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The silence of the fans

How can a crowd of football fans use sound to protest a profit-oriented football machinery? By staying completely silent, apparently. In German football, silent protesting has proved an effective way of speaking up.
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It’s a Monday evening in September 2019, the supporters of KFC Uerdingen and SV Waldhof Mannheim have occupied their respective stands at the Merkur Spiel-Arena in Düsseldorf and the floodlights are gleaming – the perfect scene for a great, casual football night to start the week. But there’s something wrong with the atmosphere. The people around me, usually supporting their club with chants, choruses and shouting in every match – the epicentre of the acoustic atmosphere – remain silent. All I am hearing is restrained chatter from the crowd and the strident commands of the 22 guys we came to watch on the pitch.

I’m holding an Olympus field recorder in my right hand. Luckily, if held at waist level, this device is small enough not to strike anyone’s attention. So I’m listening not only with my ears in real-time – my recorder is also alert, saving its perception for the future. Truth be told, I’m at work.

By staying silent during the Monday night matches, the fans are withdrawing their valuable acoustic contribution to the TV spectacle

The Uerdingen fans around me seem cautious, almost lethargic; they comment on the events on the pitch, but with zero affection in their voices. Meanwhile, the players below us are shouting: ‘Geh ran!’ – ‘Drauf!’ – ‘Bravo, gut gemacht!’ It is as if they’ve been suddenly amplified. Or, which is much closer to the truth, it is as if an acoustic curtain was removed, now revealing the sonic core of a football match, controlling and navigating the organic flow of physical movement propelling this game.

A silent stadium

Since 1993, the ‘Montagsspiel’ of the 2ndBundesliga has been an integrated part of the weekly football routine in Germany, prolonging the weekends’ match days. In the 2017/18 season the ‘Montagsspiel’ was introduced to the 1stBundesliga, which led to heavy complaints, channelling into the form of silent protesting. Why this sudden outrage? Well, a football match on a Monday night in 2017 isn’t the same as it was in 1993, nor in 2002. It conveys a symbolic meaning exceeding its sheer fixation on a certain day in the week.

Within the last two decades, the turbo capitalism in football has reached an all-time peak and introduced severe changes on many levels – for the clubs as well as their fans. All silent protests refer to these developments, which include an increase in ticket prices despite the clubs’ exorbitant revenues on world-wide TV contracts.

Listen to Friedemann Dupelius’s German audio paper ‘Silencing Stadion’, a part of his thesis ‘The Audio Paper is …? – Akustemische Wissenkultur und die Idee Audio Paper’. © Friedemann Dupelius

Global capitalism and neoliberalism thoroughly permeate football, as we’ve seen an example of these recent weeks where TV matches have been played with no audience, due to the covid-19 pandemic. In ‘modern football’, the fans in the stadium are subordinate, nothing more than a precious backdrop in a lucrative TV staging. If they can’t make it to a match on a Monday night due to work, the industry won’t care. It has countless paying customers watching from behind a screen. By staying silent during the Monday night matches, the fans are withdrawing their valuable acoustic contribution to the TV spectacle.

The silent protests – which aren’t just directed at the clubs and their increasing ticket prices, but also at problematic developments in how the football associations and the police treat the fans – succeeded quickly: Only one year after establishing the ‘Montagsspiel’, DFL, the Deutsche Fußball Liga, announced its decision to abandon the idea, beginning with the 2021/22 season. At the same time, however, a weekly Monday match was established in the 3rd league (3. Liga), which led to a new wave of silent protests; this has not yet been abandoned.

Fans 1, industry 0

I decided to investigate these silent protests and their sonic materiality in the form of an audio paper. How does a silent crowd actually sound? Which sonic dynamics are at work in the inner life of a silent fan stand? What is the effect on the stadium, a building intended to amplify the chants of its visitors?

I was also intrigued by the complex and intertwining power structures in silent protesting. Traditionally, there is a competition between the fans of two clubs for the sonic dominance in a stadium. At the same time, the fans are being used by the media and their own clubs as staffage to sell a product. They are part of the gentrification of the stadium, simultaneously playing the part of both the victim and the offender.

The power of the supporters and their form of protest has become evident

Silent protesting is a sabotage of power relations. Normally, TV has power over the fans. If the fans would shout critical slogans, the technological apparatus of the media could mute them. This actually happened in the 2017 German Cup final, when schlager singer Helene Fischer performed during the half-time break. Big parts of the stadium audience started to catcall her, whilst the TV audience could hear a clear ‘decrescendo’ in the ambiance sound during Fischer’s show. Noteworthy here: Sportcast, the company executing the TV broadcast of the cup final, is a subsidiary of the DFL. This was a ‘silencing’ from the very top.

But TV can’t silence fans that have deliberately decided to remain silent. Instead, the commentators either ignore the protests completely or give short, usually patronising, explanations. But the power of the supporters and their form of protest has become evident. And all of a sudden, the fans of opposing clubs unite in the fight for the same issue. On the other hand, not every fan of a club supports the silent protesters and their motives which can lead to weird conflicts when some fans start chanting and then get silenced by their co-fans.

What I wanted to achieve with the audio paper I produced over the past year, entitled Silencing Stadion, was to document and illustrate the sonic qualities of silent protesting as well as the interplay of power relations in this realm, which becomes audible when entering the field and comparing its sounds to their mediatisation on TV.

Different silences

So, I attended three selected football matches on Monday nights during the summer of 2019 – two of them being 3rd league games (Uerdingen vs. Mannheim, Mannheim vs. 1860 Munich), one of them a 2nd league match (Osnabrück vs. Darmstadt). Each time I tried to find a different position in the stadium to get different sonic perspectives of the protests.

As described, I put myself amid the core of Uerdingen’s supporters during their match against Mannheim. In Mannheim, I chose to stand among the rather moderate supporters of this club, whose die-hard fans are known for their tendency to verbal and physical violence; I didn’t want to be standing directly amongst them with my recording device. In Osnabrück, I took a seat in the first row of a stand where the moderate but dedicated supporters of the home team sit.

Nowhere I heard or recorded ‘real’, ‘absolute’ silence. Even in the middle of Uerdingen’s block, there was chatter and murmur all the time – even occasional shouts. However, the commands of the players could be heard easily. In Mannheim, only the home supporters performed a silent protest, so the guest fans from Munich started singing at kick-off, which the Mannheim fans countered with shrill whistling and verbal insults (that no Munich fan would really hear, of course). In Osnabrück, it was very clear, the moderate fans around me didn’t care about the protests. Even though most stayed silent for the whole first half, the fans around me started chanting every now and then.

The American soccer league MLS has also experienced silent protesting, in this case aimed at a ban on political banners. © KGW News

I like to think of myself as a ‘sonic persona’ when surrounded by fans, my ears and field recorder turned on. Putting my whole body, my whole apparatus of perception, in the middle of the silent protest allows for a very different and more holistic perspective on the ongoing events. The atmosphere around me, shaped by the architecture, the people, their behaviour and aura, heavily influences myself in the field – how I move, where I stand, how I listen and record. So, the whole recording process was idiosyncratic, situated, partial, performative and affective, just as prescribed by Sanne Krogh Groth and Kristine Samson in the 2016 audio paper manifesto.

While producing Silencing Stadion, acoustic recordings of silent protests on TV helped me create a contrast between the sound of my position amid the silent protest and its mediated version. On TV, the murmur of the audience is almost inaudible, whereas the players’ commands and the sounds of kicking the ball are amplified and become the main acoustic scenery. I also chose to compare the TV commentators’ treatment of the protests.

The audio paper begins with a long-take recording after the match in Düsseldorf. I wanted to compare the sound of an empty stadium to the sound of the same building being artificially silenced. This is also the case at the end of Silencing Stadion, in a sonic appendix added in early March, where you hear a minute of silence being held in the Düsseldorf stadium, commemorating the victims of the right-wing terrorist attack in Hanau in February 2020. The difference between a silent protest and ‘real’ silence during a minute of silence is striking. This experience, as well as the silent protests’ referring to problems ‘bigger than football’, underlines the stadium as a public place of assembly where social issues can be debated.

Let your ears affect your mind

Quite early on, I decided to reduce the amount of language in my audio paper to a minimum. Not due to a general distrust in language, but because I was interested in how far I could go while using mostly sound to build my arguments. With reference to the concept of absolute music, my goal was to produce a kind of ‘absolute audio paper’. There was a real danger, though, of being too inconclusive, so I tried to formulate the accompanying abstract as accurate and clear as possible. And I didn’t want to be too strict in the abdication of language, so I included some verbal markers in the audio paper to separate the different chapters and to give some listening hints, similar to the captions accompanying documentary photography. (The recordings of the TV commentators of course make an exception.)

But still, the production process was a struggle. I tried to sort my thoughts by writing down my findings. I listened to the sonic material several times, analysing the recordings, setting cues, even transcribing the chatter of the fans. I drew sketches, noted down concepts and thoughts. But the audio paper didn’t want to take shape.

This experience underlines the stadium as a public place of assembly where social issues can be debated

Despaired and disillusioned, I experienced a turning point when I put my sketches aside and simply played with the material in the audio software. I cut, panned, created little scenes, and the audio paper began to grow. New thoughts emerged, new findings came up, new ideas for acoustic scenes were born out of this direct engagement with the material. A kind of sonic thinking, a thinking with and by means of sound, took place. It paved the way, proposed cuts and edits that I couldn’t find while sitting at a table, sketching, writing and thinking in verbal language, silencing myself.

What makes the audio paper so attractive as an academic format is the tension between a huge freedom in experimenting with its design and the struggle for an accuracy in the intended production of meaning. Generally, I think the audio paper as a format is especially well-suited for investigating questions related to the sonic realm or having an acoustic dimension. In the end it comes down to having an understandable and precise question (or a bunch of those) as a starting point for a sonic investigation. From then on, it’s time to let your ears affect the mind and get into a fruitful dialogue between different realms of perception – to widen your thinking apparatus in an all-embracing, affective way.

Friedemann Dupelius produces radio features, articles on music, and sound art. He holds a master’s degree in Musicology and Media Studies (Universität zu Köln, 2020); ‘Silencing Stadion’ was a part of his thesis, ‘The Audio Paper is …? – Akustemische Wissenkultur und die Idee Audio Paper’.