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.
To kick off the series, sound designer Helena Krobath brings us an aural account of grief at the loss of her grandmother during the COVID-19 restrictions, and reflections of what has yet to come. – Editors Milena Droumeva and Randolph Jordan
Prefacing her Soundwalk From Home, Hildegard Westerkamp writes that in the pandemic-quietened city, “[w]e are literally given a break from hearing too much, too loudly and too closely”; at the same time, we have space to hear other phenomena, raising new questions. COVID-19 lockdowns, despite their cost, also offered sensory reprieve and contemplation.
The reprieve is also uneasy, evoking apocalyptic clashes of nature and human hubris; it calls up the missing. In a previous essay, I described how rattling wheel-carts of bottle collectors overcame the paused soundscapes of gentrification that masked them previously, unsettling discourse of ‘sheltering in place’. The recycling depots never closed; they were needed desperately, yet not identified as ‘essential services’. I could hear that distinction, illuminated in the neighbourhood.
Likewise, the elderly became remarkably present as COVID-19 tore through segregated spaces, or heterotopias, where the inconvenience of aging is hidden from view. Heterotopias reflect a grim price of existential and social escapism. Crime, waste, disease, aging, even non-conformity, are managed within enclosed structures, running parallel to and deeply interfaced with – but hidden from – outside society. Under COVID’s ravaging, seniors in care suddenly commanded headlines from behind the wall, while my grandmother’s fingers had long been too weak to lift a phone.
Silence has come to me in personal ways. I lost both my grandmother-matriarchs in 2020, after nearly a year apart under the restrictions. The sounds of their last days must have been institutional, austere, and muffled by masks. Now I feel the silence of their empty places. I hear my Oma’s thick accent telling me about her life’s adventures. I hear my Grandma gurgling as she tries to say “I love you” after being non-verbal for years. I hear the papery sound of her thumb wearing a pattern on the back of my hand as I hold her hand. I hear her quiet sounds, dragging echoes of loneliness in the present.
As public life clamours back up, I carry this partition of silence. The silence is in me, like those other sunsets that cumulatively create this sunset and the ever-present sunset of my birth. A soundscape exists as such for me because I encountered versions and ghosts of it before. Nothing “happened once” but is reworked and layered as present experience. On another level, the lingering of this particular silence may nudge me to consume less, be less busy, combust less fuel, move in smaller radiuses, slow down. But optimism aside, it’s an invitation to dwell with what has been lost — illusions of social protections, access (for some) to family, and time we have together. It offers opportunity to shift imaginaries, to grapple political tensions and realities that brought us here. What has followed this long-held breath and exhalation? Whose breath is still held? I want to continue touching this silence after business resumes. It is not a memory or fact to integrate into history, but an ever-active passage into altered, meaningful reflections. It may become more than discomfort to evade, more than pause, more than what is acknowledged in ambivalent narratives of “going back to normal.” It can conjure fixes, but it can’t be fixed.
Helena Krobath holds an MA in Media Studies from Concordia University and a BA in Communications from Simon Fraser University, where she earned the Dean’s Convocation Medal for her graduating class. She was born in Matsqui and grew up in Mission and Abbotsford, BC. Her family immigrated from various parts of Eastern Europe to Manitoba and British Columbia in the 1930s and 1950s. She lives in Vancouver, in the unceded and occupied territory of the səl̓ílwətaʔɬ/Selilwitulh (Tsleil-Waututh), Skwxwú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish), and xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam) Nations. Helena’s art practices include radio arts, electroacousic composition, photography, painting and drawing, written fiction, and live spatial practices such as soundwalking. Her work plays with multidimensional relations between matter, spaces, and entities, exploring the formation of worlds through shifting boundaries.