Looking at this inconspicuous building in Tartu, Estonia, it is difficult to believe that it was once a site of terror and oppression. From 1940-1954 thousands of Estonians were detained and tortured by the Russian KGB in tiny cells in the basement of “the Grey House”.
Upon entering the basement this 3 minute audio file is played on a loop. Fluency in the local language isn’t necessary to understand the story that is enacted:
During the period of Russian annexation thousands of Estonians passed through the Grey House on the way to labour camps in Siberia in an attempt by Russia to quash the Estonian resistance movement. This resulted in the deaths of 30,000 civilians either directly through execution or from the deprivations of life in a gulag.
Walking through the basement visitors can see plans by Russian authorities to deport Estonian politicians, teachers, clergy and skilled workers to Siberia. Artefacts from gulags, as well as a number of devices used to torture prisoners, can also be viewed.
Estonian history is not something that I am familiar with. However after visiting the Tartu KGB museum I now look into the faces of the local people and wonder what stories reside behind their stoic expressions.
It was a strange experience to walk through a pine forest and hear no sign of life. Up above wind whipped through the tree tops resulting in a whistling sound that belonged to a gothic novel but otherwise the forest was silent.
Traipsing further into the centre of the forest a sound finally made itself heard. A pine tree, snapped at its base, had fallen against a neighbouring tree and was swaying with its movements in the wind.
By placing contact microphones directly near the split it was possible to hear every creak and groan emitted by the tree as it moved helplessly with the wind. Away from the context of the forest the sound is reminiscent of a wooden ship as it heaves and sways in the ocean.
In a much more subtle way the sound of snow falling on the tree trunk was as delicate as it was musical. It’s various notes ring with the timbre of a xylophone, there is a beauty in its unpredictable melody.
The residency here at MoKS has been invaluable for providing a new context in which to listen. It took a lot of preparation to travel from Australia but the benefits are numerous. I’d recommend artists of any medium to come here to immerse themselves in this unique part of the world.
The sound of wind passing over this abandoned Soviet era water tank as caught by contact microphones. At times leaves and other debris clatter their way inside.
There is an incredible array of abandoned buildings and machines in Mooste. Their rusting bodies speak of another period that, for many Estonians, is best left in the past. Once the Soviet era finished in the 1990s many industrial structures were left to decay in the harsh Estonian elements. One such example is this water tower:
The dark silhouette of the tower dominates the frozen landscape.
The water tower stands surrounded by frozen farming fields and sheds in a state of disrepair. From the vantage point of someone who didn’t live through the deprivations of Soviet annexation I can look at this tower through the privilege of a detached aesthetic sense. Nevertheless I can’t help but wonder how local residents view this same object.
Recording the tank in the snowy blustery weather.
Socio-historical ruminations aside, how could any field recordist not be tempted to record this Soviet relic’s voice? Taping contact microphones onto its wet rusting frame proved to be quite difficult but with some perseverance the sound of the freezing wind passing over the metal body floated to the surface.
There in the hostile conditions low tones rose to higher whistles, the sound drawing a connection between the past and present. What histories did the wind communicate through the microphones, can they ever be deciphered?
Each day in Mooste is begun with a walk along one of its quiet country roads or forest paths. This morning was quite windy and a bit difficult to record anything clearly so I was happy to simply meander past the village limits.
This part of Mooste is reserved for farming with only remnants of forest dividing one farm from another. From the road the sound of the pine trees moving in the wind was clearly audible. The sound was enticing enough to have me scurry across the paddock and plunge into the patch of forest to record the wind:
Shortly into recording the wind dropped and in its place icy pellets of snow began to drop onto the dead leaves of the forest floor. It was a nice experience to sit in a forest that was completely different from those in Australia while the snow continued to fall:
Before arriving in Europe I wondered if it would be challenging to hear the subtleties of its unfamiliar landscape. Although I haven’t heard a fraction of what would be known by the locals it is a pleasure to at least hear what lies at the surface. For now I’m enjoying the novelty of hearing snow, a very exotic sound indeed!
In the past few months I have really enjoyed recording the subtle vibrations of wire. Depending on the thickness and length of the wire, its tension and the movement of wind, there is an endless variety of unearthly sound to be heard with the aid of contact microphones.
In Australia I have seen a number of telecommunications towers with tension wires that have begged to be recorded. Unfortunately security fences surround each of them. This is not the case here in Estonia.
Just a ten minute walk from the MoKS residence is an elegant telecommunications tower that stretches into the sky without a security fence in sight. With contact microphones connected to the wires and headphones on I stood looking up at the tower and listened to the extreme low frequency of its vibration in the wind. It was an intense experience compounded by the unfamiliar Estonian terrain.
I hope to return there again in varying weather conditions to listen to the different tones and frequencies of the tower’s support cables. I had wondered if one month in Estonia might be too long but now I realise how short that time really is.
The frequencies are quite low and so are best listened to with headphones.
Waking early this morning the village of Mooste was presented with a layer of snow. As an Australian living in a sub-tropical climate hearing the stillness that accompanies a frozen winter landscape is always a moment to be treasured.
One of my aims in taking up the residency at MoKS is to record sounds that don’t exist in my own region. A priority on this list is the snapping and popping of ice as it cracks and reforms over the surface of lakes and rivers.
Although the lake neighbouring MoKS isn’t entirely frozen yet it was still possible to record the ice as it moved with the ripples of water caused by gusts of wind. The ice near the shoreline was too solid to lower the hydrophones so instead I cast them out onto the surface where they acted as contact microphones.
As a result the recording isn’t as clean as I’d like it, at times picking up wind and snowflakes as they hit the exposed hydrophones. It was still a good experience and with four weeks here I’m sure the time will come to try again.
A view across a a frozen pond to the Moks residence.
After 12 months of anticipation the residency at MoKS has finally begun. MoKS is located in a tiny village in southern Estonia. Its winter landscape and local architecture is far removed from anything I have seen elsewhere in Europe or Australia. Centuries old stone buildings sit side-by-side with abandoned Soviet factories the combination of which is so beyond my experience that it is hard to believe it is real.
The MoKS residency program was opened in 2001 with an aim to explore the fields of the arts and environmental research in post-soviet Estonia. It is also dedicated to providing educational workshops for artists and the local youth. While I’m here I will be hosting a lecture on the Australian soundscape as well as working on a number of sound-based projects to be released in 2014.
On a walk through part of the village this afternoon the only sign of life was the rustle of tall grass in the wind and a radio interview blasting from a distant work-space. Somehow the sounds reinforced the desolation of the scene that lay before me. I’m looking forward to more of these experiences.
Estonia has had a long history of invasion and occupation. From 1940 until 1990 the USSR annexed Estonia during which time the KGB took up residence in Tallinn. An interesting part of this history resides in the Hotel Viru. The hotel was opened in 1972 to showcase Soviet power to the world. However, more sinisterly, it was constructed to house a communications department on the 23rd floor.
It was here that the art of field recording took a more sinister turn. Visiting guests including ambassadors and other foreign delegates had their private conversations monitored by microphones installed in the hotel furniture and telephones. Sophisticated antennae on the hotel’s roof was said to be strong enough to monitor taxi dispatching signals in Helsinki over 85 kilometres away. In addition 60 rooms were bugged, secret cameras were drilled into walls, elevator attendants were instructed to inform the KGB of guests’ departures and arrivals.
Waking early yesterday morning in my Tallin hotel I heard a strange movement of air moving across the bedroom window. By taping contact microphones to the window it was possible to clearly hear the vibration of the wind on the window. I was also able to hear slightly muffled conversations in the adjacent room. It reminded me of the actions of the KGB in Hotel Viru, that in the wrong hands field recording is more than the archiving of sound for sound enthusiasts.
The 23rd floor of the Hotel Viru is now open to the public. Visitors can see old Soviet typewriters and telecommunication equipment left by the KGB when they disappeared overnight. On the door to the Telecommunications Room, written in the Cyrillic alphabet, is the message “There is Nothing Here”.
After a long flight from Venice to Tallinn via Berlin and Riga I arrived in Estonia at midnight only to discover that my luggage containing my recording equipment, clothes, food had got lost in transit somewhere in Europe. This wasn’t an ideal way to start my time here but it is a part of modern day travel, first world problems!
To take my mind off the sickening feeling of losing everything that was needed to make this trip comfortable and productive I walked from the hotel into town and then to Tallinn’s medieval “Old Town” built between the 13th and 16th centuries. With no sound equipment I enjoyed walking around taking photos.
Outside of the “Old Town” there is a real Soviet era influence. I used to live in South Korea and the buildings in this area of Tallinn reminded me a lot of South Korean architecture and urban design: utilitarian.
Similar to South Korea there were small spaces where more traditional architecture survives:
The “Old Town” includes a fortress and town gates, Saint Mary’s Cathedral, a couple of Orthodox Churches, and a garden said to be the birthplace of the Danish Flag:
The walk was a fantastic introduction to what is to come over the next 4 weeks during my residency here in Estonia. Here’s hoping that my next walk will include a sound recorder that has freshly arrived from Tallinn airport’s “Lost and Found” department.
One of the best things about the Venice Biennale is chancing upon innovative exhibitions in the old palaces. At these moments it is obvious that the artistic vibrancy that originally formed Venice is still alive. This was truly evident when viewing Catherine Lorent’s sound installation in the Biennale’s Luxembourg Pavilion.
“Relegation” is a delicate mix of highbrow and lowbrow culture, free improvisation and rigid concept. Electric guitars are suspended from the ceilings of several rooms; pianos sit in rooms with views to the Canal Grande; a row of speakers line a hallway. As patrons walk through the space they unknowingly trigger the instruments through an electro-magnetic control system. The pianos play minor chords which are combined with the drone of the guitars.
This was one of my favourite exhibitions in the Biennale. It appeared simple and discrete yet its effect was quite powerful. Looking through the windows of the old palace life continued to move along the canal, yet inside the exhibition space there was a serene, almost sacred stillness produced by the music. It was an amazing experience to stand in this ethereal atmosphere where haunting waves of sound drifted from room to room. “Relegation” was a perfect way to finish our time in Venice. Next stop, Estonia.