Posts Tagged: ‘sensory ethnography’

Bulgaria 2015: Subliminal sounds

September 18, 2015 Posted by Milena D

So this is one of several posts finally on sound, from my recent visit to Bulgaria. I think sound is so much my default I decided to leave it for last this time but I also don’t want to forget anything. It really all started with the birds in Cambridge. More specifically, the owls, or what I assumed was owls, and then turned out to be doves – but like the fancy, feathery doves, not pedestrian pigeons. I noticed two things – the thick, luxurious sound of the friction of their wings flapping as they take off in the air, or perch down on a branch; that their hoot was different than the ones I’m used to in Vancouver. The doves in Vancouver go “wuu-wuuuuuuu” but the ones in Cambridge go “tuh-tuuu-tuuuuuuu” with an emphasis on the second sound. Likely due to my overall impression / assumption of Cambridge as a very posh, manicured place, I took the doves’ hoot to be the sort of distinguished register of dove-language RP (received pronunciation – as I understand, the utmost crust of educated British). This is a very *obvious* point, but at the time it was a novel discovery that, of course, bird sounds are culturally-influenced just like human sounds are. With this in mind, I listened more carefully in Bulgaria to discover what the crude regional accents of Eastern European doves sound like. From what I observed / listened to (but was unable to record anywhere), eastern doves go “wuuuuuuuuuuh-wuh” with emphasis on the last bit, and what I figured for that is that in Bulgarian, unlike in English, the emphasis often falls on the first or middle syllabus; that, and the fact that Bulgarian folk music has notoriously irregular meter (e.g. chalga). Is it possible that even doves hoot in irregular, Eastern rhythms?

It’s funny that I am noticing so much on this trip because I decided to pay attention, conduct a sort of ad-hoc “sensory ethnography”. The only thing I noticed last time I came here were the birds, just that one time, on one of the warmer days in late October (2011). I was pulled towards that sound because the previous rainy and cold days had been much devoid of bird song. This is the soundscape I recorded:

Now when I listen to it it sounds like the rain forest or the jungle, so many singing birds. And I don’t know how I didn’t notice before that Bulgaria has a lot more urban birds than Canada. Particularly – sparrows. Sparrows are everywhere, they are beautiful fliers, the way they flap their tiny wings and then glide through the air as if rolling down invisible rollercoasters. Their sound matches their whole look – sharp, melodic, bright in timbre. They tend to nest at corners of ceilings and I noticed many cafes and restaurants had installed a wooden slat or two to help sparrows build their impossible corner nests. The more I noticed the birds the more I asked myself, why, why this, here, soundscape, that is different than Vancouver – what else is different here. So, once again, I’ve talked about that in relation to smell, but deciduous trees make a big difference in the whole ecology of wildlife – and thus greatly influence the soundscape. Here is an additional chorus of bird sounds recorded just last month in the countryside (whereas the previous recording was of an urban soundscape).

And this brings me to the truly subliminal sound I discovered this time. When I finally got to my grandmother’s house and spent a night there, open window due to the August heat, I heard a sound there, a night-time sound. My first thought was, I don’t recall hearing this sound in Vancouver, it must be local, and then …. but wait, I do recall hearing this sound throughout my childhood here, as a regular staple of nighttime. Suddenly I remembered decades of getting lulled to sleep by this chorus of what I always assumed were crickets. Now that the clash of old and new sonic realities and listening positions brought my attention to it I got curious. Started trying to listen everywhere for it, countryside and urban spaces, night time and daytime. I did some research online (yes, indeed) to discover that this chorus is actually regional cicadas, not crickets. Cicadas are so fascinating to me because they make a full-bodied chorus and yet they are so small they are practically invisible. So the experience is like listening to something that you can’t see the source of, which is rarely the case in natural / everyday listening. It so happened that my father and I went to visit the neighbourhood he grew up in, Galata, and trekked down through a wooded green area to a small fisherman’s beach. The chorus – in the daytime no less – of cicadas was the loudest, brightest and most timbrally rich I’d ever heard so far.

Back in the city, the cicadas are a bit different. I want to share this next sound because there was such a strong discrepancy between what I heard, my experience of listening, and then re-listening to the recording. I was walking home late-ish, after dinner with friends, along a pedestrian walkway lined with leafy trees, but beside a sort of freeway. I mean cars are cars everywhere, they are loud, but overall I have found the urban soundscape a bit quieter in Bulgaria. As I walked, a little tipsy (thus, relaxed) and because it was quite dark I got to listening to the cicadas. It was so peaceful and decadent I stopped to record it. But my surprise when I listened back to it was, where are the cicadas? All I could hear in the recording is traffic, when at the time, all I could hear was the cicadas. Only around the middle of the recording can I discern the cicadas. See what you can make of it:

 

Further listening: this glorious collection of birds sounds of the world by Cities and Memory