Places, Sounds , Words

16.5. 2005 Sirpa Jokinen
Listening to the recordings made in different spaces, enables the listener to picture in his own mind the place, its dimensions and what is there.

As a teenager I was fond of listening to a radioprogram called ‘Taking an evening walk in London with Erkki Toivanen’. The program was on rather late at night and I remember listening to it after having gone to bed. It was broadcasted between the years 1979 – 1982. He later made programs about taking an evening walk in different cities in Europe, and as walking, he described in a detailed manner everything that he saw: buildings, passersby, shopwindows.

On the background the radiolistener could hear the sounds of the city and his footsteps, when listening to his warm voice, that I especially liked. The listening of these programs made me imagine what London looked like by the river Thames in the evening and what is it like in Paris, not to mention the other places…..

The images born in my mind where so strong that when I was visiting London in reality, probably in the late 1980’s, I just had to go to the river Thames in the evening, just to see, if I had pictured it right! The memory of this radioprogram was one inspiration that made me start working with sounds in different cities.

The people who participated in this soundproject found the places of the installation in San Francisco and in Moscow. Some of them I had never met before and some were my good old friends. I was the stranger in a foreign city. I asked these people to take me to their chosen place and to describe what is around. I made recordings of their speech and the sounds of the place, photographs were taken. I felt like a voyeur.

The sounds of the installation suggest at the moment ongoing episodes in the opposite sides of the world : a woman standing on a streetcorner in the Haight-Ashbury in San Fransisco, telling what she sees, what the man is wearing who is just walking past or what says the note pasted on a lamppost next to her, when another woman, much older, is lying in the city hospital of Moscow in a bed, unable to stand up, telling what is going on durning the visiting hour in the hospital room where four other women also are.

We can hear the other patients talking with their guests, the radio is on in the room, presents to the patients are being opened, plastic bags that one has to put on over one’s own shoes when entering the hospital make sound when people walk.

The biggest difference of the two cities of this project is their light. In January in Moscow even a nice day becomes dark early, when the month of May in San Francisco means sunny environs.

The light becomes sound in indirect ways when people speak. It is more permanent influence than just the shift from January to May. The visual spacial structure of any place is formed by light. The experiences of space by people are expressed and invented by sounds.

Sound, what is it, to be situated anywhere?

The place I am situated at has a way of defining me: whether there are walls around, surrounding trees and plants or just vast sandbeach and the ocean , the surrounding space resonates back my own speaking voice in a way that is distinct to this particular space.

My voice sounds different according to the place I am at; does the insect change its colour according to its surroundings or does the surroundings ‘make’ the insect change? I have heard a bird in a forest, near a sawdust path where people jog and walk carrying their mobiles, imitate the call of a cellphone.

We will get direct contact to our chosen place by letting this place absorb us into its soundscape. When speaking, the sound that we are making, partly melts into the sounds of the place that we are at. It is pleasurable to walk on a city street where people are laughing and talking or at times one must escape a place because of ‘a horrible sound’ that it has. Anatoly Zhigalov, russian translator and a member of the Totart group, told me in Moscow that in jewish thinking, any place that you are at, is full of voices. It is all the generations that talk there.

Fifteen years ago in New York City I was asked to describe a place that I had never entered or seen. A jewish man was giving me a lesson in meditation and jewish mysticism. I did not hesitate on the task given.

How was it possible to tell what was in the room next door where I had never been? I think this vision became a kind of a collage of all the rooms that I had previously visited in my life maybe in childhood and that had been forgotten. Now in the state of meditation they manifested themselves again in the words of the description.

I think that describing the place is a way to orientate oneself to the surroundings and that this is a personal process for anyone. Only after having completed all the recordings for this project, I realized that I had been asking quite a lot from the people who participated; I had asked them to reveal something that is personal. Where one gets lost, is in the space of a nightmare, in being unable to locate oneself in the place of its scenery, unable to understand the structure of the space that may be constantly changing without rational logic, no sound to guide you through.

Everyone does not feel like they are at the place they occupy physically. There is perseverance to keep describing an other place, in an other time when asked to talk about the place one is occupying at in this moment . This ‘new place’ is less ordinary than the occupied physical place, there is something special about it. However there exists some kind of a bridge, a connection that can be for example an object that leads the speaker to wander away to this mind space.

Ordinary places

The story of the theophany at the burning bush in the Exodus begins when Moses is tending the flock of sheep in the wilderness. 1) He suddenly sees there a thornbush on fire and an angel in it. The bush is not consumed by the fire. When he is looking at the burning bush he hears God’s words: ‘ Moses, Moses…..approach not hither: put off thy shoes from thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.’

According to jewish interpretation of the story, God selected the thornbush, the lowliest of all trees, to be the place of this revelation as a symbol that he was with the Israelites in their state of humiliation, when they were suffering in Egypt.2)

God chose the most humble place possible for his revelation, a place that could not be more insignificant in itself. Moses had in this place a mystical experience( it being defined as that which was determined by the inner self which enters into immediate contact with God or the metaphysical Reality).3)

The content of this experience had a great meaning to so many other people or peoples that the place of the religious revelation of one person became a site for public whorshipping. The ordinary place becomes the symbol of an important spiritual event, it becomes to symbolize what does not have a material body what is metaphysical.

The religious story connected to the place leads the visitor of this site to his personal experience inside the frames of the story and a setting is built to enable him to do this. An important part of this setting are the sound patterns of the religious experience which will surpass the preceding soundscape of the place. Bells, chanting voices, and other sounds invite this visitor to a personal religious experience but the meaning of the sound and the place for the visitor is not personally created, because they are part of a general religious ritual.

Part of the Places, Sounds, Words- project is a woman talking by her family grave in the Novodevichiy cemetery in Moscow. The circular railway is built near this cemetery, and every fifteen minutes a heavy freightrain passes and makes its strong pounding sound. She says this sound of the train is important to her because it distinguishes this cemetery from any other and she feels that this sound is deeply connected to this place, it is kind of music for this cemetery besides the bird’s voices which are normal for this kind of place.

Tourist attractions in any city help strangers in an unknown place to experiences, to find a special meaning to the place visited. More than once I have been told by native born newyorker that he never has visited the Statue of Liberty or the Empire State Building, ‘these are places for tourists’.

Visiting uptown New York City, Harlem I remember having seen older men standing there on the street, not necessarily having a conversation with anyone, just peacefully staying there on one spot. Anyone standing there, without trying to sell anything or without any other agenda, is possibly forming an own private ritual or taking part of a neighbourhood ritual dedicated to the surrounding urban area .

The common everyday surroundings where people walk, go to work, live or just pass by (for example a streetcorner near the supermarket one goes to everyday) may at the first sight become worn off from any meaning, become in a way too familiar, unnoticed. These places have soundscapes that are often ignored because they may seem devoid of meaning, have disturbing, unpleasant noise or no one just had time to stop and listen.

However, in a flash, an ordianry place may wake up full of meaning if the person visiting it, is inspired the right way. The purpose of Places, Sounds, Words-project is to listen to such soundscapes in two very different cities, Moscow and San Francisco and discover how the person participating in this project sees this place, how he describes it.

The Description

‘The private office was everything a private office should be. It was long and dim and quiet and air-conditioned and its windows were shut and its grey venetian blinds halfclosed to keep out the July glare. Grey drapes matched the grey carpeting. There was a large black and silver safe in the corner and a low row filing cases that exactly matched it. On the wall there was a huge tinted photograph of an elderly party with a chiselled beak and whiskers and a wing collar. The Adam’s apple that edged through his wing collar looked harder than most people’s chins. The plate underneath the photograph read: Mr Matthew Gillerlain, 1860-1934’4)

Description of a place with words has a mystery in it: why is this particular room of all the rooms being described, what is the meaning of this action, what does the description include and what does it leave out, what are the things that are important for the subject that enters the space. The way Chandler describes the office moving around viewing the entire space is different than standing in one spot and zooming more into the fragments.

Compare Alain Robbe-Grillet in the Recollections of the Golden Triangle: ‘ There is nothing exceptional about the entrance to the building from the street: a black-painted door of medium size, in other words neither smaller nor larger than its neighbours, with restrained mouldings in Directoire style. It appears to be made of wood, like others. Its only distinguishing detail, though one doesn’t notice this at first, is the complete absence of any handle, keyhole, latch, knocker, bell,etc. There is no guessing whether it opens to the right or to the left. Come to that, it might not even be a door. Avoid this course; it leads nowhere.’ 5)

The sense of direction that helps us locate ourselves in the world, needs no sound of the speaking voice, born inside of us it keeps us moving forward. Is it this same sense of direction that leads us through the detective’s room to the streets of Los Angeles, to the space of fiction that was created in Chandler’s mind or to the doorway of Robbe-Grille in an unknown city? I can equally well picture the cemetery of the recording that the woman is talking about, that has physical equivalence.

Chandler’s detective is constantly examining his surroundings , he describes the necessary things no matter how commonplace or unattractive they are, this is part of his job, to figure out who was where and who did what, whom did this person meet. There are no big emotions shown; the detective is at work and what needs to be done is done, he is cool. The outside behind the window, ‘the July glare of the city of Los Angeles’ does not offer an escape.

However, the room protects from the heat and the detective at work gives us his account of the office, its relevance to the case in a persistant manner, almost as the explanation is being given right here, we only need to recognize it. The difficulty is the feeling that the question about the room is as much veiled as the answer, the explanation.

The simple arrangement of the objects and the furniture, their position in relation to each other in the room is not in itself interesting. In Raymond Chandler’s text it is the setting that they offer to a possible scene, that happened in the past or that will happen in the future but will be framed by the past , that keep us interested. The photograph on the wall give a direct link to a person who might have been somehow involved, the person in the picture has a connection to this space.

Reading the description of this private office makes this room familiar to one. It is possible to ‘see’ it as clearly as if one had actually visited it. There is a note of a time between certain years under the photograph besides other things in the description, that point to the past ( the arrangement of the objects and furniture refer to actions happened over period of time in this room. There is a safe: money or valuables have been handled. There is an air-conditioning: time has been spent in this office.

There is a row of filing cases: there is arranged information. Someone has set the venetian blinds to the halfclosed position and shut the window. Someone had chosen the drapes to match the carpeting and the filingcases to match the safe. Someone had hang a photograph on the wall and had a plate of certain text made and set the plate under the photograph).

The attitude here towards the room is that of an voyeur and the room itself contains and shows the answers, if they will be interpreted the right way. This way seen the room itself could be understood as a description of an other person, as an other character in Chandler’s story like Fredric Jameson notes.6) The person who chose this room or to whom it belongs to reflects his inside into this space.

The writer is an artist based in Helsinki.


1) The story of the theophany at the burning bush in the Exodus contains an instance of an ordinary place becoming sacred. In the beginning of the story Moses is tending the flock of sheep in the wilderness when he comes to Horeb, the mountain of God. JPS Torah commentary notes ( The Jewish Publication Society 1991, page 14): ‘ the present narrative makes clear that Moses is quite unaware of any prior sanctity attaching to it ( Horeb)’ and ‘ the description is traditionally taken as anticipating its later role as the site of the national covenant between God and Israel’. Rashi also explains Horeb being named as the mountain of God as a ‘ reference to what happened there in the future.’ ( Chumash and Rashi’s commentary by Rabbi A.M.Silbermann, published by the Silbermann family, Feldheim Publishers Ltd, page 10)

2) Chumash and Rashi’s commentary by Rabbi A.M.Silberman, published by the Silberman family, Feldheim Publishers Ltd, page10
3) Gershom G. Scholem: Major trends in Jewish Mysticism, Schocken books, 1972,page4
4) Raymond Chandler: The Lady In The Lake, Penguin Books, 1971, page9.
5) Alain Robbe-Grillet: Recollections of the Golden Triangle, Grove Press, 1986, page 7
6) Frederic Jameson: The Synoptic Chandler in Shades of Noir, edited by Joan Copjec, page 43

Suomenkielinen abstrakti

Kirjoitukseni käsittelee Places, Sounds, Words -ääni-installaatiooni liittyviä sisältöjä. Tietyn paikan kuvailu sanoin on arkipäiväinen tapahtuma, muuttuuko se jos siirrymme San Franciscosta Moskovaan?
Kun kuuntelemme toisen ihmisen kuvausta mistä tahansa paikasta mielessämme syntyy siitä kuva. Puheääni muuttuu jokaiselle paikalle ominaisen akustiikan ansiosta. Miten me määrittelemme olinpaikkamme, miten paikka määrittelee meidät?

Raamatun kertomuksissa monet tavalliset, aikaisempaa merkitystä vailla olleet paikat muuttuvat pyhiksi paikoiksi jonkun henkilön uskonnollisen kokemuksen jälkeen. Niistä tulee yleisiä paikkoja, joissa ihmiset voivat harjoittaa uskontoaan siihen liittyvin rituaalein. Juutalainen tulkinta Vanhan Testamentin Palava pensas -kertomuksesta tuo esille paikkaan liittyneen symbolisen merkityksen.
Raymond Chandlerin tekstissä paikan kuvaukset ovat olennaisia, koska etsivä yrittää tulkita selvitettävää tapausta niiden perusteella. Huoneet peilaavat niissä asuvia tai niissä käyneitä ihmisiä ja heidän tekojaan.

Ääniteos Places, Sounds, Words tutkii millaisia äänimaisemia projektiin osallistuneiden ihmisten valitsemat paikat sisältävät ja millä tavalla he kertovat näistä paikoista. Nämä paikat ja kertomukset niistä, ovat osallistuneiden omia luomuksia, heidän kannaltaan merkityksellisiä kohtia kaupungissa kuten kadunkulma, hautausmaa, sairaalahuone, puisto.