Margarethe Maierhofer-Lischka


Nachtahn is a sound installation that takes its inspiration from traditional storytelling in the Styrian area around Leibnitz. Local fairytales and myths are common in all cultures to tell something about a place, its inhabitants and the relation between people,... Read more

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About the installation

Nachtahn is a sound installation that takes its inspiration from traditional storytelling in the Styrian area around Leibnitz. Local fairytales and myths are common in all cultures to tell something about a place, its inhabitants and the relation between people, the nature, and the land. The Nachtahn is a female spirit who comes at night to wash the clothes of people from the community. She can be considered an archetype that is present in many cultures. According to the story, she is never seen and has no voice - but when she appears, a noise can be heard. A woman doing the invisible care work for the community - this is also a highly contemporary topic. This installation connects storytelling with environmental listening to retell fragments of the story and create a feedbackloop between the environment, the people, the past and the present. By listening, we probably can mak something audible that otherwise would remain unheard.

A project diary

06. May 2022 - spirit catchers

It is changing weather, causing me painful headaches almost every week. Sometimes I wonder if those are bad spirits haunting me. Do I believe still in spirits, ghosts? All stories from our families are full of them. In other cultures but also here, spirits often represent the presence of the past, of our ancestors. To communicate with spirits is a way to connect the past with the present, to embed oneself as an individuum into the continuity of life. My grandma still used to talk to her ancestors as if they were here with her. Where have they gone, are they still there and maybe we have forgotten how to communicate with them? A while ago I had a talk with a friend about sounding memories and how to catch spirits by listening.

15. May 2022 silence tells

A sign saying “silence please!” It is not only the audible environment around us (the soundscape) that tells a lot about a place, its inhabitants and its ecologies. During the last weeks I spent a lot of time in one place in a neighbourhood in Margareten, Vienna. No special place, just a passage through a block of houses with some green and trees and a narrow concrete border along the path.
This place seemed to be inhabited and populated mostly by women with children and old people. Someone had put a sign “Bitte Ruhe!” (please keep silence!) on the side of a fence. Some days later it was gone. Despite its liveliness the place seemed quiet and peaceful to me. Who wanted to silence whom here?

16. May 2022 - the invisible guests

The beauty lies in the invisble guests.

22. May 2022 - the spirits of the place

One traditional way to speak about places is to tell stories and fairytales. Recently I started looking up folk tales of the Styrian countryside. They are full of ghosts, spirits, uncanny creatures. Many of those creatures and spirits are male figures. I wondered if I could find some women, too. In former times, women, foreigners or people that were somehow off the norm often were rendered invisible, inaudible in public, or they were considered as alien or dangerous: bei it witches, fools, or the first black people that came into Europe… I found the story of the Nachtahnl, a folk tale from the area of Leibnitz. The Nachtahnl is a female spirit that appears to wash the clothes of people which, as said, had been left dirty, or of the “ones who got buried dirty”. The dirt can also appear as metaphor for emotional, moral, social uncanniness. An invisible gestalt taking care of the wellbeing of a community, the Nachtahn also seems to embody a role which is in many cases today typically female.

29. May 2022

A Banshee Tracing down the Nachtahnl, similar figures and stories exist in other cultures. In Celtic and Irish mythology, the Nachtahnl is called Banshee, meaning she “who washes the bloodstained clothes of soldiers coming home from war”. The Nachtahnl appears, draws out her washtub and cleans what is needed to clean. She has no own voice, but when she appears people sometimes report to hear strange sounds. The voice of her is the sound of water, the humming and noise of the environment, and the stories people tell about her. Can I make her heard?

08. June 2022

Started coding, testing, trying out things ot let voices appear and disappear. A friend gave me a postcard. On it there was a text: “The enchanter who rules over the area, comes and places her coat over the landscape.”

14. June 2022

In German language, the word “Nachtahnl” holds several meanings: “Nacht” means night, and “ahn” refers to both “Ahnen” (ancestors) as well as “ahnen”, which is hard to translate. “ahnen” holds many meanings - to suspect something, to feel something before it arrives, to guess, to suppose.

19. June 2022 - venturing outside

Tomorrow is the first time we set up and try our sounding devices outside. Suddenly I notice that over the past few weeks I have focused so much on how things sound and feel in and from the inside. Ghosts are often described as voices in the head. I wonder how the Nachtahn will behave when I project her stories outside.

Technical documentation


The technical setup of the agents is quite minimal which makes it impossible to realize more complex, resource-intensive tasks or processes on them. For that reason, I abandoned my initial idea to work with different real-time sound streams (such as icecast). My final concept and the patches are the result of a longer trial-and-error-process that involved a lot of drafting, trying out, listening, failing and correcting. The softare for the installation consists from five relatively simple patches that have been adapted and improved a lot in regards to the needs of the hardware and the respective location properties. So even if the agents and the patches themselves are meant to run autonomously, the creative ecology between the human artist-programmer-listener, the machine and its algorithms and the environment remains a crucial part of the working process.

Patches and Configuration

The installation is programmed in Supercollider and consists basically of two types of patches, which in themselves do contain some variants. There are two basic sonic materials that have been used: voice recording samles and recordings from a live microphone feed taken from the environment. Both become part of an ecological process. They get manipulated sound-wise and time-wise in reaction to their respective sonic environments, and in regards to each other. Crosstalk of the speakers and mics is not unwanted, but becomes part of the process.

Patch Type 1 consists from a sample player whose parameters (speed, pitch, fade-in and fade-out) are controlled by a live-microphone input. The algorithm constantly listens into the environment and reacts to it with different actions that are created by a sort of “controlled randomness generator”. This type of patch runs on four of the five agents, but in different versions that have diverse outputs. On three agents I put versions which create rather understandable voice fragments, while on one the patch is configured to produce high-pitched chirps that appear rather like insect or animal sounds. I found this sonic quality during experimentation with the material and decided to intergrate it into the installation. The sound have a vocal character but do not appear human. Thus they help to integrate the installation into the environmental soundscape, highlighting the ecological character of the work.

Patch Type 2 implements a live-microphone feed which gets turned into a feedback loop with the use of playback and filtering. Depending on the sonic environment, the sonic character of the feedbacks change from more low-pitched or concrete echoes to high aeolian soundscapes. Feedback is a fragile phenomenon which strongly depends on harware specs and the environmental qualities. This patch can be considered the most fragile, most “eco-dependent” element of the installation because it had to be reconfigured a lot to get a sonic result which blends into the surroundings and the overall installation.

The patches provide an open framework that invites to create different sonic landscapes by trying out parameters, listening and playful interaction. I believe that ecology always also holds this character of aimless play.

Link to the GitLab repository

Get the code: