Lending an Ear to Students’ Life in the Pandemic
At the end of a difficult year, students of ACPA’s Music Minor have put together “sonic postcards” to capture their experience of life under Covid restrictions. The result is a powerful, intimate statement about our pandemic fears and hopes.
Photos of empty streets and deserted bike racks have been a staple of Dutch news ever since the start of the pandemic. With those pictures came the realization that in these unprecedented circumstances, the outside world had become not only empty, but also eerily silent. Last year, artist Guy Livingston produced an excellent podcast on people’s listening experiences in The Hague. As he found out, many people became upset about the disappearance of the ordinary sounds they loved or were simply used to. For others, silence was an unexpected opportunity to appreciate the chirping of birds, water lapping in a canal nearby, even the neighbor’s overconfident singing in the shower. Students were no exception; as notorious as they may be for their noisy lifestyle and a general tolerance of high decibel levels, the lockdown put even their eardrums to the test. Between poor Wi-Fi connections and unnerving, clairvoyant-style refrains on Zoom - “Are you there? Are you still with us?” -, university life during the pandemic has been pretty hard on the ears.
A Unique Course on Sound
The students of the course Sounds. Art, Objects, and Events know this well. As their final assignment, they had to work in teams to compose - in the literal sense of “putting together” - an original sound work. This powerful idea was pioneered by Prof. Marcel Cobussen in one of his courses, called “Introduction into Sound Art”. But in Spring 2021, the Covid emergency presented unique challenges, and the focus of the assignment naturally shifted to the impact of the pandemic on daily life.
Classes, led by Dr. Andrea Giolai, focused on topics like the history of sound art, the concept of soundscape, field recording and “participant listening”. Students also learned about “sonic ethnography”, a new approach situated at the intersection of studies of sound and anthropology. As this approach makes clear, our understanding of sound and hearing is not natural, but deeply shaped by the culture we inhabit. Two exciting guest lectures were particularly eye-, or rather ear-opening. Sound artist Tomoko Hōjō, speaking from New York City, highlighted the legacy of 20th-century sound artists and composers like Alvin Lucier and Yoko Ono, and presented her own newly composed works. Leiden-based anthropologist Andrew Littlejohn explored more technical topics, including how to choose and handle audio equipment and how to use sound editing software to produce original contents. Students gradually understood how to make arguments not only about sound, but also “in sound” - that is to say, using sound itself. Their sonic postcards are an interesting example of this.
How can we express ideas using only sounds, and what messages can we transmit through sound? Even though it seems very experimental, the idea of sending a sonic postcard isn’t new. As early as the 1930s, in England it was possible to buy physical cards with a small gramophone disc attached on the back. ACPA students borrowed this concept freely, relating it to their own experiences: the struggle to stay focused, to make connections, and to have fun during the pandemic. Probably we all have a special “sonic diary” of the pandemic, full of noises and songs we loathed and loved. Which of these sounds would you put in a postcard, and who would you send it out to?
You can hear the students’ sonic postcards in the clips below, which are fragments of longer compositions, originally between five and ten minutes long.
Some of the sounds you will hear are very quiet, and some effects, such as panning - in which a sound moves back and forth between your right and left ear - can’t be heard well using laptop or mobile phone speakers. The use of earphones or headphones is strongly advised!
- A Day in the Life of a Student (00’00” - 00’30” + 01’16” - 02’25”)
The first group chose to title their sonic postcard “A Day in the Life of a Student”. As they wrote, it is “a dynamic story of one whole day during the Covid-19 pandemic. Although students are now bound to the sounds of their homes and sometimes cannot easily escape from them, they perhaps also become more aware of all the different sounds they are surrounded by or they make themselves”. At the beginning of the clip, we hear a famous passage from premier Mark Rutte’s press conference in December 2020. The voice sounds somewhat distorted, as if coming from an old radio or TV set. The repetition of the phrase “Nederland gaat op slot” (The Netherlands is closed) leads to a heavy silence. Later, the familiar sound of typing on a keyboard is juxtaposed to a clock ticking, and both sounds are sped up frantically. Time is warped as life is reduced to endless repetitions. But in the end, the message is one of hope and renewed connections with our peers; a doorbell signals that a friend has come to visit. Lotte, Emile, Juliëtte, Charlotte and Rio conclude: “With this postcard, the sender can make the distance between their life and those of their loved ones, a little smaller”.
- GROUP 2 (02’40” - 04’30”)
At the beginning of the postcard composed by Georg, Ana, Robbie, and Iris, we are confronted again with the psychological impact of hearing the news during a pandemic. We hear the voices of various anchormen announcing the number of infections in different languages. Every time a number is uttered, a sine wave appears whose frequency corresponds to that number. For example, when a voice says “3445”, the tone shifts to that sonic frequency, and the sound stays there as the voice recedes to the background. The group noted that “as the voices gradually multiply and become louder, this adds to the representation of the tension and stress of the pandemic. However, in our experience, we are eventually numbed by the news. We become deaf to the implications that these numbers have, and the news don’t touch us as they did at the beginning of the pandemic. We are forced to find resonance with the situation. The gradual resonation of the voices represents this, as does the fading out of these voices once resonance is achieved”. The postcard seems to suggest that coming to terms with such a stressful situation is possible, but we must first find a way to cope.
- GROUP 3 (00’03” - 00’27” + 03’16” - 05’22”)
Taili, Goos and Cas used irony and wit to reflect on how the pandemic made it hard to do simple but crucial things, like going to a party and making new friends. “In this sonic postcard, our current emotional environment is juxtaposed with our memory of a house party, thus emphasizing the difficulty of meeting and befriending new people nowadays during the pandemic”. At first, what we hear is just a regular chat between three people meeting for the first time. However, note that the music starts only after the conversation has begun, suggesting that this isn’t just a spontaneous conversation at a party. Something isn’t quite right. Soon enough, the familiar “glitches” of platforms like Zoom and Teams begin to trouble the atmosphere. The song (“It Makes You Forget” by Penny Goo) fades out, and we are left with a cacophony of incomprehensible sound bites, fragments of a conversation that can’t proceed. Despite the hiccups, the group is keen to continue, and the fragment ends with an invitation to try again: “You were about to say something”.
- GROUP 4 (03’40” - 05’45”)
Yet another group chose to focus on the effects of prolonged confinement on the mind of an individual. In their postcard, we hear a combination of nature sounds recorded outdoor and synthetic sounds produced using a sound editing software. The noise of human activities are then mixed with thunder, rain, and wind, but the situation is never fully static. Soon, we realize that the raindrops have an excessively regular rhythm, which quickly becomes obsessive. Toward the end of the piece, more discernibly artificial effects come to the fore: “distortion, echo, and reverb accompany the sounds creating a feeling of heavy desperation and mental stress. Our character is longing for the storm to end and is slowly losing his mind from not knowing what will happen next”. Olivia, Mary, Lars, and Jordy were able to construct a compelling storyline using only a few sounds, without becoming too literal. Their gloomy portrayal of a mind under stress is full of sinister resonances that, sadly, we can all relate to.
- GROUP 5 (04’31” - 06’40”)
With the final postcard, we find ourselves again inside a house, surrounded by familiar noises. But as Hidde, Max, Chaquela, and Hannah noticed, “the concept of noise is defined by the context it is heard in. For us, the sound of a front door slamming shut is simply that for the neighbors, but for a dog it’s the sound of his owner coming home. The beeping of a microwave might be annoying when trying to concentrate on a book, unless it means your food is ready. One way to look at this is that noise can carry a message within the right context”. In this case, the group tries to show how familiar noises can signify a person’s daily “activation” by playing with silence, attentive listening, and tiny sounds. After so much solitude and confinement, it feels good to finally hear keys jingling in our pocket, a door that opens, and the buzzing of life waiting for us to join in.