Welcome to Listening In on Pandemic Life, a new ten-part monthly blog series curated by CASE in which artists, scholars and designers offer short reflections on their sonic experiences across the past 18 months of living under the shadow of COVID-19. The pandemic continues to affect everyday life on a global scale. Our sonic, visual, emotional, political, and economic realities shifted dramatically in the early months of the closures, and are evolving tangibly as the months pass. Many acoustic ecologists, artists and researchers have already noted the changing features of local soundscapes as a result of pandemic measures: less noise, new soundmarks, and most of all a newfound significance in the daily rhythms of life. Our aim in this series is to extend beyond the initial reactions to the sonic effects of reduced global movement and consider the lingering effects of our new reality as the world opens back up while the virus continues to propagate. This is our contribution to growing conversations about soundscape ecology and sonic cultures in (post)-pandemic times.
In this eighth entry to the series, sonic artist and researcher Georgios Varoutsos discusses his pandemic-era soundwalking practice between his home of Montreal and his place of study, Belfast, Ireland. – Editors Milena Droumeva and Randolph Jordan
After a short time back home in Montreal, Canada, I returned to Belfast, Northern Ireland on January 31, 2020, ready to begin my PhD studies. As the news was vaguely mentioning the increase in Covid-related incidents, I was preparing for my next journey with moving into a new apartment, sorting all of my legal documents, as well as fixing my new desk on the PhD floor of the Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC). Each passing week leading up to March 23, 2020, the start of the Northern Ireland Covid-19 Lockdowns, I began to realize the severity of the situation and was unsure if I should return to Montreal, Canada.
Once the lockdown began, we were subjected to only certain conditions that allowed us to leave our homes. One of those was to have one daily exercise and this is how I began to document the sonic changes in urban places across Belfast, which can be viewed here.
Starting on March 27, 2020, I would go on my daily walk and record brief moments on my route in certain areas that would be popular in the city for locals and tourists. Capturing the changes in the sonic environment, how nature and urban sounds were regaining a place of focus and attention amid a lack of human presence. Covid-19 allowed for a moment to listen to a built society we probably never listened to. Sounds resonated further by the different reflective materials in our built environment, wildlife would find new ways of engaging with public spaces, urban sounds such as generators would blanket the alleyways where pub chatter would usually be, but most of all the lack of human-generated noise placed me in the mindset of living in a ghost city.
I later returned to Montreal, Canada for a brief period at the end of 2020 and continued this same research practice by walking around downtown Montreal on the famous Saint-Catherine Street and areas of the Old Port. Montreal was different since it was faced with an 8:30 pm curfew, so listening to the emptiness in either the early morning or evenings felt unnatural for such a place that is usually convoluted with pedestrians, vehicles, construction work, and other sonic commotions. Yet, being the start of winter one thing that was noticeable was Montreal’s winter snow. This was something I noticed while walking the streets of Montreal, the crisp displacement by any object, human footstep, or snow falling was highlighted in those urban conditions.
The different stages of lockdowns and exit strategies continuously changed the sonic relationships, re-entering the urban spaces either alone or with large groups of people in the vicinity relayed different sonic properties of the spaces. Our presence masks the beauty of the sonic interactions between the natural and urban sound environment; each hold importance in identifying the space with their sonic markers. As I am now back in Belfast, Covid-19 allowed for one thing, a new perspective of how to listen to the two places I live in.
Georgios Varoutsos is a sonic artist and researcher from Montreal, Canada. He is currently completing Ph.D. studies in Music at the Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC) at Queen’s University Belfast, Northern Ireland. He has a BFA with Distinction in Electroacoustic Studies and a BA in Anthropology, both from Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. As an artist, Georgios’ projects have spread across fixed media, animation soundtracks and effects, performances with CLOrk, sonification, urban arts, sonic arts, and socially engaged arts.