Sounds of the Balkan - Editorial


Diana Grgurić 


This special issue of the Journal of Sonic Studies brings together scholars and artists in exploring the acoustic culture of the Balkans. From a variety of theoretical perspectives broadly set in the interdisciplinary field of sonic studies, the authors contribute with articles of analytical and artistic provenance, investigating the sonic practices, their perceptions and memories, as well as the socio-political organization of music and sound in this specific geographical region in Europe whose boundaries, however, have never been clearly defined. The reason behind this is the diversity of the involved societies – all countries of former Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, and a part of Turkey – as well as their disunity, evident even in the various interpretations of the region defined by the word “Balkan,” which is usually defined according to Western Europe’s perception. Many scholars have sought to systematize the fundamental characteristics of the Balkans’ cultural inscriptions within a Western European discourse (Maria Todorava, Katherine Fleming, Zrinka Blažević and others).[1] In the Western imagination the Balkan countries are perceived as being more or less interchangeable, in other words, indistinguishable from one another, much like the Balkan ethnic groups themselves. Such a conviction is based on the view of this European region as an “outsider,” marked by aporeticity in terms of perception as well as representation. To the West, this region is close yet distant, familiar yet unknown, similar yet alien. Constructed as the controversial European self, the Balkans represent both a social and a political phenomenon in light of the region’s 500 years of development within the Ottoman empire and in the absence of European influence. The construct of the Balkans as a liminal space of ambivalent character is also reinforced by the differences between the Balkan nations, which have periodically led to social turmoil and unrest, resulting in violence and the region being referred to as “bloodied war hills.”


In planning this special issue, the initial idea was to “destruct” and then “reconstruct” various  attributes of the Balkans’ acoustic culture, which is frequently viewed through the prism of “Balkan music.” Despite Balkan music encompassing a diversity of traditions and styles, it is typically perceived through stereotypes that reduce it to the Romani music popularized in movies by Emir Kusturica, Bulgarian women’s choirs, the pop music forms of newly-composed folk music (the best example being turbo-folk), and so on. Hence, in addition to searching for the attributes of the Balkan soundscape – for everything that can be heard there, including influences, meanings, and artistic action and reaction – the broader aim of this special issue is to establish “sound” as an analytical category. Therefore, in their attempts to “route” sound while exploring the geo-cultural regions of the Balkans, the articles in this issue realize a pioneering force as well as a developmental force that is already present in earlier studies of music in the Balkans such as Svanibor Pettan, Ana Hofman, Marija Dumnić Vilotijavić, Rory Archer, Jim Samson, and others.[2] 


How the Balkan sound in popular music is constructed in the context of contemporary social issues is the question that Robert Bobnič, Natalija Majsova and Jasmina Šepetavc seek to answer in their joint work and that Ondřej Daniel explores in his paper. Investigating so-called newly-composed pop music genres as an outcome of urbanization, stylistically derived from elements of (Balkan) folk music, these articles examine the issue of paradoxality typical of the way the Balkans are perceived. The first article analyses the sound of Balkan music within a framework of “similar-different,” the result of the conviction that while it is difficult to distinguish between Balkan countries and peoples, the cultures of those (Balkan) peoples are (very) different. We learn from Bobnič’s article that the term “Balkan sound” is a provocation to Slovene official policy, instigating a rethinking of their own cultural identity as being (un)separable from the Balkan identity. Daniel’s article approaches the sound of “newly-composed” Balkan music as a co-created identity-related construct by and applied to immigrants from the Balkan countries in Vienna, whose music and aesthetics are seen as an “other” within the Viennese cultural setting, in the sense of “Balkan Otherness.”


The Balkans as a region of intersecting historical trajectories – one of the more recent being the socialism experience – has inspired the research work of Błażej Brzostek. Within the framework of sound history, Brzostek is engaged in reconstructing the soundscape of Bucharest in the first decade of communist rule. Highlighting the importance of studying sound in understanding the mentality of a society, his starting point is Attali’s claim that there can be no authority without the control of noise as well as attendant regulations necessary to enforce such control. 

Like Brzostek, Maja Zećo is also very interested in socially shaped perceptions and memories of sound. In her contribution she explores the reconstruction of soundscapes based on acoustic experiences. By arranging acoustic images of Sarajevo prior to and in the aftermath of the 1992-1996 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Zećo presents intriguing results, notably in her comparison of divergent sonic experiences of the city “before” and “after.”


Theodore Teichman explores the socialist legacy of the countries of former Yugoslavia through the prism of Michael M. Bell’s “the ghosts of place” concept. The focus of Teichman’s practice-based research is railway stations, abandoned hotels, and other intimidating places with the ghosts of unquiet memories. Scrutinizing these places through an acousmatic listening, the ghosts of time – that is, sensing the presence of what is not physically there (anymore) – are a ubiquitous aspect of the phenomenology of place. These ghosts unsettle the expected immediacy of sonic transmission, articulating a space as liminal. Simultaneously, Teichman critically reflects on existing nationalist and neoliberal narratives through his field recordings.


The next two articles grounded in practice-based or artistic research somehow represent the breadth of sound studies as they transcend mono-disciplinary boundaries and perspectivization, not only by combining different areas of science but also by merging art and science. David A. Calf’s article, which is part of his Spectral Geology project, investigates the soundscapes of sites of important Second World War battles. The multimedia content of his article allows sound to function as a historical source that, due to its non-narrative character, opens up a space of knowledge, imaginings of the material world as well as historical events and people.

Another interesting sound art contribution is offered by the German composer Lasse-Marc Riek. His sound composition “Sarajevo” is the remarkable result of studying Sarajevo’s post-war acoustic environment.

A final contribution to this issue is that of Lozanka Peycheva and Ventsislav Dimov, who coauthored a review of Carol Silverman’s Ivo Papazov’s Balkanology, published in 2021 by Bloomsbury Academic Press. In her book, Silverman uses the example of Romani music to expose the political, economic, and social role of music during the socialist and post-socialist periods in Bulgaria.


Most of the articles contain diverse audio and visual materials that serve to enrich the reader’s experience of the contributions. Indeed, this multimedia approach aligns with the Journal of Sonic Studies’ high level of commitment to quality when presenting research in sound studies and auditory culture, which has been recognized by the academic community throughout the world. In accordance with Attali’s sense of the futurological and predictive power of sonic culture, the contributions offered here may be used as a kind of prophetic source for following potential traces of the ongoing noisy situation of the Balkans. As we know from the current political perspective of the war crisis in Europe, the Balkans represents a distinctly unstable political zone, marked by its particular vulnerabilities within the European space.


To conclude this introduction, I would like to thank the entire editorial team for their confidence in this scholarly and artistic project and the opportunity to co-create this issue with them and the authors.