Tallinn, Estonia, 2013. Early in the morning listening to the traffic below the hotel window. The sound of the quotidian sounding exotic in this unfamiliar terrain.
The act of recording that morning has deeply imprinted that simple moment into my memory. I remember a light layer of snow in the gutters slowly melting under a weak winter’s sun, the sound of traffic drifting according to the changes in the traffic lights.
It was the only recording I made while in Tallinn. I preferred to walk the streets without the feeling of urgency to capture sounds.
Years later, on the other side of the world, I listened again to that recording. With the aid of filters I pushed the recording beyond its original form. The traffic droned and washed past in previously unrealised pitches and tones. Somehow this distortion mirrored the evolution of memory, it established a new truth.
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 passing 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.