Two Mediterranean Soundscapes

Part 1

Started reading Murray Schafer’s book “The Soundscape” just after christmas, I’m only a little way into it but its illuminated a couple of experiences with sound which had an impact on me.

The first was in the summer of 2010 when Helen and I were visiting Nick in Ramallah and he took us to visit the Jalazone refugee camp on the outskirts of Ramallah where he teaches the violin to Palestinian youngsters with Al Kamandjati.

After sitting in on the mornings lessons we were invited to a concert the students were giving as part of the climax of their summer camp activities. We head out from the teaching centre with Nick and the other teachers being lead by a gaggle students through a network of streets climbing up a steep hill towards the community centre where the concert is to be held. Some of the children are darting off and making their own way criss crossing paths with us for the whole journey. We’re also picking up a trail of stray children in Real Madrid and Barcelona football shirts drawn in by the curious procession of children bearing instruments and “farangi” (arabic for foreigners). In the short walk I am nicknamed “the monkey” by several children for reasons unknown and the name is taken up with great joy by all. (Later in the visit I am nicknamed “the sheep” by a different group of children in the marketplace in Hebron)

Outside the centre we are seated amongst rows of plastic garden furniture under a tarpaulin to keep the sun off and wait for the concert to start. The sound system (sadly out of view in the picture) is immense, a single microphone amplified and outputted  through three sets of huge PA speakers, which we discover when one of the organisers delivers a speech is not only working at full volume but has the reverb also turned up to ten.

The sound is immense and incredible.

The reverb fills out every word almost to infinitely, each utterance echoing into the next. The volume is also unbelievable and bearing in mind a minor tinnitus problem has me as politely as possible trying to find a way to protect my ears with tissue paper, though the families and young people round us don’t seem to notice and continue their conversations and games even though the speakers are only a few metres away from the audience.

The students finally make it out and deliver charming renditions of their various pieces for flutes, violins, guitars and dances through the same gigantic PA system.

Not long after the driver from the school returns and we head back up to Ramallah.

When reading the Schafer text I recalled this day several times. Schafer talks about the idea of “noise as power” that is the affirmation of social/political power through creating a presence in sound audible to others.  He also talk about the “imperialistic power” of  extremely loud sounds ability to dominate those who hear them. He also talks about how the range over which a sound can be heard has been used as a marker of territory (the examples he uses is church bells marking parish boundaries) All this is worth taking into consideration when you realise that visible on the hillsides surrounding this Palestinian town are various illegal Israeli settlements laying claim to land within the West Bank.

See below on map for proximity of Jalazone Camp (Al Jalazum Camp on the map) and the settlements. Camp is just north of Ramallah/Al Bireh. Detail map here.

Part 2

The second soundscape dates back to when I lived in Greece during 2007 and occurred just before Easter in that year. In Greece I lived in the  village of Vasiliko high up in the mountains above the town of Kiato on the Gulf of Corinth. About 3000 people were resident there when I stayed, working in a luthiers workshop. With only the addition of various vehicles the village probably had maintained a similar soundscape for much of its 2000 year plus history. What Schafer describes as a “hi fi” soundscape: mainly there is a background of silence against which sound events happen as very distinct definitive meaningful moments.

In the time I lived there: winter through spring, the daytimes were marked by the sounds of the farmers going to and from work and not much else. In the early evening there would come the glorious shifting drones of the cicadias moving through the fields and orange groves before the night would bring an even deeper level of silence only punctuated by the odd engine and the chain reaction of dog barks that passed across the village announcing unexpected movements and visitors.

This pleasant and peaceful rhythm of sounds was dramatically broken two weeks before easter when a huge ominous voice appeared muttering and chanting over the village around dinnertime. At first flabbergasted and genuinely fearing apocalyptic summons I ventured out with a friend and thankfully discovered  the sound was coming from a huge speaker placed on the spire of the church in the central square. Evidently a priest was inside carrying out some unknown ceremony in Greek. The speaker ensured that the sound could be heard everywhere within the village marking the municipal territory as well as dominating the soundscape.

Little did we realise the voice would appear everyday for an hour at the same time leading up to Easter cummulating on Easter Sunday with the sound of shotguns fired into the air, fireworks, spitroasted lamb and general joyful hubbub.

“that which we may now call Sacred Noise was quite deliberately invoked as a break from the tedium of tranquility” (pg 51 The Soundscape: Destiny Books)

On map below village is marked as Sikyon, the name of the ancient settlement roughly on the same site, though on the ground it is signed as Vasiliko. Click on the map for a closer look.


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