Rethinking the Ordinary Through the Ritual of Transversal Listening

Jacek Smolicki


I am standing still and listening to a call to prayer performed by a muezzin in the little town of Bil’in in Palestine. Reinforced by a low quality amplifier, his voice slides over the fences and concrete plainness of the walls, somehow ignorant of their impassioned will to divide. His voice soon finds an alliance with a breeze, similarly reluctant to the material constraints. Its vitality becomes evident once it encounters
a flock of dry leaves, yet another family of increasingly deterritorialized, organic entities. Here, more than anywhere else, the aural seems capable of withstanding physical limitations, breaking through the barriers, and evading any attempt aimed at its rigid delineation.

One of the instruments typically utilized by protesters, but also preachers, has also found application in a completely different context. Set on a loop mode, a megaphone is left at a stall. It announces that the goods are continuously available for purchase despite the temporary absence of the vendor. His disembodied voice - incantated through a few pre-recorded phrases – assures not only the continuity of his business but also the constant demarcation of his territory and control over his produce.

Patelnia (meaning a frying pan in Polish) is one of Warszawa's busiest places where a multitude of events take place at once, competing for the passersby's visual and aural attention. On this cold December afternoon, amid the constantly metamorphosing crowd, one can spot a tall man selling traditional Christmas wafers. Every year on Christmas eve, Poles tend to break them in a symbolic gesture of union. This tradition has somehow persisted over the years despite growing ideological and political divides within society and even on a family level. His looped, pre-recorded voice beams out of a megaphone where it's disciplined to perform its luring function. His real voice - barely audible but visually evident in clouds of vapour - engages in impromptu small-talk conducted with other vendors who happen to use the same transitory zone on this icy day.


In Paris, while on my way back from giving a lecture on the alienating forces of mnemotechnologies, I am forced to rethink my itinerary. The police block the street where I am staying. A massive crowd of mostly young men marches in my direction. They occasionally stop, destroy some infrastructure, break the sidewalk, pick up cobblestones, and throw them against the windows of nearby buildings. Front windows and vitrines of luxurious shops, banks, real estate offices are their primary target. Even though the windows give up, the system they attack seems only to be getting stronger, even laughing at them. Not from behind the broken facades but rather from some unidentifiable yet ubiquitous elsewhere.

In a corner, right behind the entry door to a small chapel, an older woman sits on a chair. Even though no one seems to be paying attention to her presence, her voice occasionally freezes the movements of everyone who happens to be inside. Her role here is merely to admonish tourists about wearing clothes that are too profane for this environment's sacred atmosphere.

There are only a few places where ruins of the Berlin wall remain present. One of them is the place of collective memory. Another one is in the vicinity of today's Mauer Park where an 800m long stretch of the wall is available for sightseeing. An audio-visual display of archival footage and historical narrative additionally invokes the presence of the wall. Voices from the past mix with a contextual voice-over and mundane sounds from the immediate neighbourhood. The dissonance of the now with the dramatic echoes of the past is striking. After pressing a button, I re-witness testimony that contains one of the most universal yet historically most ignored messages from humans to humans: "We have told you, again and again, murder is murder even if done under orders."

In Kraków, while waiting for a delayed bus, I am letting myself get enchanted by the announcer's voice giving information about bus arrivals and departures. At first, it is hard to distinguish it from the other synthesized voices that pervade public spaces. For a moment, I wonder whether he mastered this skill to the extent that his voice blends into an automated chorus, or whether voice synthesis has become advanced to the extent that the border between the artifice and art of speech can no longer be located.


Kazimierz, the former Jewish district in Kraków, has transformed over recent years into a hip neighbourhood. Nevertheless, the revival of the past is quite easily noticeable here, even though it has been factually skewed by Steven Spielberg's Oscar-winning film Schindler's List. It feels as if it is the movie and remnants from its production that constitute the historical references of many tours here rather than actual events. Only through minute gaps in the guides' competing and yet repetitive narratives can one find the opportunity to imagine Kazimierz's soundscape before the Holocaust silenced it, and Hollywood attempted to magically resurrect it.

A flock of small birds is tweeting in a bush right behind the bench on which I sat down to rest. Their chirping is pleasantly intense and covers other bearby sounds, including the inarticulate mumbling of the overpopulated packs of tourists nearby. Some moments later, the intensity of the chirping decreases. The beeping of a garbage truck takes over. It approaches the bench while in reverse gear. After emptying the bin, it departs. The birds are gone too.

A mass of water rushes through a hole in a rock at the Abisko canyon in northern Sweden. The carving of the hole let the constructors of the nearby Iron Ore Line partly redirect the river's current. With that, the river's soundscape was forever changed. The train wheels' repetitive clanking has since then infused the watery soundscape as if to compartmentalize its unrestrained nature.

Many Canadians consider the train's whistling as one of the most important soundmarks that form the country's national identity. The Canadian National Railway promotes its services by proudly referring to this commonly recognized sound as "the sound of the nation moving forward." However, for nations other than one constructed as a result of settler colonialism - significantly facilitated by this very railway - the whistle invokes somewhat contrasting feelings. For First Nations people and those affected by the history of colonialism and extractivism in this region of the planet, the sound suggests backward motion rather than forward, regress rather than progress.

Every day at 7 pm since the third week of March 2020, residents of Vancouver's West End neighbourhood applaud their healthcare workers. The ritual coincides with a shift change at a local hospital. The Vancouver cheering follows a wave of similar rituals emerging globally during the Covid-19 pandemic.