(Back)ground Noise.

A Multimodal Ethnography of Loudspeakers in a Roma Neighborhood

Jonathan Larcher

“When background and figure pay no attention to each other, which is figure and which is background?”

(Chion 2004: 12)


“The bell tower prescribed an auditory space that corresponded to a particular notion of territoriality, one obsessed with mutual acquaintance.”

(Corbin [1994] 1998: 95)


Summer 2007. I begin a long-term ethnographic inquiry in the village of Dițești, 80 kilometers north of Bucharest (Romania). Friends of my host approach me to film their wedding and the christening of their children. From then on, my doctoral research on the ecology of images and sounds of this Roma neighborhood in Romania – my interlocutors speak more easily of a “Gypsy hood” (țigănie) – was essentially done camera in hand. With these celebrations filmed on-demand, the errors, failure, and limitations of the shooting device become components of my research (Larcher 2019). This article focuses on the artifacts produced by the combine muzicale (loudspeakers, amplifier, CD reader, or smartphones) in the Roma streets. Structured around three videos, it makes audible the ways in which amplified sound configures different aural practices within the community. The distortion, the clipping, and the digital noise of the three videos, which structure the article, are not only related to the limits of the recording device. These videos indicate how the uses of these loudspeakers are related to rivalry, interference, fame, fraternity, and familism. This article recomposes the history of these practices to present how these loudspeakers have become auditory markers of the neighborhood.


By exhuming these visual and sound rubbish from my personal archives, or archives entrusted to me by my interlocutors, this multimodal research engages a “politics of the background” (Bonamy 2013: 151; Citton 2013). In three steps, it brings to the forefront the background of my videographic data, which was left out of the analysis as well as the editing of my documentary films,[1] notably because of sound distortion. In doing so, I voluntarily invert the relationship between figure and background, placing at the center of my analysis the phenomena of interference and the diffuse elements constituting a musical and sonic atmosphere. Thus, for this study, the politics of the background led me to move from a focus on music and lyrics to a consideration of loudspeakers as an object of study in their own right (Oosterbaan 2009; Sewald 2011; Larkin 2014). This revisiting and analysis of the scraps of my doctoral inquiry is, however, a continuation of my previous work in which I was interested in ordinary aural and vernacular video practices. These experiences accommodate various forms of interference, in comparison with the musical and aural practices of the many lăutari – the term used in Romania to refer to traditional musicians, most of them being Roma and male – who reside in the streets of Dițești. By bringing this background noise to the forefront, I try to elaborate a politics of amplification, revealing ordinary aural practices of this acoustic community.[2]

More specifically, the ethnography and history of the amplified sound of these Roma streets reveals two kinds of background noise. One kind is heard within the atmosphere of the streets of the țigănie, frequently overwhelmed by the sound of loudspeakers, whereas the second consists of the compression of video sound “in terms of both its dynamic range and frequency range” (Birtwistle 2010: 100). The recovery of these audiovisual archives also shows the different uses and imaginaries of loudspeakers prevailing in the social space of the village. While they vary greatly over the course of the 2000s and 2010s, they are, above all, the object of diverse material and emotional investments by the musicians who form part of the community, and by the young men who have been committing large sums of money to the purchase of these loudspeakers. The exhumation of this diverse rubbish makes manifest the contrasting, sometimes even opposing or contradictory, sonic atmospheres that constitute the territory of Dițești. Three types of configurations of space through the use of loudspeakers are studied here: public announcements that punctuate family celebrations; ordinary musical listening at home and in the courtyard; and new sounding provocations that somehow reconfigure the lines between public and private space. Each of these relations to the (back)ground noise of the loudspeakers is presented by a video. In order to convey the depth of this background noise, none of the soundtrack of these videos have been repaired (de-clipped, de-clicked, or EQ-ed as is possible with software like Izotope RX, which I use for other projects). Subtitles have been added when the dialogs are not sufficiently intelligible. The sounds are sometimes very harsh and should be listened to with care (at a moderate volume). The aim of this article and the videos is not to make these rubbish sounds presentable, but to show their heuristic character for an ethnographic inquiry.