Krzysztof Marciniak, excerpt from the book Warsound|Warszawa, CCA Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw 2016, pp. 52-58.
We are storming ministries, city halls, courts, offices, embassies, prisons, the prime minister’s chancellery and the presidential palace with sound. We damage our throats in front of the parliament building; we chant during marches, we make noise when we’re protesting in public. We do this for memory’s sake, ‘for our freedom and yours’, for women’s rights, for the constitution; we’re against war, xenophobic nationalism, politicians’ pride, exploitation, the destruction of the environment. Our voice bounces off facades, gets lost in the angles of walls, disappears in courtyards, is stopped by the soundproof windows of their offices, dissolves in the hum of the streets. We throw words instead of stones. This is not a ‘peaceful demonstration’, this is a symbolic battlefield. Sound is our ammunition. How loud do we need to shout for them to start listening? How much noise must we make in order to force a reaction? (How much does it cost? How much effort does it take? Do we have access to the means of production of sound?)
The game is unfair. When it gets really hot, they move the conflict to the media. In response to our screams one of them moves closer to the microphone, speaks calmly, his words travel silently through optical fibres, then become electromagnetic waves, reach millions of TVs and radios and are heard in millions of homes, reaching tens, maybe hundreds of millions of ears. Their firepower is beyond imagination. In the spring I worked on a farm. The cowshed had an old radio which we turned on when we worked. Because of the weak signal the radio was only able to receive one of the national stations; in between songs it seeped propaganda into our ears. Even the cows had to listen to it.
The power of sound is much like the power of money; sound equipment is deeply involved with the system. Nowadays, in the electroacoustic era, sound is more dominated by business and power than ever. As far as sound volume is concerned, we – the ordinary protestors and organisers – are in a losing position. A state of emergency, as during the 2016 NATO Summit in Warsaw, is a state of brutal acoustic violence against citizens. The booming noise of helicopters and fighter jets flying over the city ruthlessly dominates the sound of the public space, forces passivity, awakens fear and bad memories – especially in the case of the people of Warsaw. No manifestation and no social movement can even begin to compete with the sheer volume of sound produced by state power.
This is why the sound of public gatherings has to be appropriately designed. From the traditional viewpoint, the key issue is sound amplification which will allow all participants to hear the speeches and communiques made by the organiser. What is said during demonstrations (either ‘for’ or ‘against’ something) is usually very predictable – those standing too far away to hear the words aren’t missing much. The real issue is the frustration caused by the exclusion of some of the people among the listeners, the symbolic division of the gathering’s territory into the privileged, amplified area and the zone of silence. Centralised sound equipment is also expensive, power-hungry, prone to failure, hard to move and impossible to improvise quickly.
Therefore, the acoustic design of a public gathering cannot be limited to trying to make the sound as loud as possible. It’s directly beneficial to us to actively look for alternative ways of dealing with sound during demonstrations. Don’t let ourselves be silenced, let’s say our speeches and shout out our demands – but we should also use sound to create community, to build a bond with the city and its inhabitants as well as other protestors. The most deeply rooted collective sound practices are based on cooperation and shared responsibility for the final effects of the participants’ work. Orchestral musicians, whether they’re playing a symphony or a samba, carry their instruments themselves. Choristers warm up together and talk through their repertoire. This also means that part of the costs, both material and immaterial, should be distributed among the group’s members. Similar sound practices are sometimes employed as part of public gatherings, and often determine their political and media success. The issues caused by centralised sound equipment can be resolved by participants bringing mobile radio receivers and transmitting sound signals from the scene – pilgrims have been using this system for decades. One could also use Wi-Fi instead of radio or transmit sound over the internet, and ask the participants to plug their mobile speakers into their private phones. In some situations one could also use the human microphone technique, where speeches are transmitted not by devices, but by the chain of properly trained and positioned people within the crowd.
This is not about turning the gathering into a happening – it’s about building a shared bond. Collective production and decentralised sound encourage participation; they are inclusive. The power of a demonstration designed according to these principles is its democratically and jointly built sound, which determines the protest’s acoustic identity and helps express the personalities and beliefs of its participants.
Let’s imagine a public gathering where dozens of whistles are distributed among the crowd; the whistles are tuned to one of five pitches, which together make up a chord. Each whistle is also accompanied by a simple instruction manual, much like the text scores in avant-garde music, which states, among other things, that players shouldn’t try to drown out the other sounds of the demonstration, such as speeches or shouting. Playing in such an ‘orchestra’ doesn’t require special training, which means it doesn’t discriminate against nonprofessionals. Each person has their own pitch at their disposal and they can freely move around and shape the rhythm; it’s up to them whether they want to stay silent or enter into a dialogue with the other voices. There is no conductor, which is why it’s key to tune the whistles beforehand in a way which allows them, when played together, to complement each other, create a harmonious shared sound, and make sure that each of the five pitches creates an interesting interval with the others. This is much like a public gathering whose participants come from different groups and are very different from one another, but who share a common political goal.
Similar actions help define and symbolically populate the territory of the gathering; they’re aimed ‘inside’ – they bring the community together by literally setting its tone. The political power of sound lies not in its physical intensity, but in the power of the cultural meanings assigned to it. The same rule applies to music. We must understand it and, just like musicians, learn to use the palette of sounds available to us in a way that enables us to call out for our rights. Composers, scholars and sound artists too often shut themselves in the alienated bubbles of their galleries, universities, clubs and concert halls. Their art rarely goes out onto the streets. It is by organising and participating in demonstrations that we shall hijack their ideas, tools and practices and use them in our protests.