Recording the Unseen; recreating a lost city through audio narratives

John Beauchamp‘s soundwalk Unseen is set in Warsaw, and recalls hidden stories and lost sounds from places wiped off the map. John’s piece is available on Josh Kopeček‘s Echoes, and received a honourable mention at Sound Walk September 2019. Here, John talks about his work.

Warsaw is not necessarily one of your top tourist destinations, but scratch beneath the surface of the city and you can unearth a wealth of history, breath-taking stories and, of course, create a chance to go beyond the typical urban drone.

For Unseen, the idea was to try and bring back to life a number of places which are situated on what is now the Parade Square in front of the monolithic Palace of Culture and Science, a “gift” from Stalin to Poland, which opened its doors to the public in 1955.
Warsaw itself was a ruin following World War II, and the new communist ideology which was now in power wanted a showpiece in the centre of the city.
To make way for this huge undertaking, a large portion of Warsaw’s downtown was flattened, and just like that, hundreds if not thousands of stories disappeared from the city’s urban fabric.

The basic premise of Unseen is to try and reimagine places which were wiped off the map by using author narration, sound design (imagined soundscapes from the places which are mentioned), personal narratives, archival sounds, and experiencing all of the above thanks to geolocation, through Josh Kopeček app Echoes.

In identifying the right locations, I was put in touch with local historian and anthropologist Magdalena Stopa, who had written a fascinating and detailed book on the very same subject for Warsaw’s History Meeting House (DSH) a few years earlier.
She helped with the choice of places to highlight, and also helped put me in contact with some specialists for each specific episode as well as living relatives linked to some of the addresses in the series (and who spoke English, remarkably) to gain some personal narratives. We went for an inspection of the Parade Square a number of times, and just walking around the huge space was inspiring and motivating enough to get out there and do the project.

One of the hardest parts of the whole production cycle was trying to pinpoint the addresses in Echoes; I had nothing to go on, apart from approximation, while one of Warsaw’s major thoroughfares, Marszałkowska street, had been widened after the war, and so standing in the street for two of the episodes was not an option.
I did have a pre-war map laid over an aerial photograph of today’s Warsaw. Other clues about localisation were to be found thanks to plaques which were dotted around the square, providing information on which streets had been where. But apart from that, there was little else for me to go on.

Getting hold of archival sounds was a nice challenge, and by some miracle there were sounds both in English and in Polish in the National Digital Archive, and since Unseen was produced for a not-for-profit public institution, I managed to gain the rights to the recordings at no extra cost. Among the more notable recordings I unearthed in the archive, three in particular stand out: a live radio transmission of communist leader Władysław Gomułka dating from 1956, paving the way for the post-Stalinist “thaw” in Poland; a recorded plea to the American people by photographer and documentalist Julien Bryan, who was present in Warsaw at the outbreak of World War II, who outlines the atrocities in incredible detail and American people helping Poland against Nazi German aggression, and a recording from 1945 by a group of Swedish journalists describing what they saw (in English), with a poetic passion you just don’t get nowadays.

After my many years of radio journalism, Unseen was a great way to use a more diverse palette of audio techniques, and the idea of locative storytelling is one that’s made me passionate on the subject.
But, my story is not yet finished; there are two further productions of Unseen in the works, each taking in a particular theme in Warsaw’s history.

There is yet more to be seen.

Submit your work for Sound Walk September 2020

Perhaps you’re inspired, or you were already planning on taking over the world with your next sound walk. We’re now taking submissions for Sound Walk September 2020. New sound walks, created in 2020, are eligible, as well as any sound walk event, executed during September 2020.

More here.

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