I’ll start by reforming Shakespeare’s hallowed quote to help you see what I see, or in this case, hear what I hear. Listen too, if you can.
‘What’s in a sound?’
The crunch of leaves, the sound of mustard seeds angrily spitting back,
The soft sound of clothes being wrung before they go on the line,
The sounds of trains whistling past - all seemingly insignificant sounds of every day. Yet, a simple joy arises in knowing that I have shared these sounds of listening to different birds’ calls at 5 am along with the trees gently laughing with the whooshing winds with someone from another generation. An undeniable bond with our ancestors with whom we share a dwindling amount of experiences soldered through a motley of sounds.
So here I am, recollecting an unadulterated piece of memory attached to a particular sound which brings about a flurry of feelings. Not knowing where to put them, I write this instead, hoping to share a piece of that flurry with you.
The story I’m about to share is not part of my lived experiences. It’s part of an entirely different group of people who are in no way connected with me. But in this shared memory, I’ve taken a chip and held it a little too preciously, because it was the first time I “heard” the sounds of war. A real war.
What an odd way to bring alive a part of history- through sounds rather than pictures, I wonder as I attempt to use facile words to bring about the particular exhibition I had seen, heard and guiltily enjoyed at Seoul’s National Museum of Contemporary History.
I’ll be painfully honest with you - apart from a couple of photographs, I am not too sure of the names of the artists who curated this extensive display. It was part of the museum’s special exhibition and all the exhibits were in Korean including the cards explaining them. So in a way, it’s an account of my memory of a museum exhibit that let me hear what it was like back in the 1950s in Korea, during the Korean War.
Small history factoid for more clarity -
the North and South Korea were at war with each other due to differing governance and economic policies. This was a civil war and the biggest one since Korea fought Japanese occupation.
The exhibit started with a huge 10x10 installation from which you could pull out drawers and listen to sounds recorded and preserved through time. There were almost 25 small drawers in total. Each one of them played a sound from that period. It had recordings of a postman shouting, of prisoners clanging pans against the floor, of women, laughing and talking, of leaders, speaking in a rally, of political songs and propaganda played on the morning radio.
For someone who’s seen pictures of what war looks like, heard stories of emergency bells ringing across the city, this was an extraordinary experience, a new take on war showcasing the regular everyday sounds of a war-stricken country.
The exhibit continues to further about underground cinema clubs. The sounds of cinema reels playing on a loop- stories about love lost love found and of unmemorable stories. They took me back to when I would read about the thriving Indian cinema culture during the British occupation.
Mind you, I didn’t understand anything that was being said in these audiotapes. In some sort of perverse understanding, my grandpa, a cinephile, would have resonated with this exhibit. This section etched with it the memory of jubilant crowds cheering inside walled rooms, keeping the ongoing war at the door, only to walk back home with it.
There was also an audio clip of a singer, singing a slow melody. I stood there listening to it- the entire 3.5 minutes. Armed with a little imagination, I could picture a petite Korean woman, in a hanbok, singing her heart out to a tiny audience, a memory from a period I could participate in despite angry visitors queueing up behind me.
This was followed by another set of 5 pull-out drawers out of which, sounds of different street vendors selling something were being played. This one hit home. The sing-song ways of street vendors, enticing kids and adults equally, the increasing tempo of items, the ringing of a single bell in a monotonous manner - it captured a memory so customary to us Indians. There are no street vendors in South Korea right now, but this series of sounds lent a sense of familiarity in a foreign land.
The final part of this exhibit was an audio-visual piece where, in a dark room, a facade of apartment windows were projected. The sounds that followed were that of sounds that arise from a particular window when it was lit. In total, there were four windows and different sounds commenced as soon as each of them was lit. The sounds were that of a normal household- a person singing and doing dishes, cleaning their apartment, a person reading a book in silence and a person walking around. I loved this one in particular because although recorded in the 1950s, it still holds relevance today. Everyday sounds, petite sounds, loud sounds, coexisting with sounds of clicking guns, bombs thudding and battle cries.
Walking out, I was in awe of the curators for freezing a part of history, collective memories, in sound and with how frightfully regular these sounds were. Sometimes we forget, life happened despite it all - this being the biggest takeaway from the exhibition.
And as for the initial question, what is in a sound?
Perhaps, years of memories, good, bad, treasured, shared, reconstructed, lived through, passed on to, all of it unconsciously connecting us to different cultures, generations, times and stories.