2. A Lost Domestic Soundscape


December 2008. Babo, one of my friends and interlocutors in Dițești, asks me to produce a digital copy of videos he has recorded over the course of the year with his mobile phone. At very low resolutions (Mpeg-1, 352 x 288 pixels), these videos feature a variety of domestic situations: games with his grandchildren, babies’ naps, family meals, parties with friends and godparents, etc. Relatively short, around one minute – except for one exceptionally long of five minutes – these small sequences are visual haikus around filial love, feigned flirtation, and the celebration of brotherhood. Surprisingly, almost all of these images have a musical background coming from loudspeakers playing at different volumes.


Babo’s videos document the genesis of personal video recording practices in the Roma neighborhood. Between 2007 and 2010, few people filmed or owned a camera. The few MiniDV cameras that circulated in the Roma streets of Dițești were mostly exchanged or badly refurbished. They malfunctioned or were rarely used because of all the equipment they required (cassettes, cables, computers, DVD player), and the first smartphones were just appearing. Without proper storage media, these images disappeared most often after a few months. Today, Babo’s videos are probably the only ones that have survived equipment changes and the various computer breakdowns that have affected homes in the neighborhood. These images are also valuable because they indicate the existence of several types of background noise made by the loudspeakers. Although I had access to some of the situations filmed by Babo since 2007 (I am present in several videos), I was more often invited to the weddings, christenings, and funerals that were the subject of “commissioned home movies” (Aasman 1995: 105) and for which I was paid according to custom, exactly like the musicians (see Larcher 2019). More rarely, I was asked to film the more informal celebrations around a barbecue, a family meal, or a dance party improvised by teenagers on the street. Images depicting the domestic use of the loudspeakers are thus rare in my archive.


In Babo’s videos, the background is constantly occupied by music played through speakers. Even if their presence is not as pronounced in the soundscape of the țigănie, my notes and the images shot on a daily basis attest to the strong presence of these loudspeakers. This ambient music is often mentioned in my ethnographic notes as being problematic. Due to its capacity to transform the (sonic) atmosphere, it often accompanied the situation of daily work (wood cutting, household chores, construction), which was then my main research interest. At the beginning of my fieldwork, this sometimes contributed to conflicting priorities with some of my interlocutors. This occurred with Ciucă, Babo’s son, who was determined to turn up the volume of the hi-fi system during the barbecue at his sister's house, whereas my hypercardioid microphone was too sensitive to the volume of the loudspeakers pushed to their maximum, and the music made conversations incomprehensible.


In these domestic situations, loudspeakers and the recording device are essentially used in the filmed situations to create and document an atmosphere of hugs, kisses, toasts, and all forms of shared affect within extended families. A saxophonist and renowned lăutar, Babo is both an “emotion maker” (Stoichiță 2008) and an expert in producing atmosphere. In these various situations, he uses his phone almost as a musical instrument or as a loudspeaker. Many of these situations are filmed in the domestic space, with background music emanating from the television or a small hi-fi system. Family members, and occasionally family friends such as godparents, are amused to see the children dancing in front of the speakers, the scenes being mostly filmed in the courtyard or in the house. It would be possible to say that in Dițești, listening to music played through loudspeakers in front of the camera sometimes “encourage[s] the family to display its familialism” (Aasman 1995: 108). However, when viewing the thirty or so videos recorded by Babo (only five of which are included in the short film above), one can see that the situations filmed are not limited to these family atmospheres. Two videos were recorded in contexts similar to the one presented in the first part of this article: Babo filming the interactions of close relatives dancing while lăutari play “live” in the background.


A third sonic practice also appears in his videos. On several occasions, Babo films (or has himself filmed) in the company of his children and grandchildren while, in the background, music, whose source is never visible, echoes through the street or the private space of his courtyard. Babo and the people filmed seem to pay no attention to this background music, which does not accompany any public event in the social life of the village (such as a wedding or a christening). This practice of broadcasting music via loudspeakers deliberately placed outside the house – and directed towards the street without anyone seeming to be listening – becomes more widespread in the 2010s (see the third section of this text).


In the summer of 2019, expressing to Babo my wish to work on his videos – together, if possible – his reaction was scathing (as usual): “I don’t know, it’s your problem, you do what you want with it.” There were probably two reasons for his reaction. Babo had been thinking about writing his memoirs for several years, and he was more interested in the help I could give him with that than in returning to his images. This refusal to collaborate on a potential four-handed composition of the film reinforces the discarded status of these videos, at least from an ethnographic perspective. Anthropological fieldwork practices are dismissive of inquiries motivated primarily by the safeguarding of endangered artefacts or archives (a “salvage ethnography,” see Berliner 2019); at the same time, they are very attentive to the forms of collaboration that may exist between the ethnographer and his interlocutors (Lassiter 2005). While we should be cautious about injunctions to think of the ethnographic relationship solely in terms of collaboration, it is indisputable that it “requires […] something like a common good that holds both parties together” (Cefaï 2010: 467). In this case, this common good seemed to have disappeared before my very eyes. Just when I thought I was in possession of his archive, Babo made me realize that I was dealing with scraps. At the same time, Babo’s reaction confirmed the reversal of perspective between the intensity of the experience of the filmed situation and the memorial practice created around these home movies. In Dițești, affects are much more strongly engaged in the production of these images – as they participate in the “scenography” and the “elaboration of an atmosphere” (Böhme 2008) – than in the viewing of these images. The gap is such that home movies are often recorded because of what the very act of recording does in a situation rather than because their content is deemed valuable for later viewing or as an act of documentation. As the film theorist Roger Odin puts it, “what happens during filming is often more important than the film itself” (Odin 2008: 258).


The close reading and the reediting of this ethnographic rubbish is not simply a matter of rediscovering a soundscape that has partly disappeared. Revisiting Babo’s short videos opens a window to the various musical presences in the village soundscape and on the “arrangements of objects, words and music” (Böhme [2001] 2021: 64) that form the atmospheres of the filmed scenes. With his mobile phone, Babo participates fully in the creation and perception of these “tuned spaces” (see Böhme [2001] 2021). Like the lăutari with their musical instruments, or the melodies amplified by the sound of loudspeakers, the cameraman and his camera participate in the creation of an atmosphere, sought after by the people being filmed. It is also the reason why several families – and musician friends – have been asking me since 2008 to film every possible occasion (whether birthdays or barbecues) as long as a hi-fi system was plugged in and playing “manele to the max” (manelele la maxim).[6] However, this is not the only reason why I considered these videos to be digital debris. With the low definition of the recorded videos, the background noise consisting of this amplified music seems to merge into “ground noise, the term used to refer to any undesirable noise inherent in reproduced sound” (Birtwistle 2010: 85). On several occasions the phone’s microphone starts clipping during the recording, making certain sequences difficult (and painful) to hear.


A first reworking of the images was considered very early on with a digital artist friend, Leyokki, with whom I formed the Brèches artist collective in 2015.[7] A tactic to manually upscale the resolution of the images was quickly put in place. Starting in 2017, I projected the sequences recorded by Babo onto a white wall in order to re-photograph several dozen images per video with reversible film stock. The objective was not to increase the visibility of certain details lost in the pixels of the video but to disturb the hierarchies that legitimize visual documents, caught between the high resolution of official archives and the low resolution of digital video images of the 2000s (Steyerl [2003] 2021).


The audio signal posed a completely different problem, because unlike the images, it seemed irreparable. I first tried to replace the soundtrack of the videos with recordings of the noises produced by a slide projector, using contact microphones and a portable recorder. The objective was to transform the videos into a slideshow, thus causing the domestic soundscape of the loudspeakers to disappear. A second approach, pursued for a while, consisted of mixing the soundtracks of the videos shot by Babo with the location recordings made by musician and sound engineer friend, Anthony Capelli, who had accompanied me during my first fieldwork in Dițești in 2007.[8]


Taking part in the Lab “Rubbish, Noise, Experimentations: New Afterlives of Field Recording” – organized with Heikki Wilenius – and revisiting my fieldnotes and this digital debris, I understood the importance of returning to the actual sound of the videos. Composing with the numerous artifacts induced by the compression of the audio signal allowed me to listen to the constant music in the background. The editing work for this second video thus consisted of highlighting sequences where the background sound of the loudspeakers merge with the digital sound of these “poor images” (Steyerl 2009). The reworking of these audiovisual scrap materials drew upon editing techniques already tried and tested for Romani Memory #1 - Amintire (2016), an experimental short film that used videos of a birthday party punctuated by drop-outs, digital clicks, and signal saturation. A distressing sound[9] that paradoxically corresponded with the family’s aural practice, which included the jolts of the DVD player, the stops induced by uncoordinated choices, and the volume of the loudspeakers pushed to the limit of their power. This same aural practice, ordinary and familial, is present in most of Babo’s videos when there are no musicians or music listened to by neighbors in the background.

Rephotographing Babo’s videos, editing them, and composing the soundtrack has taken this work on digital noise a step further. Because of the importance of these background noises, produced by the loudspeakers and by the compression of the audio signal, and because of the difficulty of understanding a large part of the conversations, the editing departs somewhat from a conception of cinema as a “verbocentric phenomenon” (Chion [1990] 1994: 5). In order to bring out the artefacts of the (unedited) video soundtrack, I introduced the sounds of a slide projector. In this way, the distortion of the signal, the poor fidelity of the sound, and the noise of the visual blackouts (the intermittent moments of darkness between two slides) echo the ordinary musical listening of my interlocutors.


The sequence that combines the sound of the loudspeakers with the saturation of the audio signal, due to the resumption of the lyrics in chorus by the men, reveals for a short moment both the musical expression of brotherhood, shared by all in țigănie, and the sonic materiality of a lost intimate soundscape that has been totally transformed by cars, sound systems, and better video technologies (smartphones). In fact, since the early 2010s, Dițești’s sonic atmospheres have undergone two major changes: ordinary, familial, or individual aural practices (excluding the expert ones of the lăutari) have moved from the inside of households to the courtyard, and the amplification of combine muzicale has continued to grow to the point of – at times – taking the form of sound provocations and loudspeaker competitions.