pervade the public spaces of Vienna, given the research restrictions arising from the global pandemic in the winter of 2020/2021, I focus here on two radio shows that are predominantly virtual and amenable to research online. More generally, I analyze the role of music in contemporary southeast European societies and ask how its place and function are affected by experiences of migration, age and class. 


This study begins with an outline of key methodological issues that inform my identification and labeling of music in the Balkan sonic space of Vienna. These include my position as a researcher and my choice of research terrain. The second part of this paper then introduces the two sound objects that are the focus of my comparison. In the third part, I examine relevant theories of sound and music in urban space. In the fourth section, I apply the general concept of diasporic soundscapes to the musical tastes of migrants from the former Yugoslavia in Vienna. The fifth part begins with a review of several other musical objects that frame my analysis of age and class which I consider as deeply important social categories when discussing music preferences as a basis for a particular choice of sonic experience. I then proceed with a comparison of the two chosen sound objects. Finally, I present my conclusions based on this comparison and identify promising areas for future research in this field.