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Researcher maps prison camp using music

Germany: Stanford University researcher Melissa Kagen’s research project examines Auschwitz-Birkenau prison camp’s musical culture in the context of geographical space. Using survivor testimonies and camp administration records, Kagen developed digital maps of the “musical geography” of the prison. By focusing on the spatial aspects of music, Kagen’s research offers historical insight into how music can be used as a means for controlling and torturing prisoners in present-day detention facilities.

“Music in the Holocaust is a relatively well-explored research topic,” said Kagen, a student of modern German musicology and literature. “But because it does not leave a lasting historical footprint, it has not been considered spatially before.”

Kagen used an unconventional interpretation method to translate the source material into a visual form. Rather than dwelling on the significance of a specific song, she focuses on references about the locations where music was heard.

Music, as Kagen discovered, provided a proportionally small number of prison guards with the means to maintain control over large portions of the camp without any actual physical presence.

Kagen’s maps illustrated the fluid nature of sound by superimposing color-shaded areas of music onto a transparent infrastructure background, thereby uncovering a prison landscape unseen until now.

Each map also includes digital recordings of the songs in question. By hovering over certain areas of the map viewers can listen to one of 24 musical excerpts of tunes that were known to have been played in the camp.

“The prisoners wished to die in peace, which is to say, they wanted the barest hint of autonomy over the space in which they die,” said Kagen. “But the melodies of Bach, Beethoven and Horst Wessel, along with jazz songs, wrested every last bit of space away from them.”

Kagen’s visualizations also illustrated that so-called “voluntary music,” played by inmates and marked in blue on the maps, provided inmates with some measure of personal space and, by extension, a means for resistance.

The mosaic Kagen has drawn of competing red and blue areas corresponding to “forced” and “voluntary” music underscores prisoners’ success in challenging German spatial control over the camp. Kagen’s research enables researchers to visually assess questions of where, when and how resistance was mounted by Auschwitz inmates.

Source: Stanford University