FOCUS - May 2013
A Q&A with geographer Sandra Jasper, one of the contributors to What Matters Now? (What Can't You Hear?).
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a suburban town called Langenfeld between Köln and Düsseldorf in Germany.
How has your idea of the place changed since that time?
My idea of the town and the ways in which I remember it have changed over time. The forest and fields surrounding the house in which I grew up, and the house itself, are important places of my earlier childhood. I spent a lot of time in the forest, playing, going for walks, or sitting on the nearby noise-cancelling dam watching the construction of the Autobahn and cars passing by. As a teenager, I only wanted to leave the place – probably a common feeling shared with many people who grow up in a suburban context – I felt nothing exciting was happening then (in the mid 1990s).
At 16 I decided to go to the US for a year. Oddly, I learned about the importance of places like Köln, Düsseldorf and Wuppertal for artistic practice and music culture of the 1960s to 1980s much later, through my research in urban culture.
Today, when I visit the town, the house and the forest, all of them seem to have somehow shrunk.
Could you describe the landscape that you could see from the windows in that house? And the soundscape?
From the windows of the house you could see a street, other houses, back gardens, pastures, the forest and a noise-cancelling dam for the Autobahn overgrown with bushes. I remember hearing a lot of different birds – owls and Eurasian jays – and insects, especially bees. Depending on the weather there was an ambient hum of cars from the Autobahn. Occasionally, you could hear thunder-like sounds which were caused by supersonic and military test flights that back then passed over densely populated areas. That makes me think of the weather, especially of thunderstorms common in the Rhineland; rumbling thunder and the sounds of rain, the changing light and temperature. Houses were built closely side-by-side with back-to-back gardens, so that during the day the soundscape was full of neighbourly and domestic sounds – kitchen clattering, hoovers, voices, dogs barking, lawn mowers, somehow very similar to where I live now in London. A childhood sound which I will never forget is the melody of the ice-cream van.
What is the role of the subjective point of view in geography?
I think the subjective point of view is very important when we try to understand how spaces are perceived and experienced. I have worked a lot with oral history in my research projects: I interviewed people that lived in West Berlin trying to reconstruct some of the critical debates they were involved in. Unfortunately, in the case of the Philharmonie [the building in Berlin that Sandra writes about in her contribution to What Matters Now? What Can't You Hear?], chronologically the earliest project I worked on, most of the acousticians, engineers and architects that had created the space had already passed away. The generation that experienced the Second World War and the post-war years in Berlin is now getting very old and it seems to be a crucial point in time to collect their stories.
How and why did you begin researching geography? How did sound enter your research?
I had never planned to study or research geography. When I first went to university I started with a mathematics major. In school, it somehow gave me a sense of comfort: there is one right answer to a problem, which you underline twice and move on.
At university, I discovered it was not a field I wanted to pursue, because I understood that the idea of objectivity was completely constructed. In mathematics scholars set up their own rules (axioms) and worked within those rules – whether they are true or not was not a relevant question. I thought I might as well go into social sciences where the uncertainty of truth and objectivity is partly the subject of inquiry.
I chose geography because it is a very diverse field of study including science, social science and humanities-based approaches. I very much enjoyed visiting different places and working in the field.
Sound entered my research in two ways. Firstly, through the Philharmonie. I visited the Hans Scharoun archive of the Akademie der Künste, where I discovered a folder labelled "Akustik." This folder included numerous newspaper clippings and letters with fierce complaints and passionate praises about the acoustic quality of the building. It also included engineering journals from the 1960s that presented room acoustics as something that could be created and measured in an objective way. My earlier training in mathematics was helpful to understand – or at least, not to be discouraged to explore – some of the physics-based formulas based on Greek letters and symbols. I was very intrigued by these different accounts of the building and I was curious to learn more about sound and acoustics, fields that have been rather neglected in geography.
Sound also entered my research through music culture and sound art.