Pavel Niakhayeu created Political Soundwalks as an audio-essay to document what Minsk sounded like during the political protests of 2020-2021. His field recordings provide a starting point for a discussion on the multifaceted role of sound in claiming the urban and political space.
Its roads and parks are perfectly manicured without a hint of trash or graffiti. There is no road rage nor voracious car-honking. Traffic doesn’t clog the wide lanes, and people don’t raise their voices. Civilians are courteous, and most spend their Sundays at church, having sought a deeper spiritual meaning after the crash of communism almost three decades ago.
This ridiculously stereotypical description of Minsk was published by Fox News in April 2020. Just a month later the presidential elections campaign started and Minsk and other Belarusian cities sounded quite different. Cars honked incessantly and blocked the streets to stop the riot police vehicles. People raised their long suppressed voices. And since August, instead of churches (or rather markets and malls) they have been going to demonstrations demanding their stolen voices back.
When the brutal crushing of post-election protests started, I stopped making my own music. Instead I started recording the sounds of the protests in Minsk. Flashbang grenades explosions that rumbled through the city and muffled the endless drone of honking cars were shocking, and the first impulse was just to capture, to document what we were hearing, to somehow manage this shock by recording.
Soon I created a SoundCloud account to share a few audio-pieces that documented the acoustic dimension of the protests, the war of sounds and clash of ideologies. I named this archival project Political Soundwalks, but the recordings were not quite like Hildegard Westerkamp’s idea of what a soundwalk is.
And, many of these walks were outright dangerous.
In the next few months I was taking my recorder (or perhaps the recorder was taking me) to the streets, to capture the atmosphere of the city that no longer was silent, to record the joyous roar of the peaceful demonstrators claiming and re-animating the urban space with various forms of creative expression and resistance, to collect evidence of police action beyond the confines of the law, and to sample state propaganda.
When DIY concerts in the residential neighbourhoods, poetry readings and theatre plays, started to happen at the end of August, I was recording the unique atmosphere of these events that have turned the city into a huge open-air festival of art. I also managed to record a few more dramatic events – like the mourning over Raman Bandarenka murdered by the pro-state vigilante or the people resisting the destruction of his memorial.
I did not have any particular plans for these recordings – it certainly wasn’t a planned research or an art project, but something that just happened to me, to all of us. No one knew how the events would unwrap. But as the material accumulated, it demanded reflection and analysis. As I was walking, talking to people and thinking about it all, making short notes about the events and sounds, certain insights came to me.
I was asked to write an academic article about the sound and music of the protests and planned to include a few audio-fragments. But despite several attempts to write a scholarly account on the events, I failed. Partly this failure was due to the difficulty of integrating my recordings and ‘field notes’, short spontaneous impressionist commentaries, into academic writing. And, I also wanted, somehow, to render the immediacy and corporeality of the sonic experiences. As I mention in my recent article on the role of music and sound in the protests:
Many of our sound and music experiences in the last year and a half couldn’t be captured on video or an mp3 – they were too physical: You’re tired after a 10km march, but suddenly hear samba drums – and you instantly forget about [your] aching legs and throat that’s sore from shouting. Your column retreats after the enforcers explode a few flashbang grenades and block the bridge – and girls sing a Brutto song that feels totally differently than at a beer-rock festival. You sing in a randomly gathered choir at someone’s yard – and your body is filled with a tumultuous cocktail of sadness, fear and anger, but also care, love, and admiration for the people you meet. And when this cocktail is shaken and filtered by artful musicians – it makes intensely memorable experiences. The voices and noises of thousands of people during the marches were a source of energy and hope. And DIY concerts in the residential courtyards were among the most beautiful and poignant experiences of 2020.
Belarusian philosophers, historians, anthropologists, sociologists are discussing the near impossibility of an ‘objective’ academic writing about the political events in Belarus when you took part in the events on various levels. You cannot just be an impartial / remote observer when your friends and colleagues get arrested and tortured for just expressing their political views or simply walking in the streets at ‘the wrong time, wrong place’. When you are both a researcher and a citizen protesting against the injustice, it may enrich your ‘scholarly’ understanding of the events but adds personal biases and puts limitations, it also makes you refuse to discuss certain issues. So we are looking for other ways of writing and narrating.
When I saw the Call for Participation of the Walking as a Question conference I knew I wanted to apply. The topic of ‘(sound)walking’ allowed me to focus on a relatively narrow aspect of the whole story, how walking in the streets at ‘the wrong time / wrong place’, and that the very act of coming out of your house is a political act that can have dramatic consequences in today’s Belarus. This also allowed me to filter through this lens all the audio-materials, notes, and thoughts I had accumulated.
The audio paper format felt like the ideal way to present this unplanned research organically, it let me comment directly on what I’ve heard, to illustrate what I was talking about, and what you hear when listening to the paper
This was my first audio-paper, so I needed to find a way to do it. I decided not to listen to too many examples in order not to limit my intuitive grasp of the format. While writing the script I discovered I couldn’t work on a laptop as there was so much I wanted to talk about and I was lost in endless possibilities to correct and develop the text, and turn and expand any phrase or paragraph in any direction. Seeing dozens of half dead drafts paralysed me until I found a working process.
I had bought a block of A4 drawing paper and felt-tip pens for my 5 year old niece. And it turned out that handwriting was the solution. I could put the computer aside, write a page and record it with a dictaphone straight away, experimenting with how the text ‘tastes’ when pronounced and listened to. Then another page and another 10-15 minutes of recording. Then making rough edits in Ableton Live (where I do everything from music to interview transcribing). Then adding the field recordings, then writing more texts for them, and so on and so on.
Initially the audio-paper was about 45 minutes, like one side of a cassette tape, but the time limit was 20 minutes. So I strived for 23.34 which is a very symbolic number in Belarus now, as it’s the number of the Administrative Offences Code article according to which tens of thousands of people were imprisoned.
I kept cutting, re-recording and cutting again, simplifying the ‘academically-sounding’ phrases, deleting the excessive details (and I guess I cut away too many breaths). But about 30 minutes was the shortest I could get it.
This script writing, recording and editing was stressful; Contrary to my expectations, I was not desensitised by the repeated listens of some ‘audio scenes’. Even now, a year after the loudest months in Belarus’ recent history it is difficult to re-listen to these sounds, and hard to believe that the city sounded that way. I didn’t intend to artificially dramatise the events or to re-traumatize anyone, so I had to warn the listeners that these recordings may trigger unexpected emotional reactions.
We’re accustomed to a barrage of photos, videos and texts, but the ‘bare’ audio stirred memory more than images. Some of my friends couldn’t listen to it from start to finish; the effect of audio was emotionally intense. Others said it allowed them to reintegrate some experiences and to release the pressure with tears.
At first I intended to make a Belarusian-language version too for the wider local audience, but I still don’t feel I can do it. A foreign language gives a certain distance, wraps the emotions in a transparent bubble-wrap, making them less painful.
My narration ends at the moment when the visible and audible protests were mostly crushed. People continue to make themselves heard, but mostly the city is back to its usual soundscape now. Only this relative silence now is charged, loaded and heavy, and can burst any moment again.
I must note that this is not a soundwalk or an audio-guide about Minsk in a strict sense, as you can’t just put on your headphones and follow the route as you listen. Even though the narrative mostly follows the chronology of events, from August till December 2020, the sounds, spaces, and moments in time are sometimes grouped by topic rather than placed on a linear timeline or a city map.
Occasionally an installation artist myself, I did not intend to use these recordings in an artwork. I used some samples in a soundtrack for the video-art piece by a Belarusian-Canadian artist Anna Zhyn, but in general I don’t feel comfortable aestheticizing and exploiting this topic too much. I feel it’s unethical to (symbolically) capitalise on these materials and experiences and to decontextualize these recordings. But I don’t think this archive belongs to me only and I’m ready to share some sounds with other artists and researchers.
A couple of film-makers approached me for using the recordings for documentary and feature films but nothing has came out of it yet (which is good maybe – films seem too artificial to me). My colleague Ben Cope aired the protest atmospheres in his radio show and the audio-paper was also aired at Belarus related conferences, both offline and online. So the sounds got their own life well beyond their ephemeral being.
This work became not only the best way to tell a part of the story and to convey my own experience, but also has become valuable teaching material for my students at the European Humanities University, a Belarusian university that works in exile in Lithuania since 2004. It allowed me to introduce the audio-paper format into my teaching, alongside podcasts, radio pieces, sound collages, and music mixes. Using this piece that I know inside out as an example I can discuss the process, advantages and limitations of the format.
Pavel’s reflection is the tenth in a series of the artists shortlisted for the Sound Walk September 2021 Awards talking about their work.