sound stories from the baltics

For the month of July 2014 I acted as a guest contributor to the Sounds of Europe blog (website offline?). Rather than make long interviews I thought it would be more interesting to provide short stories or “snapshots” from different places in the Baltic states from the artists and practitioners who work here. In the end, the result was a nice collection of “portraits” of places or events surrounding the practice of making field recordings.

I want to thank Yiorgis Sakellariou, Audrius Simkunas (SALA), Darius Ciuta, Max Shentelevs, Felicity Ford and Veljo Runnel for their generous contributions.

Here are a few of the questions I put to each artist:

– Can you recall any stories/experiences of visiting unique spaces or places in the Baltics while making field recordings?

– How do the sounds of the seasons and environments in the Baltics affect how you think about sound?

– Can you talk about any recent (from 2012) field recording based projects or works you’ve done based on sounds from the Baltics? (CD’s, compositions, web resources, personal collections etc.)


Yiorgis Sakellariou

40:3, released by Impulsive Habitat last May, is an album for which I exclusively used field recordings I made in Nida, Smiltyne and Klaipeda, in Lithuania, in late 2011. All these places have a remarkable sonic variety and it was very inspiring to record there.

Firstly I recorded in Klaipeda, a city located on the shores of the Baltic Sea. The industrial area that surrounds the place provided some excellent and exciting sounds; echoing train whistles, drones from factory machines, hammering sounds from the port. To go to Smiltyne, which is basically part of Klaipeda, someone needs only to take a 3 minute ferry boat ride. Nonetheless, after arriving there a new perspective of the city’s audio atmosphere reached my ears. The distance from the port turned all the intense industrial sounds into a fragile ambience with dozens of details. Nida is located southern than Smiltyne, it takes about a 50 minutes bus ride to get there. The soundscape there changes dramatically but remains equally exciting. More or less undisturbed by human activity, the sounds in the amazingly beautiful dunes, beaches and forest nearby Nida village are created by the wind. The far hiss sound of the sea, the wild crashing of the waves, the rustling of the leaves on the trees.

However, the album does not intend to be an aural documentary of the visited places. The sounds are subtly or radically manipulated, according to the needs of the 3 different parts of the composition. The aim is to present a mesmerizing piece of music and to submerge into a revealed world which is reachable only through sound.


review on The Field Reporter

Klaipeda entry on my “field recordings audio diary”


Audrius Simkunas (SALA)

Just several words presenting SALA’s “Debris Ecology:

“Every object has its own sound. Every sound has its own listener.”

On the knees, armed with my recorder, headphones and mikes I explore the debris that people have left behind – a clown-archaeologist fascinated by sonorous dimensions of trash. Barely heard rustlings and scratchings of insects and earthworms in the pile of last season scrap-heap left by happy tourists’ families, torn fish-net shamelessly dropped on the young juniper, a coil of rusty wire whistling in the wind, an ant crawling through the empty beer can laying on the forest path, a sheet of cardboard catching sporadical drops of spring’s light rain, plastic bottle beating at the shore of the lake, worn tires in a ditch near the village byway, half-charred remains of unknown metallic utensil in the abandoned campfire, spare parts of a car nearly buried in the earth, intoxicated fly buzzing inside empty soviet ammonia tank, strapping tape wailing in wind…All these and more are DEBRIS left by people, made by people and forgotten by people in the landscape. I listen carefully. Some of them speak through distinct sound, others are almost inaudible and may be heard only through subtle vibrations caught by contact microphones. And all they are characters of my ongoing sound project “Debris Ecology” – the phonic study of junk found in landscape and  resonating in soundscape. The idyl is broken…

“I detest your Mammon. Disease partakes of your wealth. Having acquired, ye know not how to spend. (Austin Osman Spare ‘Anathema of ZOS’)”


Darius Ciuta

Can you recall any stories/experiences of visiting unique spaces or places in the Baltics while making field recordings?

Two years ago I was recording grasshoppers in Juodkrante (this audio is now called L-L-L) and because of all the city noise I had to do that at night. Close to one of the main sound sources (electric transformer) there also was a parking-lot. Around 2 am I was walking by the transformer, recording grasshoppers and I often got close to a fancy Porsche. Suddenly I felt a look and heard an angry question: “What are you doing here?” I had to press ‘pause’ and explain myself. I said that I was recording grasshoppers and I was not trying to steal the Porsche, so the guy asked me to give him to listen to the recording. Afterwards the angry Lithuanian took off the headphones and said: “You’re fooling me, I can’t hear anything”. I had to explain him again that he can’t hear anything because he’s listening to a sound-space that he’s in now.

How do the sounds of the seasons and environments in the Baltics affect how you think about sound?

They affect strongly. One of the most interesting sound situations is the change of temperature, the strength of the wind, the light. I believe that many people are familiar with the silence before the storm and the calmness after a heavy rain.

Listen to Darius Ciuta’s work on


Max Shentelevs

Sanatorium. Daugavpils. Latvia. 09.10.11

This is my favourite recently discovered location. Abandoned sanatorium. Surrounded by forest, quiet, close to the Daugava river, collapsing from decay. I dont visit it often. Its too far from where I live. Daugavpils. 250 kilometers from Riga. Its an edge of the country. But every time I come it is brilliant. It seems that weather is always perfect here and buildings brake down more with each visit, providing new playgrounds. There is a plenty of exciting spaces both in and out doors. Two or three ward blocks, cinema hall, huge indoors swimming pool, sport hall, and more. It was built in 1980. Abandoned in 90 ies. Left competely open since recently. Nature is fast. Its breaking inside buildings. Forest is taking over. Last time when we arrived goats were wondering in sanatorium. We had a wonderful walk and two nice sound improvisations. First in the staircase of the cinema. Where the concrete stairs were disassembled now opened the full height atrium. Walls of glass blocks were broken down uncovering reinforcement bars as strings of the grand piano. Floors were all covered with broken glass, bricks, bits of concrete metal parts and wood frames from windows and doors. I hanged microphones on the very top of the space under the ceiling and we playd on different levels of what praviously was large main staircase. As  there were no windows left, birds of the forest were accompaning us. It was a bit dangerous as glass and bricks were falling down when we moved.

Second improvisation was in sport hall. Concrete walls, metal truss, wooden floors all rotten, opening beams with lines of rusty nails standing out. Winding wire, piles of autumn leaves, dry branches and buildings themselves these were our instruments.

I’m architect. I love sound of buildings. Both constructing and falling apart. Its just a space captured for a moment of time inbetween walls. As life itself buildings seem so full of matter, that we rarely realize that its actually emptiness that we shape by meaning.


Felicity Ford

During May 2012, I undertook a residency at MoKS with the creative aims of deepening my knowledge of the Estonian Wool Trade, and extending my sonic explorations of the relationships between textiles and places. The residency was conducted under my wool/sound project banner title KNITSONIK and was co-organised by MoKS, and funded by the British Council, Estonian Ministry of Culture and Cultural Endowment of Estonia. I bought sounds and material artefacts from the British Wool Industry to share, and I collected sounds and material artefacts from the Estonian Wool Industry, theming the residency around the idea of a cultural exchange.

I had a list of objectives for May, the last of which was “to explore new ways of combining my interests in wool, knitting, and sound”. Wool, knitting and sound don’t seem obviously connected on first glance, but the very quiet act of knitting is a wonderful accompaniment to listening to field-recordings, and hand-made woolen garments with inbuilt systems for dealing with trailing wires are both warm and practical for the field-recordist! However, what I realised in Estonia is that I am most interested in how phonographic praxis can document precisely where textiles come from – evidencing the fields, factories and communities which produce them – and in using sound-recordings to imbue the practice of making clothes with memories, relationships, narratives, and a sense of place. This localised and specific approach is a kind of antidote to the anonymity of mass-production, and as my interest in the provenance of my knitting yarns has increased, so has my excitement in being able to document that provenance in sound. I believe in the power of sound to evidence place, texture and surface more than any other medium, and I love the affinity between the slow-time of growing wool and the slow-time that listening and editing require. My projects often connect material culture with sonic creativity, and in Estonia I dug beneath the surface level of knitting which one encounters in Tallinn’s touristy areas, and out into the living landscapes where Estonian wool is actually grown. Estonia is internationally renowned for its distinctive needlework traditions; I wanted to get into the ground which these traditions hail from, and to record its textures and specificities.

Perhaps the closest I came to achieving that aim was when I stayed with Joel and Julika Roos on their working sheep farm in Pärnumaa. Jaani Talu has a few paddocks, a barn, a small, forested area, and a wide variety of livestock including …land, Swedish Finewool, and Estonian Native, sheep. Julika is a member of Hea Villa Selts (The Good Wool Society) and I spent some happy hours being shown by her how best to process the different, characteristic fleeces of the various sheep breeds on the farm. Spinning, carding and combing the fibres, I got some sense of the texture and creative possibilities of each distinctive fibre-type. Also, whilst on that farm, becaue Joel and Julika were so supportive of my project, I had some wonderful opportunities to experience the sonic qualities of their flock and to make recordings around their farm. Hanging microphones near the haystack, I documented the specific ambience of sheep lying around in the shade and munching hay; the distinctive bleat of a pet-lamb; and the morning cries of a pair of cranes, whose sounds are a beloved, familiar, sonic feature of the place to Joel.

The specifics of a place can be hard to document if you don’t know where and when to listen, but Joel’s description of the cranes and his knowledge of local terrain and when they call enabled me to make this last recording. In being guided by him to where the cranes were, and in sharing in his delight at their morning calls, I felt I was hearing a really specific detail in a soundscape where wool is growing; a sound that matters to a shepherd; a sound which I’d never hear in the pastures and meadows of Britain; and a sound to connect with the very specific wool of the Native Estonian Sheep which I spun while I was staying on Jaani Talu. I will always connect the yarn I made there with the sound of the cranes, because both things originate in the same place. Hunting for sounds and meeting the sheep gave me the sense that very briefly, I was in touch with that.


Veljo Runnel

Close and intimate with nature.

Estonia is often said to be a pristine country with plenty of nature and peaceful countryside scenery.  For the nature sound recordist it still demands effort and and planning to get a wild-sounding piece of recording. There are air traffic corridors, roads, farm machinery, foresters, holiday bass-bumpers or nature forces wind, rain, mosquitoes.

In southern Estonia along the border with Latvia there are many interesting natural habitats which have good placement regarding nature sound recording away from major roads, sparse settlement and no big farms. And what is most important rich birdlife.

One of these areas lies near Koiva river. Koiva (or Gauja in Latvian) flows many kilometres between Latvia and Estonia. I have been there several times and enjoyed the spring morning bird choruses and owls’ hooting in the night. Several years I have thought of making a longer early morning recording by a small Kirna brook which heads into the Koiva river. The brook runs in a small valley through the forest, fallen trees and dense shrubbery in places make it look really wild.

Couple of years ago the beavers had a dam built there and large area was flooded. Now the beavers have gone and dam has been demolished but place still looks wild. In the end of April I took three days to spend in the area and to make a recording I had planned so long. In the evening of first day I patrolled the brookside to see the signs of animal activity and find a good place for microphones. Finally I decided for a spot just by the water’s edge where muddy shore had many bird tracks. There was also a tree stump (invitation to woodpeckers) nearby. 5 A.M. in the morning I was heading to the selected place, set up the microphones and hit record button. Then I left the area and

returned after 1,5 hours.

When I was listening to the recording, I discovered that the place wasn’t so wild after all. The small household half a kilometer away had a cow who started to “sing” along with birds by the sunrise. The road which was 5 km away also contributed to the recording with several early morning cars.

But the recording had many enjoyable moments. A bird was shuffling in the leaves and moving in shallow water just near the microphones, another bird was taking off from the brook (probably after spotting the tripod). And after all, the cow’s mooing sounded pretty funny in forest soundscape.

Here are some of the excerpts from the 1,5 hour recording.

Recording nature in action

Recording nature sounds close-up without interference from recordist is difficult, sometimes even impossible. There are species, which are more sensitive to smell, others become more wary when they see unfamiliar objects; human presence itself is most scary to wildlife. Nature photographers and filmographers  use habituation they build a hide in a place where animals regularly move, have nest or playing ground. Animals are first cautious near the hide, but when days and weeks pass, they get used to it and sometimes even get advantage of the hide as a lookout point or sunshade. Of course, if there are people in the hide, they must keep low profile when animals are around. Strange noises and movement on lenses in the hide openings can still scare the animals.

For this recording I set up a tent near Black Grouse’s display ground in forest clearing. Next morning a single bird showed up and started to call not far from the tent. I was pretty happy with the recording, although it doesn’t present the “real” grouse play with many birds hissing and jumping around on the bog terrain. What makes it special, is the acoustic surrounding, forest clearing acting like an arena, causing reverbs.

Sometimes I just want atmospheric recording with a feeling as if listener is in the middle of animal life, without looking for specific target or sound. When I don’t have much time to prepare for the recording, I just go by the hunch. Old tree trunks with signs of woodpecker activity, muddy banks of riverlet with lots of animal tracks, forest boundaries I look for the “hotspots” to set up my recording gear and leave it there without any human presence. The timing is important if I have limited recording time, the recording must be started not much before the predicted activity. Many animals are more active around the sunrise, especially birds. Listening these “random” recordings will sometimes reveal enjoyable little acoustical details. Here are the excerpts from a recording made by a brook. There is a bird (or birds) rustling in the grass, flying shortly and moving in shallow water. Then another bird is trying to land in the brook but immediately takes off, probably scared by the look of tripod.

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