Contextualities of Listening to Soundscapes: The Past and The Present Converging in Sarajevo

Maja Zećo

1. Theoretical Frame and Scope of the Essay


This paper draws on a research study that explored Sarajevo’s soundscapes through the personal experiences of residents between 2015 and 2019.[1] I conducted semi-structured interviews and performed numerous soundwalks alone, with and without recording equipment. In this article, I interweave personal and contextual insights about the city (its history, culture, and language), quotations from interviews, field recordings, and photographs. I am a female, born in Sarajevo in 1987 and living there until 2015, when I moved to Scotland.  


This Sarajevo study was part of an international practice-led doctoral research conducted in two towns and two cities. In central Bosnia and Herzegovina, the research focused on Maglaj, a small town I did not know first-hand, and Sarajevo, the city where I had spent most of my life. In North-East Scotland, Banchory was selected as a town unfamiliar to me and Aberdeen as a city where I have resided for several years. The study explored the ways that personal identities and histories inform the experience of listening on site. The research revealed the intricate ways that individuals give meaning to what is heard, or “perception as mental insight, or a sense made of a range of sensory information, with memories and expectations” (Rodaway 1994: 10). It also revealed the importance of understanding socio-political contexts that are often not accessible to a listener who visits the place for the first time, due to a lack of personal experience (Zećo 2019). 


The study found that listeners make sense of what they hear based on their understanding of a place and their personal history, expressed through narratives. 


[…] storytelling is not something we just happen to do. It is something we virtually have to do if we want to remember anything at all. The stories we create are the memories we have. (Schank and Abelson 1995: 33) 


Furthermore, narratives help “contextualize events, to make them sequential, causal, and even symbolic.” They help individuals make sense of sensory information, but they also “do the same with the world within us, where the construction of identity is paramount” (Monk, Lindgren, McDonald and Pasfield-Neofitou 2017: 246). As this article will contend, Sarajevo is a complex space where sonic cues are exchanged between neighbors in multistory buildings and people inhabit the sites of their memories in everyday life. Soundmarks of religious and physical territories illustrate how “spaces are fundamentally contested sites” (LaBelle 2019: 192) in the city. The research resonates with the artist and author Brandon LaBelle’s approach to acoustic territories, which are contextual and political: 


[…] acoustics is shaped by the normative patterns that often define spaces, contributing to what can be heard and where, who may speak or not, what types of behavior can enter into the time signatures of an environment and by whom. (LaBelle 2019: 190)


Moreover, it is not just that what is heard is shaped by socio-political power relationships in a place: different social groups experience public spaces differently, depending on their social or migrant status, gender, and personal history (Massey 2001). Therefore, this practice-based research recognizes the “political” as consisting of intersectional engagements with sites through listening and does so by prioritizing residential perspectives of soundscapes. The duration of one’s relationship with a place greatly influences one’s sense of place and belonging (Tuan 1977), while previous experiences form preconceptions that inform one’s sensory engagement (Massey 2001; 2005).


The complex socio-polity of Sarajevo is revealed through ideas on sonic territorializations as well as direct engagement with the concurrent sounds of Muslim calls to prayer and church bells and various individual reactions to these sounds. The sounds of sirens and fireworks in contemporary soundscapes of sites of memory and trauma trigger recollections in those who lived through the war. These sites challenge the notion of the pathetic trigger (Voegelin 2006; 2010), expanding it to include the capacity of sound to evoke memories related to sites in the city (Zećo 2019). Artist and writer Salomé Voegelin borrows the term pathetic trigger from John Ruskin, an art critic of the Victorian era, who uses it to denote the incitement of strong and even violent feelings. This study establishes the pathetic trigger as a key mechanism of a listening experience that “generates the truth as an experiential truth for me” (Voegelin 2010: 177). 


When asked to describe contemporary soundscapes in their immediate environments, interviewees often referred to their past and present experiences, a phenomenon we can contemplate through Voegelin’s concept of timespace:


listening produces such a monistic value similarity between time and space, whose differences are worked out in a signifying practice by the ‘inhabiting’ subject. (Voegelin 2010: 125) 


All subjects lived in Sarajevo at the time of their interviews and had little or no formal musical training. By favoring a natural listening mode[2] that reflects the “primitive tendency to use sound for information about the event” (Schaeffer 2017: 87), the study problematizes power structures of knowledge production in which an outsider’s perspective determines the discourse about the soundscape of a place (Zećo 2021).[3] Some descriptions of the “material” aspects of experienced sound, such as intensity and the ways that architectural features of a place shape the sound, are introduced when appropriate. The descriptive elements outlined by R. Murray Schafer are useful in this case:


estimated sound’s distance from the observer; estimated intensity of the original sound; how distinctly sound is heard; texture of ambience (hi-fi, lo-fi, natural, human, technological); isolated occurrence or how often sound is repeated; environmental factors including presence of reverb, echo, drift and displacement. (Schafer 1994: 135)


The semi-structured interviews promote an awareness of soundscape and the role of soundscape in forming a sense of place (Zećo 2019) through the following questions: Do you pay attention to everyday sounds? What sounds do you find relaxing or annoying? 


These questions reveal individual and cultural differences in the perception of noise in urban areas within the context of acoustic ecology. The responses challenge Schafer’s notion that “technological sounds are strongly disliked in technologically advanced countries, while they may indeed be liked in parts of the world where they are more novel” (Schafer 1994: 147). As the interviews progressed, participants shared more details and descriptions of their acoustic environments, prompted by questions about the sounds of their homes, their neighborhoods, and the like.


Although the interviewees were not asked about the past and their experience of the war, those memories emerged and were acknowledged during the interview. As in everyday conversations, references to times before, during, and after the war were common as respondents referred to the sounds in the context of their personal histories. As the pedagogue Nicholas Monk suggests, autobiographical memories shape personal identities and are “critical for our sense of who we are” (Monk et al. 2017: 55). While acknowledging these references as part of a shared first-hand experience of conflict, I did not ask follow-up questions, being aware that conversations could trigger stress and symptoms of PTSD (Kanton Sarajevo. Ministarstvo Zdravlja 2009). Specific recollections of war can be found in Evy Schubert’s work regarding Sarajevo’s acoustic territories, based on her research in 2009 and 2010 (Schubert 2018).


All interviews were conducted in the interviewee’s native language[4] – Bosnian, Croatian, or Serbian[5] – including one in English with a Scottish emigree who has lived in Sarajevo since the 1990s. All the interviewees lived in Sarajevo at the time of the interview.


Field recordings were gathered while walking. They were recorded with a handheld boom microphone that gave me the freedom of movement to respond quickly in public spaces. Situational awareness and understanding of the local culture and customs helped me to navigate the various situations in which I was asked what I was doing and why I was recording.[6]


The article discusses sites in the city such as the “Brutalist neighborhood” Alipašino Polje,[7] the Markale Market, and Mount Trebević. These sites were selected as particularly insightful examples in which the perspectives of residents and tourists strongly diverge. The latter two are sites of memory and trauma, but they also play a meaningful role in contemporary community life. Markale Market is a fruit and vegetable market in the heart of the city, and Mount Trebević offers a popular picnic area in close proximity to the city.


This practice-based methodology – including soundwalks, personal notes, sound recordings and interviews – is revealing the complexity of information that shape meanings through listening to environmental sounds. The personal history of each participant – along with their gender, age, and understanding of language and local customs – actively shapes their listening experience (Zećo 2021). In response to a growing body of literature that aims to expand our understanding of the social and political contextuality of sound (LaBelle 2018; 2019; Thompson 2017; Goodman 2012), this article examines who is listening to sounds and what those sounds mean to them. Who contributes to the discourse? Another example of research that includes multiple perspectives is Peter Cusack’s project Sounds from Dangerous Places (2012), which shares the stories of locals of Chernobyl about their experiences of place. Later, in his project investigating the sounds of Berlin, Cusack collaborated with other sound professionals without making clear what their relationship to Berlin is (2017). 


In light of the above, this article represents a form of praxis that involves numerous voices and types of information. I invite the reader to engage with both the field recordings and the text. Some of my subjective reflections are formatted in italics.


The reader should practice a reflexive attitude and “have an ongoing conversation about experience while simultaneously living in the moment” (Drever 2002). In this case, they should engage with the content while remaining aware of their preconceptions, prior knowledge of the city or bias about it. The field recording of a cable car on Mount Trebević is available in a longer and shorter version. The reader is invited to listen to the longer excerpt while reading the article and to engage with the other content of the submission in chronological order, including the shorter recording of the cable car when offered in the text.

Figure 1: Cable Car with Panorama of Sarajevo

Sound File 1: Mount Trebević – Inside the Cable Car (long version)