For the Tuned City festival the plan ostensibly was this: I would travel to Tallinn and stay there for ten days. I would share a hotel room and co-lead a workshop on behalf of framework radio with an artist called Valeria Merlini. The festival would be filled with concerts, discussions, sonic interventions and sound art works around the city of Tallinn, and our workshop would involve making short documentary pieces each day to be aired the next day. In a group involving a maximum of 6 participants, we would agree on strategies for recording the events creatively and then meet each evening to edit together a “short” which would then be played during the next day’s set of talks, to reprise the events and ideas of the previous day. I knew also that at a future point, a whole framework radio show would be compiled from our material.
This was the plan.
I don’t mind sharing here that I was very skeptical at how it might work to export myself to this strange, foreign terrain in order to find and search for its sounds and I wondered how I would be able to connect with this place in only 10 days, with no knowledge of the native language or the place itself. How would I find the sounds of Tallinn? How would I gain local insights into the meaning or importance of those sounds? How would our workshop group be able to extend some of the ideas from the talks and conferences into our creative recording practice? And how would we be able to edit the shorts together in such little time?
I did not know that there would be an amazing Tuned City soundmap which would help me to discover much of the local phonographic lore of Tallinn. I had not realised I would meet Estonian Anthropologists who would generously share their perspectives on Tallinn with me throughout the workshop. I couldn’t have predicted that everyone else would generously commit to staying up until 1am – sometimes 7am – to edit the sounds together to share the following day. And I could not have comprehended that the folks at Ptarmigan would be so supportive of our late-night editing marathons.
I had no idea what I would hear whilst in Tallinn.
I did not know, for example, that the sound of racing through the cobbled streets of the walled medieval city of Tallinn on a bicycle between one project and the next would come to be so significant.
Nor had I anticipated the sounds of the noisy seagulls who populate the city’s roofs and streets.
One also hears the sounds of the trams, (which I have no photographs of, but many recordings) and the deep rumble of the old Soviet train’s engines, where they idle in the station.
As a UK resident accustomed to the noisy cries of market sellers, I was unprepared for the dignified solemnity of the Russians who sell fruit, vegetables, biscuits, clothes and household goods in the Balti Jaam market.
Then there are the deep, resonant sounds of the large ships which enter and leave the harbour, whose tuned horns periodically blast the city with their tones.
I also had no idea when I left for Tallinn how many creative ways of exploring the acoustics of the city’s buildings would feature in the festival programme, such as Thomas Ankersmit’s improvised saxaphone performance in the Linahall. The Linahall is the large concrete building in the photo above. An impressive piece of Soviet Architecture built in 1980, the Linahall is a huge concert hall, designed to seat 4000 people. It has a circular inner space and a massive lobby, and Ankersmit exposed its extraordinary resonances by playing his saxaphone as we walked around, listening to the echoes of this space.
The inside of the Linnahall.
There was also the concert on the last evening, which I observed from the surrounding environs of the Rotterman distict and which caused this enormous old flour factory building to shake and drone with an immense wall of sound, sending the seagulls into a frenzy. Many people left as it was so loud inside the space, but from outside, it was as though the walls themselves were singing.
I also had not anticipated encountering the resonant and eerie silences of the prison, activated by the haunting sounds of the echo-location devices used in Aernoudt Jacobs’s Echolocator performance, which made me think of how comfortless an echoey space can be, suggesting a lack of warmth and fabric, the presence of stoniness, and physical coldness.
There were installations and performances which echoed the historic uses of certain spaces, such as Raul Keller’s Torpedoes Out, which repurposed torpedo shapes for distributing sounds, and which drew attention to the military past of Patarei (Battery), a former sea fortification of Tallinn. The whirring frequencies emanating from these spinnining torpedoes made me think of windfarms, military protections, the borders of the sea, and propellors on boats.
There were so many other sounds I could not have anticipated; the sounds of many people laughing together (the workshop and late night parties afterwards were so much fun…); dancing to “All the Single Ladies” during the after, after, after party with Kaisa; the banging of our hotel doors as we bounced up and down the stairs to fetch gear, edit sounds and regroup; the booming acoustics of the derelict school in the Väike-Õismäe district where the second day of talks was held; the bells of the churches in Tallinn periodically accouncing the hour or an occasional service; the clatter of rain pouring onto the streets from the large gutter-drains which are a feature of the old, walled city; the muffled, gurgling sounds of the streets heard from within those same drains via the Drainscapes project by Jürgen Lehmeier & René Rissland (eyland 07) and Florian Tuercke; the high tones of the trams passing; the peace of the beaches and their surrounding lands; and the voices of the people I came to love working with during this incredible festival.
It was an amazing time and it completely blew my mind. There was much listening and working hard and playing and partying hard, and many new ways of engaging with a strange place through sound were discovered. I learned new strategies for playing in a city and meeting a new environment through sounds, exchange, experimentation, socialising and sharing. I think the success of the festival lay in the very real relationships between Anthropologists, Artists and Architects which exist in Tallinn, and out of which the festival was planned and conceived. The melding of ideas from these disciplines meant that sounds were never experienced in isolation from the places where we played and listened together and the sounds of the city were allowed to be just that… and yet there was no restriction on what could be sonically added to Tallinn, either.
This is how Valeria Merlini and I ended up covering the Linahall stairway railings in contact microphones and making the metal of that architectural wonder sing. It’s also how we ended up playing with the acoustics of the derelict secondary school in Väike-Õismäe (pictured below). And how we ended up wandering around pinning microphones to the insides of gutters to hear the streets from there, as well as listening to the ship horns, the seagulls, and the screeching trams which seem so distinctive to Tallinn.
There was a lot of playing and a lot of listening in everything from ancient mediavel streets and gateways through to Soviet Architecture and I feel extremely lucky to have been able to experience a place in this way.
The strapline for the Tuned City festival was Sonic Landmarks – a sonic path through Tallinn and – before I went – I felt it might be ambitious for a festival to claim to present “a sonic pathway” through anywhere. But now I know that when it’s done right, a path like this can really can be carved out. I will treasure forever the dense imprint of Tallinn that has been left like a touch on the insides of my ears and in the corners of my brain, where I can still hear the tunes of that city ringing. Installations, discussions, late night laughter, bonfires on the beach, work activities, the habits and routines I fell into for 10 days, and all the specific sounds which I was able to access via the soundmap have blurred together into one resounding impression.
Suffice to say, very little knitting was achieved during my stay… but there will be news of wool in future posts, and there are many sounds to come. For now, you can hear some of what we made here.